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Mainstream, VOL L, No 41, September 29, 2012

Dangers at Kudankulam

Tuesday 2 October 2012, by S G Vombatkere


The dangers present at Kudankulam, Idinthakarai and surrounding areas are several, but they can be separated into two categories, namely, dangers as seen by government and as seen by people. This is not to imply that government is not legitimate, because it has been elected by the people. But from what follows it is apparent that the government is not for the people.

Dangers as seen by Government

The government appears to perceive that the Kudankulam nuclear power plant (KKNPP) is in danger of attack by the protestors led by PMANE (People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy). That the unarmed protestors have continued to be scrupulously non-violent and have only declared that they will gherao KKNPP, and that around half of them are women appears to have escaped the attention of Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, who came to power on the strength of their votes. Nevertheless, the government has had no compunction in filing sedition charges and even charges of “waging war against the state” against not merely the leaders of the protest movement but against hundreds of others.

It is a sign of the times that corrupt governments with Ministers who have been charged with owning assets disproportionate to their sources of income or with involvement in one or more humungous cheating scams cannot begin to understand genuine dissent peacefully expressed.

The government perceives the danger of foreign funding to the resistance-cum-protest movement. But it is unable to state which foreign agency has provided how much money when and to whom, even while it is itself accepting huge funds from abroad to expand the nuclear industry.

If the KKNPP is stalled or delayed further (it is already delayed by 57 months, only seven of which are due to people’s protests) due to the people’s resistance, the repercussions on the commencement of several other NPPs (for example, Jaitapur, Mithi Virdi, Gorakhpur) will endanger the financial investments or expected profits of domestic and multinational corpora-tions. Finally, there is the danger that secret financial and political commitments including MoUs with foreign state or corporate entities will come unstuck.

There is no gainsaying that all these dangers are real. The question only is whether over-coming them will benefit the people or be at the cost of imposing other dangers on the people.

Dangers as seen by People

Land and livelihood: The people of Idinthakarai and surrounding villlages and hamlets are the primary stake losers in the KKNPP project. They have already lost their land (whether compensated by cash or not) and livelihood. Those who may not have lost their land and livelihood, now are in danger of losing something more. When the KKNPP begins to operate, its cooling water will become ocean-heating water, which is a danger to marine life nearabout, thus causing irreparable loss of traditional fishing grounds to poor fisherfolk.

Public health: When the KKNPP begins to operate, its routine radioactive emissions will begin to be a danger to the health of the people living nearby. No assurances by the “experts” of the DAE (Department of Atomic Energy) or former President Kalam can contradict the facts emerging out of the epidemiological studies of radiation-related diseases and birth defects among humans and animals conducted at the Rawatbhata NPP. It is significant that in Kudankulam as at Rawatbhata, no base level health study or survey prior to setting up the NPP has been conducted to form the basis for comparison after years of the NPP’s operation. These deliberate, some say criminal, acts of omi-ssion enable the DAE’s health physics “scientists” to deny links between observed radiation-linked diseases, birth defects, abortions, etc., and opera-tion of the NPP.

Safety: There are several issues concerning safety, which are interconnected among them-selves as also with public health and the NPP’s operating cost. There are dangers of low-level radioactive emissions, radioactive emissions from storage and disposal of waste products from the NPP, and wider dangers of Fukushima-type disasters. However much the DAE attempts to gloss over or suppress information about the emissions or their effects, these dangers—separately or in combination—inevitably lead to financial implications with lesser or greater danger to the national economy.

There are safety issues connected with geological activity around the site of the KKNPP. According to the IAEA Guidelines, the site of a NPP should not have experienced any volcanic eruption in the past 10 million years. However, the region has seen very recent (1998-2001) small volume volcanic eruptions, besides signa-tures of volcanism around one million years ago. Based upon a study of some scientific papers, a Government of India Expert Group admits that there are signatures of what they term insignificant past volcanism in the area of the KKNPP, but it has deliberately omitted referring to papers that show that these are serious and need to be considered. Thus, besides violating the IAEA Guidelines, the siting of the KKNPP exposes it to the danger of violent volcanic eruption that can lead to nuclear catastrophe. This deliberate suppression of scientific data is at the cost of public safety and long-term national security for commercial benefit. [Ref: Volcanic Hazards at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant by R. Ramesh and V.T. Padmanabhan]

The special metal reactor pressure vessel (RPV) is the most critical single component of any NPP, because it contains the pressures created by the heat of nuclear fission. The life of an RPV is limited by its strength after it has been bombarded every single second by neutrons that cause its embrittlement; a brittle metal structure can rupture catastrophically. Further, welding in the metal structure necessitated during its construction is especially vulnerable to embrittlement. Improved metallurgical tech-nology has made it possible to construct an RPV without welding in critical portions so that the RPV’s useful life can be more. However, it has come to light that the RPV fitted at the KKNPP is an obsolete item that has been welded at fabrication time. This not only increases the danger of catastrophic RPV failure following embrittlement, but also reduces electrical energy generated due to the need for more frequent safety shutdowns than a modern RPV would require. Further, it has created rumblings of collusion and corruption deals between the vendor and buyer at some level, for accepting obsolete equipment. A clear case of public safety and public cost being sacrificed for no public benefit.
People: The people’s peaceful resistance to the KKNPP began 23 years ago in the late 1980s. At that time, the government “met it with live ammunition”. [Ref: “Where the Mind is Full of Fear” Suvrat Raju and M.V.Ramana, The Hindu, September 19, 2012] The government simply ignored the people’s objections, overwhelming in content as well as number during an Environmental Public Hearing arranged by the TNSPCB (Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board). When the peaceful protests intensified following the Fukushima disaster, the govern-ment blockaded all roads to Idinthakarai and stopped supplies of water and food reaching the protestors. The protestors, along with activists who also understand the wider risks and dan-gers of NPPs in general, have merely been ask-ing for their democratic right of dissent. It is small wonder that peaceful people perceive danger from the government because of its consistently anti-people, brutal suppression of protests.

But there is worse to come as a vengeful government intends to arrest the leaders of the PMANE already charged with sedition and waging war against the state. The leaders had intended to surrender to prevent more brutal police action against the people who were affor-ding them protection. But the people did not want them to surrender and whisked them away to safe houses before the police could arrest them. This is for two reasons. One, their arrest on non-bailable warrants will keep them permanently out of Idinthakarai, and deliver a severe blow to the protests. But worse is the second reason, which is the danger of the leaders being eliminated in a staged encounter or be-coming yet another case of custodial torture and death. The danger is ever present because the police intend to make a door-to-door search. If they happen to come upon any of the leaders, they can be easily shot dead, and a report made that they resisted arrest, or they attacked the police, or attempted to escape. The police are known for such tactics in almost every State in India.

Democracy: Democracy in India is mostly about exercising the citizen’s right to vote. Especially in the last two decades, after casting his/her vote, the citizen is expected to stand off and allow the government, often formed by unprincipled alliances, to do pretty much as it pleases, including indulging in corruption in particular. The Opposition spends its time opposing government, giving little or no time for constructive debate on people-related matters. People, who are troubled or harmed by the governments’ policies or actions, are forced to demonstrate on the streets, almost always without the presence, even support, of their elected representatives. These worthies, envious of the people in power having a free run on resources, keep politicking and jockeying for power and pelf.

Shaming any democracy, governments have dealt with the PMANE’s peaceful protests by stone-walling, denying water and food to large sections of people, ignoring inconvenient scientific data, holding one-sided meetings to “prove” the safety of the KKNPP facility, making patently false accusations against protestors, filing false cases including serious criminal offences, and using outright force with lathis and rifles. Certain politicians and technocrats have played a lead role in this, and the bureau-cracy and police are complicit. Democracy in India is in imminent danger of collapse. The people’s last hope for their own safety and the rescue of democracy is the judiciary. The judi-ciary thus has an onerous task not only to give justice to the people of Kudankulam, but to save democracy itself by upholding the Constitution of India.

S.G. Vombatkere served 35 years in the Indian Army and retired with the rank of Major General from the post of Additional DG in charge of Discipline and Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi. He is presently engaged in voluntary work and is a member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). He can be contacted at e-mail:

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