Kudankulam meltdown

The spectre of Fukushima continues to haunt the world, forcing governments in most parts of the globe to rethink their plans to tap this controversial source of energy. But it is in India that the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl has had its most serious fallout, with public protests forcing the authorities to delay the commissioning of the ambitious Kudankulam project by almost a year. Fukushima, however, is just the latest spur for the campaign against the Kudankulam reactors which started in 1987, discovers Latha Jishnu as she travels across the villages of Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu and meets the people who have been saying no to nuclear energy for 25 years.

Arnab Pratim Dutta and Ankur Paliwal study implications of Fukushima and the increasing cost of nuclear energy across the world, and the rise of shale gas as an alternative


Kudankulam meltdown


A sure way of riling the people around the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) is to ask why they launched their opposition to the plant just months before the first of its two reactors was set to go critical. Surely they had seen the twin domes of the country’s largest nuclear plant rise slowly from the scrubland close to the sea? The reply can range from a passionate cascade of protest to a more polite but scathing “where were you sister, all these years?”

These years have been long, stretching to a quarter century of protest. There have been periods of quiet and quite a few explosions (see ‘A 25-year campaign’) in a movement that started as anti-war, anti-nuclear weapons protest in 1987 because the trade unionists, left wing activists and intellectuals leading it were convinced that the power plant was merely a conduit for piling up plutonium to make weapons. That belief has taken root among some of the fisherfolk who have been the backbone of the protest for two decades. “Don’t ask us what we were doing all these years,” says Xavierammal of picturesque Idinthakarai village, a couple of kilometres down the coast from the bright yellow domes of KKNPP. She is a strapping woman of 48 whose fisherman husband died a long while ago, leaving her to bring up her two children on her own by rolling beedis.


“From Day One we were against the plant. When I was young I took part in the 1989 rally in Kanyakumari to protect the future of my children. Our elders had warned us about the dangers of nuclear energy. The Chernobyl accident had just taken place and the same people (the Soviet Union) were going to set up a similar project in our midst. We were scared and angry,” says Xavierammal who is now on a fast unto death, seeking the scrapping of KKNPP. It would seem a doomed undertaking with the state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), which is setting up KKNPP with Russian expertise and funding, resuming work under heavy police protection.

Contract workers, employees and scientific reinforcements from its other nuclear stations have been bused into the plant for the first time since September last year when the protest by the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) caused high fission and forced most staff to leave, leaving a skeleton force to oversee maintenance. At the time, KKNPP had about 150 Russians, 800 of its own staff and around 4,000 contract workers. All of them will be back soon.

NPCIL chairperson and managing director S K Jain says the corporation would soon approach the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) for permission to load fuel in the first unit. Croatian experts are being flown in to check the equipment and the reactor pressure vessel to see if they are in good condition. There is talk of the first unit of the two 1,000 MWe VVER (light water) reactors going critical in just three months.

imageIs this the end of the road for the local resistance? Will the 45,000-odd people in the 27 surrounding villages who have been making the headlines for eight months be forced to call off their campaign of fasts and rallies under police pressure? An old warhorse in this campaign, Father Thomas Kocherry, who was earlier head of the National Fishworkers’ Forum (NFF), says, “There is a big difference in Kudankulam area. The establishment cannot understand us. Here people are organised and determined. They can’t be stopped—unless you kill them.”

Kocherry, 74, a congregational priest at Manavalakurchi, some 40 km from the epicentre of the struggle, makes regular trips to Idinthakarai to shore up the spirit of the protestors. He took part in the Save Water, Save Life march across the nation which culminated in Kanyakumari on May 1, 1989. “When it reached Kanyakumari it was an anti-nuclear protest against Kudankulam. Police opened fire and injured seven, including a parish priest,” he recalls.

Talk to any fisherman along the Tirunelveli coast and one begins to understand what Kocherry is saying. These are hardy folk used to taking on the administration, the police and the church. Declares Antony Ephraim Joseph, 45, of Perumanal, a small village about 8 km from KKNPP: “We will fight to the end. Let them kill all of us. We have had a tsunami here (2004) and several small tremors recently.” Ironically, the tsunami rehab colony abuts the wall of KKNPP!

Loss of livelihood is the most frightening spectre that haunts them. Their traditional fishing grounds, they fear, will be lost once the nuclear plant starts. “Even now guards shout at us. They take away our nets. Soon they will put a 3-km security cordon around the plant. We go fishing at odd hours, at dawn, late at night. What will we do then?” Joseph asks. There is another fear on their horizon: contamination—that they believe is inevitable—of their fishing grounds that will slowly kill marine life and of the air. How do they know this for a fact? Joseph’s mate Jesu John Gerald says tartly: “This is the age of computer and TV. Thanks to (former chief minister) Karunanidhi’s gift of free TVs we know what’s going on.”

Fukushima was watched without a break and also the talk shows that accompanied broadcasts of the world’s worst nuclear accident after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. There is plenty to fuel nuclear fears—and it has galvanised the resistance that NPCIL believed had died down. Some ideas are well entrenched. Gerald, who took part in the Kanyakumari rally as a teenager, is also convinced that nuclear energy comes with the added threat of nuclear weapons. “Nuclear energy is a front for nuclear weapons,” he declares. That’s because in the early days, those who organised anti-nuclear meetings in the area came from socialist and far left parties who rallied the people on an anti-war and anti-weapons plank.

Explains T S S Mani, a former member of CPI-ML, who was one of the earliest to join the campaign: “The initial mobilisation of the fishermen was by Anton Gomez who was head of the Tamil Nadu Fish Workers’ Union. There was huge mobilisation of palmyra workers and other labourers in Tirunelveli and Tuticorin districts and in Kanyakumari.”

Above, all there was Rev. Y David, a Protestant pastor who led the Social Equality Movement and rallied the downtrodden communities. The mainstream CPM and CPI were strongly in favour of the project (it was by the Soviet Union) and shored up the Congress project. The old stalwarts are now scattered across Tamil Nadu but are still lending support to the campaign in different ways. The core of the protest comes from the close bonding of the fisherfolk through caste (Paravas) and religion (Roman Catholic).

Martin, a fiery character from Idinthakarai, has just sold the day’s catch of sardines worth Rs 27,000. In the evening, he will deposit Rs 2,700 (10 per cent) with the struggle committee since it is Thursday when the weekly donation is made. Others like Xavierammal contribute Rs 200 a month. This is apart from the contribution fisherfolk make to the village community for maintenance that includes upkeep of the parish house and other community facilities. The fisherfolk have done it for centuries, a practice that is unique to the Tamil Nadu coast, and one that keeps the people and church together.

It is not surprising, therefore, that nearby villages have evaded the tight police cordon around Idinthakarai, and have come by the coast to make a contribution of Rs 3 lakh on one day. The community kitchen in the struggle hub is feeding 5,000 people three times daily while they guard the 15 activists, led by PMANE convenor S P Udayakumar and its organising genius M Pushparayan, who are on a fast unto death. Foreign money or church money is clearly not needed. Community collections have crossed Rs 30 lakh since the fasts began in August last year, and there is still a substantial amount in the kitty after meeting all expenses of the movement, says a PMANE committee member.


“This is truly a people’s struggle and not a Church-funded movement,” Udayakumar, himself a Hindu Nadar, tells Down To Earth just before the crackdown started. There was a time when we did not have Rs 1,000 to mobilise people for a strike. “Now it’s unbelievable. Not even in my wildest dreams did I think it would become such a mass movement,” says the PMANE leader who teaches peace and conflict studies in institutions across the world. So how did this happen? Fukushima, of course, and the hot run at KKNPP, he says. While the overwhelming fear is about loss of resources and livelihood, the hot run conducted by NPCIL made the threat to life very real for the people, he explains.

S A BhardwajThe hot run has become folklore. Description of the terror that it created varies from village to village. People speak of a frightening noise and smoke in the sky. But it is an event that did take place and one that NPCIL and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) rue—because it was conducted without informing the people. The realisation that the nuclear establishment has been indifferent if not arrogant about people’s concerns comes in the belated admissions made by senior officials. To start with, the fact that nothing was done to allay fears post-Fukushima. Admits S A Bhardwaj, director-technical, NPCIL, in a March 10 press conference: “Even nuclear experts were shaken by the Fukushima disaster.

  Even experts were shaken by Fukushima. So people’s concerns are genuine
—S A Bhardwaj, director-technical, NPCIL
So if the general public or locals are asking questions, their concerns are genuine and we have to address them.” It is an admission that comes too late; and if it is a message of apology it has not reached the agitating villages. Fukushima, starting with initial dismissal of the seriousness of the disaster by top officials of the nuclear establishment in India, appears to be a nuclear accident that they prefer to gloss over. At the September 7 annual general meeting of NPCIL, the chairperson referred to the world’s second worst disaster in the following terms: “During March 2011, a significant event of fuel damage at an overseas plant was reported as an aftermath of a natural event of extreme nature.” The F word was not mentioned at all.

But NPCIL has been forced to acknowledge the consequences of its hot run at the first unit in August. A hot run entails heating the primary coolant water to the reactor’s operating temperature of 280 degrees and above but operating the systems with dummy fuel. Huge amounts of steam are injected into the system in a flushing out operation and let out when the pressure increases. Swapnesh Kumar Malhotra, head of the public awareness division of DAE, admitted months later in an interview published online that they had goofed. “When these valves are opened there is a loud, shrieking sound. Imagine a thousand pressure cookers blowing their whistles at the same time. Anybody would be petrified. We did not communicate this to the locals …”

Sometimes, those screaming valves were opened during the night, too, startling villagers out of their sleep. Worst of all when people came to meet KKNPP officials, they were not allowed to meet them. This arrogance was probably rooted in NPCIL’s desperation to get the 2,000 MWe project running before the end of the 11th Plan ending March 2012 to improve its dismal record: half a century after it began its programme the country has a total nuclear generating capacity of just 4,780 MWe. KKNPP would have increased this by nearly 50 per cent. Besides, these would have been NPCIL’s first large reactors. Its stable of 20 plants consists primarily of 220 MWe units (home grown, though) with a couple 540 MWe plants.

But this haste has been NPCIL’s undoing. Apart from the hot run, there was the announcement of an even more frightening event: a mock drill for nearby residents as an emergency preparedness evacuation exercise. People were asked to cover their noses and collect at a certain point for evacuation and collect iodine tablets and stay overnight at a camp 20 km away. That was the last straw; people were convinced that they would have to leave their homes permanently, says Father F Jeyakumar, parish priest of Idinthakarai, where the lovely 105-year-old Lady of Lourdes church is the focal point of the struggle. Jeyakumar was himself on a 12-day hunger strike in August because he believes the livelihood issue is “a just cause”. So is the Church behind the PMANE campaign, nurturing it and funding it? Jeyakumar laughs. “We have to be with the people or they will leave us. My predecessor was roughed up by the parishioners because he did not listen to them. He had to leave before his term ended.”

And there is a cautionary monument just opposite the Lourdes Church: a small Ganesha temple built by the 25 families who broke away from church and became Hindus because they were unhappy with the church. Reports have it that Bishop Yvon Ambroise of Tuticorin was forced to come down to the determined Idinthakarai parish of his diocese and back the anti-nuclear campaign after a delegation met him and made their displeasure over the Church’s neutral stand very clear. He came for a day, sat with the people and offered them a glass of juice to break fast.

But it is not a protest of Catholics alone, advocate S Sivasubramanian of Kudankulam village, just 2.3 km from the plant, who is a leader of PMANE, told Down To Earth. That was three days before he was arrested by the police, one of the 185 picked on the morning of March 19. “People in Kudankulam, mostly Hindus and some Muslims, joined the protest in 2007 after NPCIL’s promise to turn the area into mini-Singapore failed to materialise,” he says. The disillusionment was particularly bitter because few people had got jobs.

As the protest heads for a showdown with the state, PMANE is emphasising the lack of safety at KKNPP (see next story ‘Unanswered questions’). There is little political support for the anti-nuclear movement barring from fringe parties like Vaiko’s MDMK and Ramadoss’s PMK. Let down by the chief minister, who they assumed would stand by them not least because of their stridently anti-Karunanidhi stance, Idinthakarai is hoping for a political miracle to end their agony. That appears unlikely with the Centre and the AIADMK on the same side of the nuclear divide.

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