27 February 2016

India’s Kudankulam Nuclear Plant: The White Elephant – OpEd

FEBRUARY 25, 2016

The recent resumption of power generation at Kudunkulam nuclear power plant is a cause more for concern than it is for celebration, which has been an issue of fierce contention since 2011. Interestingly the story has again taken a twist where after two days of its restarting the plant stopped generation owing that the unit was tripped due to instrumentation deficiencies.

NPCIL and Rosatom finalized the reactor design for the construction of KNPP phase one in 1998, which cost Rs140bn ($2.47bn) and it was supposed to have gone into operation in 2011. This all shows that the intricacies of nuclear issues has not undertaken despite adding more legs with an accelerated rate which can be catastrophic. People living in the vicinity of the area fear a disaster similar to the one at Japan’s Fukushima plant in 2011.

Kudankulam is a small rural area, largely inhabited by fishermen and most of them belonging to the Christian community. Noam Chomsky, a famous American communications theorist, calls nuclear power a “very dangerous initiative, particularly in countries like India, which has had more than its share of industrial disasters, Bhopal being the most famous”.

The project was built despite the opposition from locals, professors and scientists where NPCIL was of the view that it’s the answer to Tamil Nadu’s energy shortages, but the reality is that Tamil Nadu is still short of electricity and the reactor is has experienced episodes of starting and shutting down again and again.

Interestingly, Dr. A Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board(AERB) wrote recently that India has failed to learn lessons from the 2011 Fukushima disaster and is bent on the massive nuclear expansion. According to him, in India, it’s hard to believe that all those actors and players who pushed hard to accelerate the Indian nuclear power program are doing so in the national interest. Personal and institutional profit motive could also be driving them to do this.

The outcome of this bitter project is a cause of more concern where in 2013, sixty of the country’s most prominent scientists questioned about the safety and security concerns associated with the project, most of them pro-nuclear and working for elite state-run institutions.

The Koodankulam nuclear power plant will wreck the lives and livelihoods of fisher people in Kerala and southern Tamil Nadu. The contaminated water when released to sea will damage severely the marine life, the fish catch will be severely affected and there will not be a market for the contaminated fish. There are genuine reasons that the project will result in increased poverty and misery of the fisher people in Kerala.

Despite its zeal to push forward the project, since it was commissioned, for most of the time Koodankulam has been remained shut down for different reasons of technical mishandling. This pattern of repeated shut-downs and closures for continued “routine maintenance” and the delays of restart dates should bring home the seriousness of the problem and the government must constitute a high-level and independent probe into the white elephant that Koodankulam has become.

In general, it is believed that the nuclear power plant is undoubtedly a solution to the problem of the energy crisis, but the same can cause damage to an unthinkable extent to the environment. The Indian choice to set up a nuclear power plant in an environmentally rich zone can prove to be quite fatal where disclosure and transparency are viewed as a problem. More importantly, why would nuclear vendors work so hard to indemnify themselves when there was really a 0% chance of an accident?

Can Indian policy planners re-think the false choice that they have made in the name of Kudankulam? With all their heavy investments in projects such as that of Kudankulam facing delaying problems up till now and the deliberate neglect of environmental and safety concerns and the bulldozing of local people’s dissent, the end result is that India has got a nuclear reactor that’s not working.

It is imperative not only to evaluate the glitches in the plant and find possible corrective measures to ensure that risks do not escalate, but also to reconsider planned new nuclear projects.

Hence, it is a hard promise by the Russians to sell India the expensive and dangerous project where nuclear energy comes from a lack of transparency in the establishment.

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