India Column: Peoples’ Power Versus Nuclear Power

by Francis Gonsalves

Koodankulam is a tiny town in the Tirunelveli District of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Like most of the villages in India, this hamlet has its own laidback lifestyle that reflects the ebb and flow of the carefree sea. Little from the outer world affects the peaceful pace of Koodankulam’s residents who are content with, and grateful for, the little they earn from fishing and other rural activities. Today, things are different.

The serenity and peace that the residents of Koodankulam have enjoyed for centuries is now being shattered by the government of India’s Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) that threatens to affect the lives of nearly a million people in the area. The people of Koodankulam are up in arms against these plans and are locked in conflict against the government and other agencies that are insistent on setting up the plant.

The KKNPP was conceived with the signing of an inter-governmental agreement on Nov. 20, 1988 by the then-prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for the construction of two reactors. The project remained in limbo for a decade. Initially, the people of Koodankulam were misled by false propaganda and promises that the proposed nuclear project would create at least 10,000 new jobs, would fetch them fresh water from the Pechiparai dam, and would result in unprecedented progress and development for the region. Hoping that these promises would ensure a glorious future, protests against the Government’s plans were initially weak.

Things have changed over the past two decades. Dr. S.P. Udayakumar, Convenor of the Anti-Koodankulam Nuclear Movement, says, “The people of Koodankulam now know and understand that this is not just a fisher folk’s problem. They realize that many villagers may be displaced. Moreover, they will all have to deal with the problem of radioactive poisoning.” The anti-nuclear movement gained momentum in 2007. Now, almost all the residents within a thirty-kilometre radius of the KKNPP oppose the project.

In 1988, when work began on the KKNPP, the authorities said that the cost estimate of the Koodankulam 1 and 2 projects was rupees 6,000 crores. A decade later, in November 1998, the project was estimated to cost rupees 15,500. In 2001, the ministerial group for economic affairs announced that the project cost would be rupees 13,171 crores. Of this, the Indian government would invest rupees 6,775 crores and the remainder would come in as a Russian loan. No one seems to know the 2011 figures for these expenses, and no one seems interested in informing the Indian public either.

Aware of the skewed economics and manipulated figures that are frequently peddled in order to legitimize anti-people projects, enlightened citizens in the so-called “developing countries” are increasingly wary of development projects undertaken by, or with aid from, the so-called “developed countries.” These projects inevitably come with a heavy price tag, which almost always has to be borne by the poorest of the poor. Thus, people now ask: Who develops? What is the cost to be paid in terms of human welfare? Who pays the price?

It is alarming that the KKNPP reactors are being set up without sharing the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), Site Evaluation Study, and Safety Analysis Report either with the people, the people’s representatives, or the press. No public hearing was conducted for the first two reactors and there is absolutely no democratic decision-making in or public approval for this project. Can such a project then claim to have the people’s interests at heart?

In terms of the area affected, the Tamil Nadu Government Order number 828 (of the Public Works Department dated April 29, 1991) states that “an area between 2 to 5 kilometres radius around the plant site, [would be] called the sterilization zone.” This means that people in this area could be displaced at anytime. However, the KKNPP authorities orally promise that nobody from the neighboring villages will be displaced. This kind of ad hoc assurance and doublespeak makes people suspicious and fearful of lurking dangers of displacement.

It is estimated that more than a million people live within the 30 kilometer radius of the KKNPP, which far exceeds the stipulations of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). It would be impossible to evacuate such a large population quickly and efficiently should a nuclear disaster occur at Koodankulam. Who can forget the devastation of the March 2011 disaster in Fukushima? Further, Japan is a highly developed country with a population much lower than that of India. Any catastrophe at the level of Fukushima in India would result in death and destruction of an unimaginable magnitude.

A cursory glance at nuclear policies worldwide indicates that countries are taking effective steps to diminish the possibility of nuclear disasters. Germany has decided to phase out its nuclear power plants by 2022. Switzerland has opted to shun nuclear power technology. In a recent referendum, some 90 percent of Italians voted against nuclear power in their country. Many Japanese prefectures and their governors are closing nuclear power plants in their regions. Neither the U.S. nor Russia has built new reactors on home soil for over two decades since major accidents occurred at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

Unlike these other states, the government of India seems to have forgotten the disastrous consequences of the December 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy that saw Union Carbide India Limited go scot-free after causing the deaths of thousands of Indian citizens, not counting the maimed and those who remain genetically scarred for life. Given this reprehensible past, the protesters are questioning the Indian Government on what steps it is taking to ensure the well-being of its people.

Dr. Udayakumar points out that even if the KKNPP functioned normally without any accidents, it would emit Iodine 131, 132, 133, Cesium 134, 136, 137 isotopes, strontium, tritium, tellurium, and other radioactive particles into the air, land, crops, cattle, sea, and ground water. He adds, “Already the southern coastal belt is sinking with very high incidence of cancer, mental retardation, Down’s syndrome, defective births due to private and government sea-sand mining for rare minerals including thorium. The KKNPP will add many more woes to our already suffering people.”

Fearing a backlash from the protesters, the Indian government has been vainly trying to convince them of the safety of the KKNPP. It appointed a 15-member Expert Committee to allay the fears of the people. When the Expert Committee did not make any headway, the prime minister’s office issued a statement accusing the protest movement of being funded by “foreign agencies.” This infuriated the protesters and many NGOs who support the anti-nuclear movement. They demanded proof of any foreign funding of the movement. To the Indian government’s argument that a nuclear reactor can never be safely shut down once work is started on it, the NGOs pointed out that there have been precedents, like Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant in the U.S., where nuclear reactors have been shut down due to public disapproval.

A respected voice that supports the completion of the construction of KKNPP is that of the former president of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who described the Koodankulam nuclear plant as “clean and safe.” The former president, who is a reputed missile scientist, stated that the 2,000 megawatt KKNPP was essential for “power hungry” India. Rebutting this assurance is the leader of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, Mr. Pushparayan, who recollected that the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India (AEC), Dr. Homi Sethna, had long ago advised Abdul Kalam to refrain from commenting on nuclear engineering since he was a missile engineer.

It is yet to be seen whether India is that “power hungry” nation that A.P.J. Abdul Kalam makes it out to be. Meanwhile, there is little doubt that the power of the protesters is on the rise with many NGOs and citizens expressing serious doubts about the safety of the KKNPP. Since October 2011, thousands of protesters and villagers living in and around Koodankulam have been blocking highways and staging hunger strikes to prevent further construction work and demand the closure of the KKNPP. In the high decibel din of debates, decisions, and dharnas (organized protests) of people, politicians, and other parties, no one is sure which power will prevail.

Dr. Francis Gonsalves, a Jesuit, received his Licentiate in Dogmatic Theology from the Gregorian University in Rome and his Ph.D. from the University of Madras, India. He has taught at the Vidyajyoti College of Theology since 1997, and has been the Principal since 2009. He has taught at a number of other institutions, including the University of Madras. His areas of interest in teaching and study include interdisciplinary approaches to theology, interfaith dialogue and initiatives, socio-religious and subaltern movements, and developing the arts as alternative sources of theology. He has published extensively both in India and abroad on issues of religion and theology, political affairs, and social justice. He currently serves on the board of editors for four publications. He has also lectured widely and conducted numerous seminars on his areas of interest.

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