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Scandal Engulfs India’s Koodankulam Nuclear Project (P.K. Sundaram)

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

The saga of the Koodankulam nuclear reactor on the southern tip of India has taken a turn. The stage was set for commissioning of the reactor in April. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured the Russian President that the reactor built by Rosatom will be commissioned soon. The Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy claimed: "All that I can say is that we are quite close now. We are practically there, barring any new surprising development." Final clearance for going critical was awaited.

But in mid-April, the operator NPCIL and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), India's toothless regulator, have been forced to admit that they need to replace four crucial valves in the passive heat removal system − much-touted as Koodankulam's unique safety feature against any Fukushima-like loss-of-coolant accident.

The nuclear establishment is yet to explain how the deficient valves could go unchecked despite the reactor undergoing two 'hot runs', several calibration tests, and a number of final check-ups over the past two years purportedly "to be doubly sure" about safety.

The establishment is tight-lipped about the sub-standard valves being part of the consignment received from Zio-Podolsk, a sub-supplier of Rosatom, which has been engulfed in a massive scam involving counterfeit equipments.

While Sergei Shutov, a Director of Zio-Podolsks has been arrested in Russia, it is feared that sub-standard equipment has made its way to India, China, Bulgaria and Iran, given the time-frame of the scandal. Coincidentally, the official admission about the deficient valves came just a day after Dr. A Gopalakrishnan, AERB's former Chair, wrote an article warning about he grave risk the corruption-riled supplier's consignment would pose for Koodankulam.

The People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), which has been spearheading the massive peaceful protests, has consistently raised the issue with the authorities and the regional and central political leadership ever since the scam was unearthed in December 2012. Earlier, in reply to queries sent under the 'Right to Information' legislation, the NPCIL made the dubious claim that it had no information about the sub-suppliers, particularly Zio-Podolsk.

More than 100 eminent Indian citizens − scientists, academics, artists, social activists, jurists etc. − have demanded an immediate moratorium on the commissioning of the Koodankulam reactor and an independent inquiry into the implications of the scandal in Russia. A fresh petition in the Supreme Court of India has been filed by prominent lawyers. The Supreme Court has completed hearing arguments in the earlier litigation highlighting safety vulnerabilities, ill-conceived emergency planning, loss of livelihoods and environmental impacts of the project. People are apprehensive that once the operator starts the reactor, it will become virtually impossible to check the equipment received from Zio-Podolsk.

History of the Koodankulam project

The Koodankulam project is a Soviet-vintage Indo-Russian collaboration conceived in 1988. The project has met with massive protests since the beginning, with a 15,000-strong people's demonstration in 1989. However, with the collapse of the USSR, the project went into limbo. When it was revived in 1997-98, protests resumed. Ground work started in 2002 and both the local people and the wider community of independent experts and activists have been vociferous in their opposition since then.

The Fukushima accident in 2011 marked a turning point after which nearby villages, mostly fishing communities, turned decisively against the imminent commissioning of the first of the total six planned reactors, under the remarkable leadership of S.P. Udayakumar, a humble professor who has a doctorate in peace studies from the US.

Despite the opposition's consistent non-violent nature and the wider support it enjoyed, the Indian State has come down heavily on protesting citizens with massive crackdowns twice last year – after the breakdown of 'talks' with people in March and then in September when thousands came out to protest the loading of the radioactive fuel in the reactor.

The government never opted for an open dialogue in the first place and the team of experts constituted by it to 'allay the fears' of the people never went to the villages to talk to the people, nor were the movement leaders given access to basic safety-related documents. The government meanwhile indulged in maligning the movement as 'foreign-funded', church-driven and so on.

During the period when it pretended to have dialogue with people, the government kept on piling fictitious charges under colonial-vintage repressive laws of sedition and 'war against the state'. Today, around 10,000 people including women, young adults and the elderly have been facing these obnoxious criminal charges. Despite all the repression, people in Koodankulam are fighting a heroic battle to save their lives and livelihoods.

The issues raised by the people's movement are tremendously significant. They have raised wide-ranging issues pertaining to safety – both site-specific nuclear hazards and crucial lapses in the adherence of AERB's own norms, issues of health and environment, questions of loss of livelihood due to the project and its security apparatus disallowing them fishing, and the larger issues of democracy and people's say in defining progress and development. The Koodankulam movement has gone far beyond the 'not in my backyard' framework. People have expressed their solidarity with anti-nuclear grassroots movements ongoing in other parts of the country.

On the safety front, the movement has raised some crucial questions with sound technical data and arguments. Inadequacy of cooling water is a huge risk for the reactor as Koodankulam will perhaps be the only reactor to operate without a natural source of water − it will be totally dependent on a desalination plant with insufficient capacity. The area is prone to tsunamis and its geology has a history of volcanism and earthquakes.

Non-adherence to the 17 recommendations of the post-Fukushima safety analysis is another important basis of objection. Brazen defiance of the nuclear establishment's own rules regarding population density and emergency evacuation arrangements has also been brought to the fore. Non-compliance with the standard environmental impact clearance for the project has been explained away by the establishment on the flimsy grounds that in the 1980s, when the project was conceived, the environmental guidelines did not exist. The loss of livelihood for tens of thousands of fishermen in the vicinity of the reactor has also been one of the key triggers behind the massive upsurge.

When the Indian government and its nuclear establishment are not repressing people and flouting rules, they dish out ludicrous denials of the risks associated with Koodankulam and other projects. From claiming on March 14, 2011, when the Fukushima accident took a worse turn, that it was nothing but a chemical accident and the authorities in Japan were doing routine check-ups, to calling Koodankulam the safest reactor in the world, India's nuclear-pushers have shown utter contempt for the common people's intelligence and their democratic rights.

Political observers and activists see the role of larger pressures and interest groups behind such callous attitudes. The government of India fears that if it accedes to people's demands in Koodankulam, it will give a boost to grassroots protests at other places like Jaitapur, Kovvada, Mithivirdi, Chuta etc. where its ambitious nuclear expansion is planned – consisting of reactors imported from the US, France and Russia. Purchases from those countries are pay-back for their support in getting India an exemption in 2008 from the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, which imposed an embargo after India's first nuclear test in 1974. In essence, India offered its vulnerable people as a bargaining chip to create nuclear elbow-space for itself in the international politics.

Thus, Koodankulam represents the relentless struggles and hopes of India's common people to safeguard their rights and basic interests. That the scam in Russia has been unearthed at this crucial juncture and the Indian establishment has been forced to further delay commissioning is a sign that this project must be scrapped.

However, the nuclear establishment is still far from admitting the gravity of the situation. On the contrary, it has tried to use the opportunity to sound more responsible and has understated the risk by replacing just a few valves. This complacency could prove fatal.


P.K. Sundaram is Research Consultant with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP), India.