Public hearings on Kaiga nuclear plant expansion, but what are the risks?

Proposed expansion of two units raises concerns, throws light on previous mishaps and health impacts

By DTE Staff
Published: Wednesday 12 December 2018
An aerial view of Kaiga Nuclear Power Plant. Credit: Google Maps

Public hearings on expansion of the controversial Kaiga nuclear power plant are scheduled for December 14. Karnataka forest department officials have reportedly said the proposed fifth and sixth units of the project in Uttara Kannada district’s Karwar will be cleared as forest land, part of the eco-sensitive zone of Kali Tiger Reserve, was diverted decades ago.

The first unit of the project, meanwhile, set a world record on December 10, operating uninterrupted for more than 940 days. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it a 'major feat'. The plant , which provides power to Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry apart from its home state, has twice courted controversy.

On May 13, 1994, a 130-tonne section of the plant’s inner containment dome collapsed, injuring several workers. This led to a movement and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) was accused of unapproved design changes in the construction of the reactor building as well as delayed and incorrect reporting of the accident. This was two years after environmental clearance was granted for the plant.

In 2009, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) confirmed that radioactive tritium was deliberately mixed in the water at the plant, exposing about 50 workers to a high dose of radiation. In November 2011, villagers living near the plant claimed threat to their lives and staged a protest. They alleged that prevalence of cancer in nearby areas increased and that the plant was causing water pollution, affecting agriculture.

Instances of cancer tripled in three years in Karwar taluka, according to a 2010-2013 study by Tata Memorial Centre.

In 2011, residents of 35 nearby villages gathered at Mallapura Hinduwada to discuss the project. Protests intensified that December, with people from 44 villages calling for an indefinite strike. The Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan the same year struck a resonance among them.

The push for the 1,400 megawatt (MW) expansion plan raises many questions, especially with experts saying that nuclear energy is fading in importance: It is no longer financially viable, alternatives like wind and solar energy have become drastically cheaper, demonstrated solutions to managing radioactive waste are absent.

A recent note from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) mandated an assessment of how a new thermal power plant could affect human health and environment as necessary to get environmental clearances (EC). However, the EC for Kaiga was granted decades ago and hence, this note for a risk assessment may not affect the functioning of the plant at all.

Former secretary in the Union government, EAS Sarma, has recently alleged that the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) ignored radiation and environmental risks in setting up the proposed fifth and sixth reactors at the plant. He suggested that the public hearing be called off until a proper study on the potential risks from the plant is conducted.  

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