Centre's public relations exercise to clear way for Kudankulam nuclear plant

Sets up expert panel to explain various aspects of the project to residents

By Ashwin Aghor, Ankur Paliwal, M Suchitra
Published: Friday 21 October 2011

In a delayed bid to dispel fears regarding the Kudankulam nuclear power project in Tamil Nadu’s coastal district of Tirunelveli, the government of India has constituted an expert group of 15 specialists. The objective of the group, constituted on October 20, is to interact with all the stakeholders, even as the protest against the plant nearing completion intensifies in the state.

The Department of Atomic Energy has entrusted the group with the task of explaining the factual position on various aspects of the project. It will interact with the state government officials and spokespersons of the people in the neighbourhood of the Kudankulam project site to deliberate on issues raised in recent times, including seismicity, tsunami, radiation in the environment, impact on fishing, thermal ecology and waste management.

Two reactors of 1,000 MW each are to be installed in the plant and two more will be imported in the near future. The project, costing Rs 13,171 crore, has reportedly been delayed by six months due to the ongoing protests.

The concerns of the residents near the nuclear plant are: safety, impact on their livelihood, fishing, farming, additional land acquisition, restrictions on growth and local area development. Communities and people from the neighbouring districts say Fukushima-like nuclear disasters cannot be totally ruled out.

The expert group comprises academicians, scientists, and engineers specialising in environmental science, radiation safety, oncology, oceanography and fisheries.(see Experts' list).

Clarifying the doubts raised by protesters on the safety of the nuclear project, Sudhinder Thakur, scientist at Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) says, “The plant has diverse and abundant safety features.” He says the passive heat removal system, unique to this plant, works on a natural phenomenon. It uses air circulation for heat removal and ensures that no leakages cross the reactor building. The plant design is at 7.5 meters above sea level and therefore much higher than possible flood levels.

Thakur also dispels fears of the fishing community. “The fish exclusion system built at a huge cost ensures that no fish are trapped in the cooling water intake,” he says.  Admitting that there may have been some communication loss with the public, Thakur says NPCIL is enhancing the communication outreach. “We are putting more emphasis on interaction with the neighbouring communities and Corporate Social Responsibility,” says Thakur, adding NPCIL is open to address all concerns of the public.

Stop construction first: protesters

The formation of the experts panel does not seem to make the protesters happy. “The committee was formed unilaterally by the Central government,” says S P Udhaya Kumar, convener of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE). The state government had appealed to the the Centre to
include a few persons suggested by it and the civil society groups, but that did not happen. “Also, the Centre has ignored the resolution passed by Tamil Nadu cabinet to stop all construction activities at the project site till people’s fears are allayed,” points out M Pushparaya, an activist with PMANE. 

“ First, the Centre should stop the work, then we’ll think what to do with the committee,” says Udhaya Kumar.

The Kudankulam nuclear power plant, a project of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), got environmental clearance for its unit I and II in 1989. “The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) notification for environmental clearance process at that time did not envisage public hearing,” points out M K Balaji, project site director. However, according to him, in the case of unit 3,4,5 and 6, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study and public hearing have been carried out as per 2006 EIA notification of MoEF. A detailed site evaluation report was submitted to the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), which after a detailed review, gave clearance for Kudankulam site. “All the safety measures have been carefully carried out” says Balaji.

But those who oppose the project are not ready to buy the project managers’ arguments.

“If everything is transparent as they claim, why don’t they share Site Evaluation Study and Safety Analysis Report with the people?” asks Udhaya Kumar. The EIA had never been made available in Tamil or Malayalam. The Central government was unwilling to share the safety analysis report even under RTI request, says he. The reason cited was “ the proprietary nature of the information” of  the Russian corporation building the plant.

1.2 million people will be affected

In a memorandum submitted to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 7 October, PMANE has pointed out that more than 1.2 million people live in nearly 150 villages and towns within a 30 km radius of the Kudankulam plant, which far exceeds the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s stipulations. According to the protesting groups, 33,000 people live within the five km sterilization zone. It is quite impossible to evacuate these many people quickly and efficiently in case of a nuclear disaster at Kudankulam, the memorandum points out.

Further, the agitating groups have pointed out that the actual sites of the reactors, the quality of construction and the pipe work and the overall integrity of the project structures have been questioned by the very workers and contractors who work there in Kudankulam. Besides, Jairam Ramesh, former Union Minister of State for environment, had stated that the Central government had decided not to give permission to units 3, 4, 5 and 6 of the project as they had violated the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules. The project authorities outrightly deny this charge and claim CRZ rules have been meticulously followed.

Many like A Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of the AERB, feel the real issue is the undemocratic way in which the Department of Atomic Energy decides to commission a plant. “ There is no mechanism in which AERB can interact with local people and make them aware of the positive and negative impacts,” he points out. The Board entrusts the responsibility to NPCIL, and the corporation may or may not do it, since it’s not mandatory. In Kudankulam, the local communities have never been taken into confidence.

The efforts to allay the fears of the local community are indeed positive but it’s much delayed. At this stage, whether people would believe what experts say on the issues they have raised remains to be seen. The Tamil Nadu government, which is busy with the local body election results, has not yet responded to the formation of the committee.

Experts' list:

Name and affiliation Area of specialization
A E Muthunayagam Vice-Chancellor, Nurul Islam University, Nagarcoil, Tamil Nadu Mechanical Engg Environmental Science/ Oceanography
R Iyer Retd. Director, Division of Radiation Safety, IAEA, Vienna Radiation Safety
M N Madhyastha Retd. Professor, Mangalore University Thermal ecology
N Sukumaran Director, School of Life Sciences VELS University, Chennai Fisheries
A K Pal Professor, Central Institute of Fisheries Education, Versova, Mumbai Fisheries
V Shantha Chairperson, Adyar Cancer Institute Oncologist
C S Pramesh, Assoc. Professor & Surgeon Tata Memorial Hospital, Parel, Mumbai Oncologist/Surgeon
Harsh K Gupta Panikkar Professor, NGRI, Hyderabad Seismology
Kannan Iyer IIT, Bombay Mechanical Engineering Safety Research
D V R Murthy IIT, Madras Mechanical Engineering Safety Research
S K Mehta Retd. Director, Reactor Group, BARC Nuclear Reactor Design
S K Sharma Former Chairman, AERB Nuclear Regulatory aspects
K Balu Retd. Director, Nuclear Waste Management Group, BARC Nuclear Waste Management
S M Lee Raja Ramanna Fellow, Safety Research Institute, Kalpakkam Reactor Safety
Stephen Aruldoss Kanthiah Retd. Director (Operations), Heavy Water Board Chemical Plant Safety

Kundankulam plant's safety features

•    The plant has diverse and abundant safety features, says NPCIL
•    Passive heat removal system, unique to this plant, uses air circulation for heat removal and ensures that no leakages cross the reactor building
•    Plant s 7.5 meters above sea level, much higher than possible flood levels
•    But protesters say the quality of construction and the pipe work and the overall integrity of the project structures have been questioned by the very workers and contractors who work there in Kudankulam


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