By Nityanand Jayaraman
AFTER LAST week’s violent crackdown on anti-nuclear protesters in Koodankulam, the Tamil Nadu government and the Centre have reiterated that nuclear power is perfectly safe and essential to India’s energy security. The Union home minister has trotted out the foreign hand; and J Jayalalithaa has appealed to “the people not to fall prey to the propaganda of those who oppose nuclear power as a matter of policy”.
The governments have not quite decided why villagers are not convinced by their assurances and the reports of two expert committees appointed by them. If the governments are to be believed, the people living along the southern stretch of coastal Tamil Nadu are either mentally deranged, needing treatment by NIMHANS, or are gullible and prone to the influence of foreign agents, foreign-funded local instigators, the Pope and/or the Maoists.
“Foreign NGOs are supporting the movement… I’m aware of these NGOs, but I’m not going to name those countries,” said Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde a few days ago. The prime minister made similar xenophobic statements in February. Within days of his statement, the police rounded up and deported an unsuspecting German backpacker, Hermann Rainer, from a budget hotel in Nagercoil. Rainer was allegedly the “brains” behind the anti-nuclear movement. The home ministry then went after four foreign-funded NGOs allegedly financing the agitation. Their foreign currency bank accounts were frozen to choke the movement. With the brains and the money gone, misthe movement ought to have died. But that has not happened.
In response to questions in the Rajya Sabha last March, Parliamentary Affairs MoS V Narayanasamy admitted that the government had no proof that the NGOs had actually diverted money to fund the agitation. For the same allegation to resurface, again, without any evident basis, raises questions not only on the government’s credibility, but also on its ability to ensure nuclear safety. After all, if the government is unable to regulate the flow of foreign funds, can it be expected to regulate the flow of invisible all-permeating nuclear radiation?
Political leaders and sections of the media have portrayed the protesters as obstinate and unwilling to listen to reason, phrases used to describe petulant children. In more charitable moments, they speak patronisingly of the fisherfolk and farmers who form the backbone of the agitation. “They are very simple people, knowing nothing but fishing and eating. They are being manipulated. It is very easy to mislead them by saying that their lives are at risk,” says South Zone IG Rajesh Das.
If the IG’s reading of the protesters as noble savages is a sincere one, there is little to wonder why the authorities have failed to “convince” them. “Udayakumar or Pushparayan are not instigating us,” says an irate Sagaya Initha, a ward councillor and vocal member of the anti-nuclear resistance. “This land and this sea is ours. This fight is ours. They are here at our insistence.”
PEOPLE’S SCEPTICISM over government assurances of safety are not hard to explain. Five days before the police violence in Koodankulam, explosions in a Sivakasi fireworks factory killed 38 and injured twice as many. The incident exposed gaping holes in the licencing process, the failure of the regulator, and the total unpreparedness of the district administration to handle an emergency of this scale. The pot-holed roads delayed the arrival of fire tenders and evacuation of victims. Lacking any disaster response training, people did the wrong thing. They surged towards the fire to help potential victims, and were killed or maimed in subsequent explosions. None of the towns in the vicinity had a hospital with a burns ward.
The Sivakasi fireworks mishap is nothing compared to a full-blown radiological emergency. And how prepared are we in Koodankulam? The neighbouring districts of Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi, Kanyakumari and Thiruvananthapuram have no medical facilities capable of dealing with a radiological emergency. The district administration claims to have conducted an emergency response drill at Nakkaneri village in early June. The emergency response plan is a confidential document. A fact-finding report released by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) termed the administration’s claims a “blatant lie”. Nakkaneri villagers, including panchayat officials, interviewed by the PUCL team have sworn that they learnt about the drill only from the next day’s newspapers.
Even the CAG’s recent report on the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) notes with concern that the nature of offsite emergency exercises highlighted the inadequacy of emergency preparedness to deal with radiological disasters.
The AERB’s dubious status as a crony regulator is well-established. The CAG found that the AERB is an authority subordinate to the government and that it did not have the powers to frame or revise rules on nuclear and radiation safety. If the proverbial fox and henhouse metaphor were to be used, AERB would not even qualify to be the fox.
The magnitude of a nuclear disaster necessitates safety and due diligence that is both complete and sincere. The AERB’s licencing process is neither. If preparing for the worst is the cornerstone of safety planning, the AERB has already cut corners. After Fukushima, it set up a task force to recommend measures to fortify India’s nuclear establishments. Going against the recommendation of its own committee, the AERB refused to consider the possibility of a larger-than-expected tsunami.
Separately, learning from the experiences at Fukushima, where emergency response was vitiated by the lack of adequate fresh water and back-up power, the task force made 17 recommendations for Koodankulam. All had to be implemented before commissioning the plant. As on date, only six of the 17 safety conditions have been implemented.
After initially assuring the Madras High Court that it would ensure implementation of all recommendations before allowing fuel loading, the AERB now says that arrangements for fresh water and back-up power can wait until six months to two years from the time of commissioning. The high court too, in a spirit of upholding national interest, acquiesced. If a radiological emergency were to occur now, the “perfectly safe” plant will not have enough fresh water to prevent a meltdown. In the event of such an emergency, it is unlikely that the core fuel assembly will hold back on a meltdown in deference to the high court’s order.
Of all the arguments put forward by nuclear proponents, perhaps the most engaging one is about the indispensability of nuclear power to Tamil Nadu’s energy security. As a state that is reeling under power cuts, Koodankulam has demonstrated that people are willing to kill for electricity. People hope and believe that Koodankulam will signal the end to power cuts in the state. But a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests otherwise.
Tamil Nadu generates about 8,500 MW of electricity from its installed capacity of 10,364 MW. At peak demand of 12,500 MW, the state faces a shortfall of 4,000 MW. TANGEDCO, the state electricity generator, estimates the transmission and distribution losses at 18 percent. For every 100 MW generated, 18 MW is lost in transmission. Of Koodankulam Plant 1’s 1,000 MW installed capacity, 472.5 MW is earmarked for Tamil Nadu. Indian nuclear power plants operate at a plant load factor (PLF) of around 60 percent; a 100 MW plant will only generate 60 MW. With PLF accounted for, Tamil Nadu’s net generation will be 280 MW. Factor in the transmission loss, and the consumer is likely to get a meagre 230 MW, or 6 percent of the shortfall. That is unlikely to make your lights glow brighter.
Nuclear plants are unpopular, expensive to build —Rs 13 crore/MW— and suffer long delays. Of the 23 years since the Koodankulam plant was announced, only one year’s delay can be attributed to local protests. In contrast, reducing transmission and distribution losses as a way of freeing up electricity is inexpensive —Rs 50 lakh/MW — popular and quick to implement. Losses in countries such as China and Switzerland are a meagre 7 percent. If Tamil Nadu were to halve its losses to 9 percent of its total installed capacity, it will save 932 MW — more than the state’s share from Koodankulam Units 1 and 2.
So, why nuclear? Perhaps, as analysts of nuclear geopolitics like MV Ramana and Suvrat Raju point out, the Koodankulam and Jaitapur projects are part of a controversial foreign policy agenda, where the purchase of expensive nuclear plants is used to buttress relations with world powers. That would explain the 6,500 villagers charged with waging war against the State and 3,580 with sedition.
Jayaraman is a writer and a volunteer with the Chennai Solidarity Group for Koodankulam Struggle