Nuclear safety and the people of Koodankulam

Edited 12/9/2012 after being first posted.

Events at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu have reached a crisis. The people of Koodankulam want the nuclear reactor gone. The government wants the nuclear reactor commissioned. And India’s police forces remain brutish, using teargas and firing at people protesting the nuclear power plant.

The protests at Koodankulam are happening because India’s track record at protecting the safety of its citizens is abysmal. To stick to nuclear waste, we would do well to remember that radioactive waste from the Uranium mines of Jadugoda has affected more than 50,000 people. These are government-owned mines.

The safety situation at the mines is equally dismaying. The company dumps waste from the mines in open fields and transports uranium ore in uncovered dumpers. Just about a decade ago, say villagers, the playgrounds for children and grazing areas were near the three tailing ponds. The company even supplied mine tailings as construction material to the villagers . In December 2006, a pipe burst spilling radioactive waste. There was no warning system in place. The authorities took about nine hours to respond. People recall several similar incidents.

The protests are led by the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy(PMANE). Their supporters include people like Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy, who says

“I stand in complete solidarity with the villagers of Idinthakarai who are resisting the fuel loading of the Koodankulam nuclear reactor. I happened to be in Japan in March 2011 when the earthquake damaged the Fukushima reactor. After the disaster, almost every country that uses nuclear energy declared that it would change its policy. Every country, except India. Our Government has shown itself incapable of even being able to dispose day to day garbage, leave alone industrial effluent or urban sewage. How does it dare to say that it knows how to deal with nuclear waste? And that nuclear reactors in India are safe? We know how the Government has colluded with Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals) to ensure that the victims of the Bhopal Gas Leak will never get justice. But no amount of compensation can ever right a nuclear disaster. I do believe that what is being done in Koodankulam in the name of Development is a crime.”

— Arundhati Roy

The people at Dianuke have a list of problems with the Koodankulam nuclear plant:

4)      More specifically, the NPCIL does not have adequate water backup, in the event that emergency cooling of the reactor or spent fuel pool is required. It has simply “promised” to construct one, but there is no clear time frame or accountability on this promise.

5)      The NPCIL does not have adequate power backup in the event of a station blackout. It has again “promised” to procure a mobile Diesel Generator set, but only in the “long run.”

9)      Dummies Guide to Safety: Leaving aside these technical issues, there is simple “dummy” guide to safety. The Government has signed a secret “liability” agreement with Russia completely indemnifying the Russian company in the event of an accident. The Government has refused to disclose the clauses of this agreement, in response to RTI requests, court petitions, and parliamentary questions. If the reactor is so safe, and there is no chance of a disaster, why is such great care required to protect the interests of the Russian company in the event of an accident? And if an accident is indeed possible, then why is the Government willing to privilege a foreign company over its own people?

As I understand it, what is being said above is that the Russian company that is going to build the nuclear plant — not operate it, but build it — is not going to be held liable for a nuclear accident at the plant. The operator of the nuclear plant, of course, is the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, a government-run agency.  Internationally accepted practice is that the nuclear suppliers and the builders of the plant are not held accountable; the operator is. The nuclear liability act in India says something similar. Except that the nuclear operator in our case is the government itself via the NPCIL.

With their lives at stake except for the feeble guarantees of the government that the nuclear plant is safe (something the government still says about Jaduguda’s Uranium mines), and with the track record of the Indian state and its protection of citizens, can we really be surprised that the people of Koodankulam want no part of the nuclear power plant?

The main argument for nuclear power is that it is cleaner and more sustainable than conventional sources of electricity. That is if one ignores all the risks people are worried about. Is nuclear power necessary in order to meet India’s energy demands? Germany, one of the countries that gave up nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster, has an immense solar-power programme. They were able to show that a third to a fourth of their country could be run on solar power alone. India has its own heroes. Gram Power, an organisation working in rural Rajasthan has electrified an entire village that no longer depends on the government for electricity. This electricity is entirely provided by solar banks, but the founders of Gram Power say that they are capable of using any alternative energy source.


3 thoughts on “Nuclear safety and the people of Koodankulam”

  1. ^ You might want to also check the link about Turkey’s nuclear plant, that’s also in the comments here.

    The debate about whether nuclear power is safe is far from settled. We’ve had serious accidents in the past. It doesn’t really matter what you think about nuclear power in the abstract. For a specific power plant, such as the one at Koodankulam, glaring problems like the AERB rejecting recommendations its own expert panel (see this ) make this power plant as it stands a bad idea. If it is true that enough precautions have been taken, it shouldn’t be hard to also show that precautions have been taken.

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