Does the Supreme Court care about Indian lives?


The reasons behind clearing the Koodankulam nuclear plant defy logic and democratic principles
SP Udayakumar

18-05-2013, Issue 20

This week, a bench of the Supreme Court (SC) cleared the commissioning of the nuclear power plant at Koodankulam, against which the residents of the area have been protesting for the last 630 days. We find this verdict to be highly unfortunate, and feel that it doesn’t take into account the value of Indian lives.

Ten days before the judgment, our supporters Poovulagin Nanbargal (friends of the earth) filed an affidavit before the Court that ZiO-Podolsk, which has supplied much of the equipment to the plant, is a discredited and corrupt company. Sergei Shutov, the procurement director of the company, was arrested in February 2012 on charges of using substandard metal in their equipment. When we filed an RTI with Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) this January, they denied having received equipment from ZiO-Podolsk, and it was only after repeated enquiries that the NPCIL was forced to admit the truth. This is a very serious matter; if anything were to go wrong, crores of lives would be lost. Yet, the SC refuses to consider this issue while announcing its verdict.

Even accepting, for the sake of argument, that this matter came to light after the Court reserved its judgment, and thus cannot be admitted, what about waste management? The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) told the Court that the waste would be buried under the Kolar gold fields in Karnataka, but the plan was dropped after the residents protested. And that was that. The Court didn’t ask again what alternative the DAE had, and passed its judgment without settling the question. So what happens to this highly toxic waste?

As for liability, an inter-governmental agreement of 2008 holds that the Russians would not be liable in case the faulty equipment malfunctions. What a great deal! You buy whatever rubbish they give you, and you exempt them from liability. So much money has been stolen by both rich Indians and Russians, and the poor locals have to bear the brunt of the greater risk. Who is liable? Is Manmohan Singh liable? He might not be in power two months from now. Would it be the DAE? The KKNPP site director Kasinath Balaji has disappeared, and someone else is in his post. The NPCIL? SK Jain, who was the chairman, is now leading a cushy life in Tokyo as the chairman of the governing board of the World Association of Nuclear Operators. Who will be here to answer for something going wrong? We do not trust these bureaucrats and officials, and now we can’t even trust the SC. If the SC cared about Indian lives, it should have asked these questions.

But no, the Court says that a balance has to be struck between the right to life and sustainable development, that the larger public interest should prevail over minor inconveniences caused to local people. If the inconvenience is really minor, why don’t they build the plant near Parliament? The “larger public interest” it speaks of is nothing but the interests of large corporations for which poor fishermen, women and children should apparently sacrifice their lives and livelihoods.

Regardless, our struggle continues. We may not be successful in closing the plant tomorrow, or in the next few months, or few years. We are patient. We shall persevere. For we have persevered despite the government’s campaign to spread lies and libel us. They have claimed that those who oppose the Koodankulam plant are foreign stooges and that we receive money from abroad. VS Achuthanandan, the former chief minister of Kerala, opposes the plant. Did he take money from abroad? Dr A Gopalakrishnan, the former head of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, has written extensively against the plant. Does he do so for foreign money? Admiral (Retd) Ramdas opposes the plant. Medha Patkar is against it. So is Aruna Roy. Who paid them? Why, when such luminaries have stood up against the government’s anti-people stance, should nameless, faceless Udayakumar be singled out by the Americans for payments?

I don’t take the government’s vilification seriously, because I have nothing at stake. I am not trying to join politics, and I don’t need a certificate of approval from anybody. It’s not me anyone should be worried about, but the people of Idinthakarai, of Koothankuli, of other villages that will be affected, who have lost so much because they chose to take a stand. They have lost their incomes, they have been arrested, they have been attacked by the police. With the opening of the plant, things will only get worse.

But we persist, because we firmly believe that we are fighting for the good of our country, for which we have an enormous amount of love. India needs development, we agree, but in seeking that development, we must not undermine our natural resources, or the basic health of our people and our nutrition security. What are our priorities, after all? Half of our population lives under 20 a day, half of our population barely has any sanitation. We don’t have the basic necessities. People are dying for want of safe drinking water. Instead of addressing these issues, why does our government persist in its obsession with nuclear power, which only adds to the suffering of the poor? Yes, we need electricity, but there needs to be leadership in how we go about harnessing it. If a country like Germany can develop so much electricity from solar power, why can’t we? We have been vilified as fighting against the interests of our country. We have been called Luddites standing in the way of progress. But it must be made clear that we are not against electricity, only nuclear power. We are not against development that benefits Indians, but against that which benefits corrupt Russian companies. We want our people to live as human beings, in a State that does not compromise their safety or on the basic necessities of life.

The greatest challenge we have faced in the course of our protest is the power differential between the people and the State. We celebrate our country as the world’s largest democracy, but its people are hopelessly powerless. Nobody listens to the people. The Parliament wastes our time, energy and resources. Even to ask a question in Parliament, we must bribe MPs, and even when they ask the question, it is just a ritual. No serious debate takes place. This democracy we speak of is a sham. It works only to cheat the poor of their rights.

As told to Ajachi Chakrabarti

letters@tehelka.com

(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 10 Issue 20, Dated

 

Activists cast doubts over IAEA review of Rajasthan atomic power plant


JAIPUR, November 11, 2012

MOHAMMED IQBAL, The Hindu

 
“The inspection team must look into tritium leak at Rawatbhata earlier this year and occurrence of diseases in the plant’s vicinity”
 

Expressing doubts over the ongoing operational safety review by an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team at Rawatbhata Atomic Power Station in Rajasthan, anti-nuclear activists here have demanded “transparent and independent” inspection which can address the issues of vulnerability, unaccountability and secrecy plaguing the Indian nuclear industry.

Activists said at a Press conference here over the weekend that they had received information about the 12-member IAEA team raising serious safety issues, particularly non-availability of crucial auxiliary generators and use of obsolete equipment in the health physics unit to check radiation exposure to workers in the reactors. The team’s final report is not likely to be made public.

Those who addressed the Press conference included senior journalist Praful Bidwai, who writes on environmental and nuclear issues, scientist Sowmya Dutta, activist Kumar Sundaram and People’s Union for Civil Liberties general secretary Kavita Srivastava. The PUCL and the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament & Peace (CNDP) jointly organised the Press meet.

Raising the larger issues of nuclear safety vulnerabilities and lack of independent regulation of atomic power production in the country, the activists said the first-of-its-kind inspection must look into the tritium leak at Rawatbhata earlier this year, high occurrence of diseases in the power plant’s vicinity and lack of published data about radiation releases.

Mr. Bidwai pointed out that the IAEA team is visiting the Rawatbhata plant’s Units 3 and 4, whereas the tritium leaks took place in Unit 5 in June this year, in which 34 casual workers were exposed to high doses of tritium: “These casual workers, not given any health benefits, are the most vulnerable part of the nuclear industry.”

Independent observers have documented the facts about the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) seniors forcing the workers to operate in unsafe zones and intimidating them to hide radiation exposures from the media and the society at large, said the activists.

“In Rawatbhata, we have come to know that the contractual workers have been asked to take leave for next 15 days or work only in night shifts until the IAEA team is there. The Rawatbhata contractual workers have been struggling for [proper] wages, health benefits and independent radiation check-ups,” said Ms. Srivastava. Rawatbhata is situated in Chittorgarh district, 322 km from here.

Noted experts Sanghamitra Gadekar and Surendra Gadekar have carried out an independent health survey around Rawatbhata reactors revealing high occurrence of cancer, leukaemia and other diseases. “This study was published in a reputed and peer-reviewed medical journal but the NPCIL has callously ignored it,” said a statement issued by activists.

Besides, the Union Government has not done any independent safety review of its atomic power facilities after the nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan following the massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11 last year. Concerns have been expressed at the top level about the safety of nuclear plants in the country in the wake of the damage caused in Fukushima.

The NPCIL hastily carried out an internal safety review last year within three months and gave a “clean chit to itself”, alleged the activists. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), which has no independence and is due to be replaced by a new regulatory body currently under discussion in Parliament, has in the meanwhile given only very general recommendations on safety, they said.

Calling for a thorough safety review under independent experts, the activists requested the IAEA team to ask for a moratorium on new constructions and commissioning of nuclear reactors until such an independent review takes place. They said the people at the grassroots have raised serious safety issues in Koodankulam, Jaitapur, Mithivirdi, Chutka, Fatehabad, Kovvada, etc., where intense mass struggles are under way to oppose nuclear projects.

Charges denied

Rawatbhata atomic power station spokesperson D. Chanda, contacted by The Hindu , denied all the allegations and said the IAEA team, comprising experts from eight countries, was working in an “absolutely independent” manner and would submit its report to the international body which would share it with the NPCIL.

“The people who are out to defame the nuclear regulatory institutions are probably unaware that the IAEA mission is visiting India on the Union Government’s request. This is not a suo motu inspection. It will [just] look into our proven good practices and our adherence to safety standards,” said Mr. Chanda, adding that the plant is working within the limits laid down for it.

The IAEA team, comprising experts from the nuclear power plants of Canada, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden, will stay at Rawatbhata till November 15. The experts have conducted plant tours and interacted with the personnel.

However, activists said the nuclear industry in India does not publish data about radiation releases in its nuclear facilities, nor does it carry out any periodic health survey of the population around its facilities. Despite the Government officially asking people living near Hyderabad’s Nuclear Fuel Complex not to drink ground water, no proper mechanism to ensure transparency on radiation health has been put in place and the establishment lives in complete denial of health hazards caused by radiation.

The Rawatbhata atomic power station — comprising eight units, including two units of 700 MW each under construction — is at present generating 1,140 MW power. The two units selected for the IAEA mission had earlier undergone peer review by the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) in 2003 and 2009.