S Rema Devi/ Koodankulam
People, who just a few years ago welcomed NPCIL officials, are protesting against the plant saying they do not want another Fukushima or Chernobyl
For Ancy Mathews, 16, the fight has just begun. She knows that her job is not easy because she has to fight with a government which is hell bent on setting up the nuclear power at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu.
She talks animatedly about how the situation would pan out if a tragedy breaks out. She elaborates on how the Fukushima and Chernobyl tragedies wreaked havoc in Japan and Russia respectively.
Ancy has her task cut out: she wants to educate people about hazards of nuclear power plants. "We won't allow the government to set up the power plant here. When even developed countries are trying to look for other options, why are we going to tread the dangerous path? There are reports that France may dismantle all its nuclear power plants in a few years," she said.
Murugesan, a fisherman and a resident of Idinthakarai, had participated in relay hunger strike which was launched on September 1. For many days, he did not go for fishing as he was busy with the agitation. Idinthakarai, about three km north of Koodankulam, is the closest habitation near the reactor. People fear they would be the worst hit if a cataclysmic event happens at the plant. "It will be a long-drawn battle. The government is hell-bent on making the plant functional," he said.
The support for the anti-nuclear plant agitation is almost complete in Idinthakarai, thanks to the local church. Ever since the work started for the power plant, the agitation also took roots. The present mobilisation of support for the protests has also been done by the Roman Catholic Church.
NPCIL is building two 1,000 MW reactors with Russian technology and equipment in Koodankulam, around 650 km from Chennai. The first unit is expected to go on stream in December. The project cost is estimated around Rs.13,000 crore.
Villagers, who greeted the NPCIL officials with welcome arches and garlands only years ago when they arrived to set up the plant, are now protesting the plant erection, claiming they fear of their lives and safety in case of any nuclear accidents and the long-term impact it would have on the population.
It is not only Christians are involved in the agitation. Hindu fishermen in the village are very much part of the agitation. The mood of the village is palpable. "The police had foisted cases against us. They came and arrested some of our villagers. The 45-year-old Sivan, a local fisherman, says the agitation had cost him financially too. He didn't care. "This is a fight for our next generation. We have a duty towards our children. Small losses or inconveniences do not matter," he declared.
Mariamma, 70, thinks taking part in the agitation is like doing her religious duty. "I know I don't have many days left. What I am doing today is for my grandkids. The environment should not be filled with poison and toxics."
Pandian, 80, says not only humans will be affected by the radiation. Even the fish in the sea will be affected due to radiation. "The locals will be most vulnerable. The radiation from the plant will give rise to many physical problems. Not only our generation but the coming generation will be affected if some untoward happens," said Pandian.
He would tell you "what happened in Russia" to buttress his point. Pandian tries to hard sell "foreign conspiracy" theory to drive home his argument. He says the power plant is being built for a foreign country's benefit rather than India's. He believes the present dispensation at the centre is pawn in the hands of foreign powers.
Every thing the speakers speak at the function is lapped by the crowd including women and children. According to SP Udayakumar, the man who is now spearheading the movement against Koodankulam plant, the police action on people by foisting false cases against them, only strengthened the resolve of the people who were planning hunger strike. "We gathered at Idinthakarai and started preparing for our hunger strike from September 11. Around 3 pm we received the news that the police were arresting some of our activists at Koodankulam village. Some 500 women had blocked the road and demanded their immediate release. The police relented and the women also dispersed.
The authorities invited 10 people for talks but later foisted cases on 510 people," said Kumar. Officials of KNPP were not able to go their office since October 13 when the protestors resorted to a plant blockade, stalling the project work and bringing down the employee morale. The protest had put the project clock back by at least six months, NPCIL officials said. They stressed work has to go on at the plant.
Srikumar Banerjee, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, said: "Minimum maintenance activity should be carried out at the plant for its health and its future." Citing the completion of the "hot run" -- a trial run of the reactor with dummy fuel, Banerjee said coolant water should not be allowed to stagnate.
Underscoring what Banjerjee said, an NPCIL official said once the hot run has been completed, the reactor systems have to be run continuously. "If that is not done, then the entire parameters and safety measures have to checked all over again. The systems cannot be stopped and restarted. Decommissioning a reactor is different as one need not bother about the damages the systems would undergo after the plant is stopped," said the official.
On September 22, the Tamil Nadu government passed a resolution urging the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the central government to halt work at Koodankulam till the people's fears are allayed.
According to NPCIL officials despite the resolution, the Tamil Nadu government is keen on knowing the project progress as it would ease to a major extent the state's power crunch. NPCIL officials told IANS that the state government had written to the company to take necessary measures to increase the power generation at the Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) located at Kalpakkam.
The villages fear a nuclear disaster like in Fukushima would affect them most. They also feel that the marine life would also be affected thereby their livelihood. But officials say safety measures have been put in place and there is no need for fear. Meanwhile, top officials of the Indian nuclear establishment on October 29 met the expert committee the central government has set up to allay fears of people living in and around Koodankulam. "The 15 members of the expert committee are located in different places. We decided to convene a meeting in Chennai Saturday to chalk out the way ahead," said SK.Jain, chairman and managing director of Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd.
Although the leaders claim that their protest is homegrown, there are certain sections in the political spectrum and the central government which think that the movement is supported by forces inimical to India's prosperity. While the government terms every upsurge in the country as foreign-backed projects, for instance Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement, experts point out various motives behind the sudden surge in the movement.
According to government order M.S. No. 822 dated 29-04-1991, an area of 5 km surrounding the Koodankulam nuclear power station is a sterilised zone where no industrial or mining activity is permitted.
But Udayakumar flatly denies both the allegations. "Following the Fukushima nuclear accident that took place in March 2011, the fishermen have awakening near a nuclear facility and are now demanding their right to live peacefully," he said.
"The most recent trigger was the announcement of a mock drill when the public were asked to cover their face and mouth and run for cover following an alarm. The long list of do's and don'ts released by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India has finally enlightened them of the perilous situation."
In the Perumanal fishing hamlet, where around 5,000 people live, the residents also seek closure of the nuclear power station fearing it could affect the marine life and, hence, their livelihood. "The operation of the plant will affect our livelihood and we don't want it here," says Father Kishore, parish priest of Perumanal.
The sudden surge in protests has perplexed those managing the Koodankulam power plant. "We have been spreading awareness about the plant and campaigning against the unfounded fears of some people for around a decade now. The sudden uprising is perplexing and inexplicable," said an official.
Meanwhile the intelligence agencies and rival groups are busy probing his connections with foreign agents and the flow of funds to channel the protests.
"I am a simple school teacher and a peace activist. I have been campaigning for peace and disarmament since my early youth. This movement is a public uprising of which I am a part. It is unfortunate that I am seen as the one pushing it forward," Udayakumar says.
"We are not prepared for any negotiations," Kumar says. "Our demand to the state and central government is to stop work on the Koodankulam nuclear plant and instead look towards renewable sources of energy. The government is making a false claim that nuclear power can fill the energy gap in the country." However, intelligence agencies suspect the role of foreign agencies behind the activist's involvement in the protests.
"For instance, Udayakumar and some of his associates have been on at least a few trips to Fukushima in Japan. It is uncertain as to how he could manage the funds. We are also probing the role of a retired scientist from Nagercoil in sourcing foreign funds," a police source said.
Can it shut down?
Atomic Energy Commission of India's Chairman Srikumar Banerjee says it is not possible to completely shutdown the project as "minimal maintenance activity" was required so that the project proceeded smoothly. Banerjee says any stoppage of trials would pose great risk to the workers and the protestors.
Since the hot run at power plant I has come "very close to completion," the cooling apparatus needs to continue its monitored circulation, he said. "The coolant should not be allowed to stagnate as it will create problems in the future. Minimum maintenance activity is required for the health of the plant and its future," he added. Banerjee indicated that the reactor could be operated safely with the few workers inside, despite the protestors blocking people from entering or leaving. He also echoed the statement made by Chairman of NPCIL, S K Jain, that a nuclear power plant was not a car to be switched on and off anytime, and that the protests were damaging the plant.
An agreement for setting up a nuclear power plant was signed on November 20, 1988 between then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. The project remained in limbo for 10 years due to political and economic upheaval in Russia after the post-1991 Soviet breakup. In 2008 negotiation on building four additional reactors at the site began. Though the capacity of these reactors has not been declared, it is expected that the capacity of each reactor will be 1000 MW or 1 GW. The new reactors would bring the total capacity of the power plant to 9200 MW or 9.2 GW.
When completed they will become the largest nuclear power generation complex in India producing a cumulative 2 GW of electric power. The first unit was scheduled to start operation in December 2009 and the second one was scheduled for March 2010. Four more reactors are set to be added to this plant under a memorandum of intent signed in 2008.