The Conquest of Koodankulam

This kind of takes over the history from the previous post.

The Chernobyl disaster happened on the 26th of April 1986. It took a while for the news to spread, but by May or June, the horrendous extent of the tragedy was clear. There was suddenly tremendous concern about the potential for devastation because of nuclear power. In the meanwhile, our nuclear energy capacity was nowhere near the chest thumping claim of 8,000MW in 1980 (made in the 60′s), but a far more humble 950MW in 1987. Actually, as of February 2012, we still haven’t reached that 8,000MW. Our current capability is 4780MW.

India needed to break through that cage and it needed to find a country that would help it in spite of the sanctions. Enter USSR (it existed then) with its nuclear industry in the proverbial dog house, desperate to revive its credibility and (I suppose) do business too. On November 20, 1988 by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed an inter-government agreement to construct two reactors and the Conquest of Kudankulam was started.

For the locals, it was a No Shit Sherlock moment, considering how the world was still grappling to understand the magnitude of the Chernobyl disaster in terms of lasting damage. There were 13 European countries with Cesium 137 contamination from that one accident – 100,000km2 of land contaminated with the fallout. To invite that kind of potential for devastation into your own backyard was a no brainer. NO!

A quick note: It was also a measure of the utter blindness of the government to the human side of matters that this apprehension was not considered and the reactor deal pushed to a time when the threat would seem less terrifying, but then our government has consistently acted in a way that contrasts with people’s interest. The blatant use of power for dismissal/overpowering of people’s apprehension or suffering is fast becoming an identifying factor of government action.

A massive rally was organized at Tirunelveli within a month of the announcement. Another rally by the National Fish Workers Union at Kanyakumari in May 1989 attracted 10,000 protesters. The police opened fire on the crowd. The government had set its sights on Koodankulam, and it would not rest until the conquest of Koodankulam was complete. All bets were off.

Unfortunately for the government, and fortunately for the locals, the USSR collapsed. The Chernobyl accident was a large factor in the glasnost and a contributor to the collapse. Yet, our government has a way of not seeing what doesn’t suit it. Its plan for Conquering various areas of the country for nuclear projects continues. Koodankulam is by no means the only one where the people don’t want the reactor the government wants. There are similar echoes in India, with the RTI movement calling for transparency and the government being in an increasingly shaky situation, but no one seems to be making the connection between the wishes of people being arbitrarily overruled and interests harmed and dislike for the government. But I digress.

Coming back to Kudankulam, the reprieve lasted for almost a decade till the government renewed the deal with Russia, again without consulting the people or making any accommodation for the interest of even the less radical ones, who merely want reliable assurances of safety that go beyond bombastic and unscientific and unrealistic declarations by politicians and scientists. What does one say when an ex-president and nuclear scientist like Kalam is also one to declare that he had reviewed the plans and that they were 100% safe. What is 100% safe? How can it be calculated? And if it were 100% safe, then why isn’t data that proves it being released?

In the meanwhile, a lazy media bloated on money and self-importance either does nothing to antagonize the government and investigate other sides of the story, or is actively complicit in promoting the semi-fiction of the nuclear achievements of India and total fiction of the necessity of nuclear power for their personal interests and orientations.

For example, when Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh declared that the project could not be allowed to remain “idle” when the nation has sunk an amount of Rs 14,000 crore on the project and that the agitation against the Russian-aided project has been “overdone”, the media was happy to ignore the fact that the locals had been protesting all through the project, and if the government had listened, it could have avoided sinking unrecoverable money. There is blatant disregard of the fact that all the money has been invested by overruling stiff and growing resistance and is now being used as an excuse to overrule the resistance. This is like me staying in your home by force for more than a decade, and then saying that because I had stayed so long, you cannot kick me out.

For someone known for not speaking, our PM sure is devastatingly destructive when he does. In a haunting echo of calling Maoists the “number one security threat” leading to an out and out dirty war for tribal land, he recently accused the local NGOs opposing the government of being funded by foreign interests. Within weeks, on the heels of getting election mania out of the way, Jayalalitha approved of resuming work at the Koodankulam plant, Russia declared its scientists would start work within days after that, and an army of police swarmed the entire area to squash any protest with such aggression that locals fear for their safety. A new era in the Conquest of Koodankulam has started.

As we speak, there are over 10,000 cops at the plant site and the three villages near it. Quoting a crucial update by Kractivist:

Electricity, Water and Food Supply stopped in Idinthakarai
All roads and sea routes to reach Idinthakarai are blocked. Police personnel forcibly took away mobiles phones and water supply equipments.

School run by Dr. S P Udayakumar damaged badly last night. School bus is also damaged.

There are 8000 children among the 20,000 protesting people in Idinthakarai. Milk supply to the village is also prevented and its affecting the children badly.

Media entry to Idinthakarai is also prevented.

Karuna John of Tehelka is live tweeting any news from reporters on location. 5000 people are guarding the people fasting in protest at St. Loudres Church. Police are issuing ultimatums. Activists are refusing to budge. Some 20,000 protesters are said to have surrounded the plant.

Tehelka seems to be the only news media interested in the people’s side of the story, so far.

To make a long story short, the people of Koodankulam never wanted a reactor. They have always resisted it. To quote a beyond excellent article in the Tehelka by Nityanand Jayaraman:

If operationalised, the six proposed nuclear power plants will discharge 42 billion litres (sufficient to meet all water needs of 21 crore people) of hot water into the sea every day. The agitating fisherfolk may not speak Queen’s English, but they are not bereft of common sense. They are concerned about the sub-lethal effects on marine flora and fauna caused by the release of such large quantities of hot water. Dr Mark Chernaik, scientific adviser to Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide-US, a global network of environmental lawyers and activists, reviewed Koodankulam’s Environmental Impact Assessment report and the response of the government’s Expert Group. According to him, “Neither contains an adequate assessment of the impacts to marine life of cooling water (thermal) discharges.”

There are serious concerns about studies of the damage to health from nuclear reactors – even perfectly working ones. There are concerns for the quality of water for both drinking and agriculture. concerns about routine releases of radiation from venting. Concerns about the unique marine live of an extremely rich marine region. There are concerns about environmental research, safety measures, evacuation plans. There are requests for surveys and evaluations that have been ignored. None of these have been addressed by the government in ways that reassure on the dangerous questions raised. How can this be an acceptable risk? How can the country expect citizens to blindly trust their well being on an entity that has consistently acted against their interest, refuses to be transparent and negotiate to accommodate any local concern?

To quote an article by Manju Menon and M V Ramana:

To fulfil a mandatory step in the official environmental clearance process, on 2 June the Tamil Nadu State Pollution Control Board conducted a public hearing. From the outset, the distinct impression at the meeting was that the state administration was hoping merely to be done with an undesirable formality. What is more, they allowed NPCIL to use the hearing as a platform from which to promote the project and to make unsubstantiated claims about the reactors’ safety. But things did not go according to the official script. Locals of the area had been fed pro-nuclear rhetoric for years, and nearly 7000 people gathered to take advantage of the first official opportunity to put their own views on nuclear-energy production into the public record. Almost to an individual, they said that they were opposed to the project. As participant after participant spoke against the Koodankulam plan, the official in charge abruptly announced that NPCIL had clarified all the people’s doubts, and declared the meeting closed. Contrary to the requirements of the law, the minutes of the meeting – what would enter the official record as the public’s views – were not read out.

And my own conditions for supporting nuclear power, without which I am a firm non-supporter can be read here:

My stand on Nuclear Power in India

How long will we allow political terrorists to destroy citizens in the name of democracy?

Will Democracy Defeat People?

Please note: I am neither a historian, nor a nuclear scientist, and like you, I get my information from the news, or I hunt it down. Any inaccuracies are mine.

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About the Author

Vidyut
Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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