A schoolgirl’s nuclear nightmare

Varshini, 10, speaks for a new generation that is against nuclear energy

By Latha Jishnu
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

imageIn the gathering dusk, the open ground in Kudankulam village is filling up slowly. There is an inter-faith meeting to protest against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) that has come up just 2 km away and is all set to start operations. While the women are the first to arrive, many with their school going children in tow, the men drift in after work. The meeting of Muslim, Christian and Hindu priests is yet another rallying point against the contested power project, a long drawn out struggle that has been projected in the national media as a Church-sponsored campaign.

A look at the crowd gathered at Kudankulam ground dispels the notion instantly. The village, unlike the fishing hamlets which have been in the forefront of the anti-nuclear protests since August 2011, is inland, predominantly Hindu and a somewhat late entrant in the campaign against KKNPP. Its 12,000 residents proclaimed their anger and disillusionment with the project only in 2007 soon after the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), the state-owned entity that sets up nuclear projects in the country, held a public hearing on the environment impact assessment report for the third and fourth reactors. In all, KKNPP is scheduled to have six reactors, each of 1,000 MWe, and the first of these was scheduled to go critical in December 2011 until the public protests put paid to that.

Earlier, there had been a day-long puja at the ancient shrine of Vishwamitra in Vijayapathy village some 4-5 km away where devotees had prayed for the success of their campaign against KKNPP and, more interestingly, for the promotion of renewable energy sources. You could call it clever strategy by leaders of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE); they used the festivities associated with Vishwamitra’s anusham (birth star) to spread their anti-nuclear message. But there were no speeches, no rallies as people lined up at the freshly white-washed temples—there is another dedicated to Ganesha in this hamlet—to make their offerings.

In Kudankulam, however, it is clearly a campaign event with speeches and songs making overtly political statements. Cynicism and hope hang in the air. Pushpa, 33, listens to the men on the dais with half an ear while carrying on a conversation with her two friends and this correspondent. The women are all homemakers but well educated, it turns out. Why are they against KKNPP? “We don’t want to become the victims of a nuclear accident,” she says. But nuclear accidents are rare, I respond, playing devil’s advocate. “Perhaps. But we don’t want our children to be exposed to a Fukushima. India is not Japan which is an advanced society. Can you imagine what would happen here and in all the surrounding villages if there was a leak in the Kudankulam reactor? All that strontium and radioactive iodine will cause cancer and kill us. This is a death zone.”

imageIt is true that initially Kudankulam village had no problem with the Russian project. They sold land to NPCIL and hoped for jobs and better things to happen. Recalls S Sivasubramanian: “I sold three acres (1.2 hectares) of my farmland to NPCIL in 1984-85; we used to grow paddy and cashew. The compensation was a pittance but every time we were told that the area would become a mini-Singapore.” But the jobs never came, nor did the promised development. When KKNPP announced that two more reactors would be built and held its public hearing in July 2007, the sentiment had turned completely against the project. Around 5,000 people had turned up for the hearing, requiring the Tirunelveli district collector to throw a massive police cordon around the town.

That’s history now. Today the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan has hardened the mood and the nuclear establishment has to deal with a better educated and better informed neighbourhood. 

imageWhere did Pushpa pick up all these details about nuclear power? Her answer is crushing. “I have an MSc in physics and I read,” she says. But is there any evidence that people living close to nuclear plants are more prone to cancer than elsewhere? That’s when I feel a light touch on my arm and a little girl butts into the discussion. “Radiation does cause cancer and my textbook says so.” So says Varshini, 10, a fifth standard student of a high school in Pannakudi. She also wants to make it clear that her village did not start its opposition to the plant on the eve of its commissioning. “Media was not there when we were protesting earlier. People like you and TV channels were missing,” she adds for good measure.

But the textbook angle is intriguing. What does it say? After scrabbling around two are found in school satchels and shown to me: Varshini’s Science and General Knowledge textbook and Science 9 for ninth standard students. Both are prepared by the Tamil Nadu Education Department. The latter has graphic visuals of a mushroom cloud after an atomic explosion. It talks of the dangers of radiation, of blood cancer, of thyroid in babies, of strontium getting deposited in bones and thus causing bone cancer, of the hazards of Iodine 131. Oddly enough, the chapter also outlines steps to prevent radioactive pollution, ways of removing radioactive material from reactors and disposing waste safely! There is also a box on the Chernobyl accident, which is described as the worst in the world (newer textbooks will be ranking Fukushima, too, on the same scale).

Varshini's question is simple: who is lying? “Why is the Central government telling us the KKNPP project is safe when our state government is warning us about the dangers of cancer from radiation leaks?” But now the Tamil Nadu government of J Jayalalithaa, too, is convinced all of a sudden that the project is safe and that leaves her even more bewildered. “Why do they teach us something and then do something exactly the opposite?”demands the 10-year-old. 

Pushpa has an answer for that. “It is the way of governments. Even if the Kudankulam project blows up in our face they will build another plant somewhere else and tell the people nuclear power is safe.” But that cynicism is tempered with a warning. “It’s not easy to fool us anymore.  People are clued in and better informed after Fukushima.”

And so the struggle promises to continue even though a couple of hundred people have been thrown in jail and sedition cases filed against PMANE leaders and some village folk. In 1989 when people in the area joined the national rally to Protect Water, Protect Life, Genova was a nine-year-old schoolgirl in Idinthakarai village. She made a fiery speech, calling on the elders to protect the future of their children. There is a grainy image of hers in a video film made of that protest. Today, Genova is fighting as a mother. Her son was born last month, just before the state cracked down on the anti-nuclear protest, and she has no doubt what she needs to do. “My fight will go on. I need to protect my child’s future and those of all the children here.”

Varshini, meanwhile, has a request.  Since I am from Delhi can I ask the prime minister why he wants to expose her and her village to such dangerous risks?

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  • Manmohan Singh will have to

    Manmohan Singh will have to pay for his folly in the hell. There is no escape in the God's court. Jayalalitha too has no escape in the hell in the God's court.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The people of Kudankalam

    The people of Kudankalam under siege . and a young woman wise beyond her years, sums it up simply and eloquently

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Can I see evidence of this

    Can I see evidence of this please?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Mutagens from radiation

    Mutagens from radiation leaks:
    Nuclear Radiation is Strongly Mutagenic, It splices the genes and leads to genetic modification.

    Dr. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg

    The mutagenic impact of radiations on biodiversity observed at the macroenvironment of the site in Japan where the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant malfunctioned after the devastating tsunami in March 2011, should be an eye opener for adventurers trying to set up nuclear plant.

    The mutagenic impact is interpreted in terms of the Oxidative Dehydration Theory on Life Processes, Health Aging & Disease (Mirza Arshad Ali Beg, Life Processes, Health Aging & Disease, Ecosystem Approach to Life Processes, Research & Development Publications, Karachi, 2012). The theory holds that the xenobiotics, including bacteria, viruses, chemicals, radiation and radioactive substances, besides the many medications and drugs, which include the analgesics and antibiotics, are all oxidants. Their interaction with living processes, in parallel with non-living systems results in removal of free energy from the cellular environment and is cause for Oxidative dehydration induced stress: OD-S in the nanoenvironment and picoenvironment.

    The stress created by strong oxidants such as nuclear radiation is largely on the enzymic functions. The latter maintain a critical balance between reduction and oxidation reactions or in the pro- and anti-oxidant forces that in fact is the Oxidative Dehydration induced-Stress- Reduction by Rehydration (OD-S-RR) process operating in the body of a living organism to sustain the state of health..In catabolic processes, the oxidative dehydration induced stress increases the entropy ΔS, reduces the driving force ΔF and creates oxygen deficiency in the nano environment and pico environment. The anabolic reactions, on the other hand, are regarded as proceeding by reductive rehydration to restore and upgrade the status of free energy/driving force ΔF potential, balance the O2:CO2 level in blood stream, and remove the oxygen deficiency.

    Some loss of Free energy ΔF and gain in entropy ΔS is inherent in reversing the reactions. The loss in ΔF is of small order in biological reactions and its cumulative effect leads in the long run to aging. In the case of strong oxidants, however, the ΔF/driving force required to reverse the reaction by reductive rehydration is of high order and the critical balance is altered irreversibly.

    Oxidant molecules, radicals and ions (Cesium in the case of environment charged with radioactivity) can attack DNA and induce changes in their molecular structure. These changes in molecular structure of the DNA lead to genetic damage and to mutations. They are part of the toxico-dynamic phase. Among the several consequences of these reactions are tumour development, and cancerous growth and mutagenic changes.

    Altered quality of protein e.g. changed catalytic centre activity can result a) from changes in the structural gene coding protein sequence, or 2) from processing or regulatory gene changes. Similar alterations are possible for proteins, which might have their affinity for the xenobiotic/chemical/pesticide/ion/radical or by having their number reduced to provide a lower sensitivity. Amplification of the carboxylester hydrolase gene responsible for 250 times the normal number of gene copies has been found to be a genetic mechanism of resistance to organophosphurus insecticides in mosquitoes.

    The risk of increasing the amount of subtle genetic damage is expected to be high in degree as well as kind of incidence among the population of predators including spiders, dragonflies, damselflies, preying mantis, ants and small lizards that prey on the adults of such species, and among the wasps and bugs that consume their eggs and larvae. The impact that the genetically damaged butterflies may have on these predators which form part of the food chain, is expected to be significant and hence increasing the number of predators with genetic flaws would rise with subsequent exposure.

    The population of prey and predators, which have had significant genetic damages done to them due to high level of gene splicing would consequently rise in areas where they are extensively exposed. This allows the incidence of genetic damage to perpetuate and the genetically damaged organisms to grow more rapidly. This also explains why there is a rise in the encephalitis infection in Pakistan and of West Nile Virus in the USA.

    Under the circumstances, the nuclear energy option to achieve the target of rapid growth that many developing countries are seeking should be reviewed from environmental health point of view.

    Dr. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply