Kumar Sundaram | CatchNews

Ever since its inception, the Kudankulam Atomic Power Project has courted controversy. The nuclear power plant, imported from Russia, near the southernmost tip of India has been a bone of contention between the government and the nuclear power lobby on the one hand and anti-nuclear activists, environmentalists and local villagers on the other since mid-2001.

Nuclear Power Corp.'s Kudankulam plant is seen in the background as a man walks through a field in Tsunami Nagar, India, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. India will form a panel of government officials and experts to address the safety concerns of villagers living near the almost completed nuclear power station at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu state, where protests have halted work. Photographer: Adeel Halim/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Nuclear Power Corp.’s Kudankulam plant is seen in the background as a man walks through a field in Tsunami Nagar, India, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011. India will form a panel of government officials and experts to address the safety concerns of villagers living near the almost completed nuclear power station at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu state, where protests have halted work. Photographer: Adeel Halim/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Three and a half years ago, the backers of the project had scrambled to prove that nothing was more important and urgent than N-power project to solve the power crisis in Tamil Nadu and other southern states. Protests were eventually scuttled and Unit 1 of the project was commissioned on 22 October, 2013.

After all the brouhaha, however, the reality is that the plant has not been working for the last three months: Reactor No. 1 of the plant was shut down for “annual maintenance” on 26 June this year. It was to restart on 22 August, but the date was initially pushed back to 23 September.

Then the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, which operates the project, postponed the reopening to 7 October and then again to 15 October. The plant is yet to start, despite a public assurance from MR Srinivasan, former chariman of Department of Atomic Energy.

In fact, after a much-celebrated start, the power plant near Idinthakarai – a hamlet by the Bay of Bengal – has been under “routine maintenance” or has tripped and shut down, leaving the authorities red-faced.

Kudankulam has abnormally high ‘trip rate’. Basically, it fails much more than other N-power plants

After being commissioned, the plant took a long time to function at full capacity and was declared commercially operational only in 31 December, 2014. In these 14 months, the reactor shut down 19 times due to tripping and there were three maintenance outages.

Soon after the outset, the rotor of the power went into ‘reverse power’ mode and tripped. Instead of adding power to the grid, it started sucking power back. In reality, the NPCIL had declared the project to be commercially open in a hurry as the unending tests became an embarrassment.

Tripping is common at nuclear reactors undergoing tests. But in Koodankulam, their frequencies are very high. At 14 trips during the plant’s 4,701 hours of operation until now, the trip rate is 20.8 per year – way ahead of the global average of 0.37, according to a World Nuclear Association report.

The 10 best-performing reactors had a trip rate of a mere 0.25. The same report underlines an average 1.5 days of loss of productivity per trip globally. In Kudankulam, the average is 6.5 days – that’s nearly a week lost.

In its two-year existence, the Kudankulam reactor is yet to achieve the minimum benchmark – operating continuously for 100 days at cent per cent capacity. The plant operated below its capacity for 134 days between 10 December, 2014 and 24 August, 2015, and only 124 days at full capacity, according to data collected by VT Padmanabhan, Paul Dorfman and A Rahman.

Since then, of course, the plant has remained shut. So much so that, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about commissioning the second unit of the plant and ensuring that Unit-1 functions smoothly, even as the state faces crippling power crisis.

Manmohan Singh govt’s ego trip

The repeated shut-downs, prolonged “routine maintenance” and postponements of restart dates indicate a serious problem. The government must constitute a high-level, independent probe into the white elephant that the Kudankulam plant has become.

The probe should not only to assess the problems and identify possible corrective measures, but should also help understand at least how not to go ahead with nuclear plant projects in future.

In its zeal to push the project, the erstwhile UPA government at the Centre disregarded cautionary notes from eminent independent scientists and former nuclear regulator of India A Gopalakrishnan.

A huge scandal broke out in Russia between 2007 and 2011, involving the supply of sub-standard equipment, for which a director of Zio-Podolsk was imprisoned. The company, a subsidiary of Atomenergomash, makes steam generators for nuclear plants. Atomenergomash, in turn, is a subsidiary of Russia’s state-owned holding company Atomenergoprom.

For the last 3 months, Kudankulam is shut. The power plant has missed 4 deadlines to restart.

Equipment from the affected batch were used by Atomsroyexport in Kudankulam. Experts warned that this would lead to complications, inefficiency and would even have potentially dangerous safety implications. A former Union power secretary of India wrote to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, advising him not to hurry in commissioning Kudankulam.

But the government took the project as an ego issue. It was blinded to all prudence, sane advice and glaring inconvenient truths.

Protest by local communities, concerned with questions of safety and livelihood, was one part of the movement against the Kudankulam project. The other part was the dissent of social activists on ecological concerns, liability issues and democratic rights of the local community.

Indian police clash with protestors on the beach at Idinathakarai village near the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in southern Tamil Nadu on September 10, 2012. Police in a southern Indian state shot dead a fisherman and clashed with with activists who were protesting the start of work at a nuclear power plant, officials said. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)

Indian police clash with protestors on the beach at Idinathakarai village near the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in southern Tamil Nadu on September 10, 2012. Police in a southern Indian state shot dead a fisherman and clashed with with activists who were protesting the start of work at a nuclear power plant, officials said. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)

All those legitimate concerns were bulldozed with brutal repression and activists were stigmatized as ‘foreign hand’. The Manmohan Singh government also turned a deaf ear to a more informed group of people who knew the gravity of the situation.

The independent voices that flagged the faulty equipment stand vindicated today, though none of them would be happy to have being proven correct this way.

See the white elephant?

The Tamil Nadu government’s public relations machinery had even propped up orchestrated protests by a handful of people “angry at the delay in commissioning of the Kudankulam plant”. They had claimed that the next summer would be unbearable without the nuclear reactor.

Why are those protestors now not demanding answers from the NPCIL, on why it can’t make the reactors work? Politicians like Jayalalitha and non-Congress parties like the CPI (M), which eventually supported the project on assurances of official scientists and the Government of India are not raising questions either.

Manmohan Singh govt made it an ego issue. But Kudankulam is now proving to be a non-starter

The issue can earn the BJP some brownie points against the Congress. But it also seems to be avoiding the issue as it supports nuclear energy in principle and as it may also expose Modi’s global nuclear shopping spree to uncomfortable questions.

This is also an occasion to ask some hard questions to V Narayanasamy, the minister of state in Singh’s PMO. He gave the whole issue a different spin, saying the delays due to the protests were leading to a loss of Rs 5 crore a day.

The Tamil Nadu government halted the construction work for a few months, but at no point did the court stayed work neither did agitators block construction or functioning of the reactor.

A Dornier surveillance aircraft deployed by the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) flies over hundreds of anti-nuclear activists as they take to the water during a 'Jal Satyagraha,' a protest by standing in the sea, demanding that uranium fuel is not loaded in the nuclear reactor of Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) on the beach at Idinthakarai village in southern Tamil Nadu on September 13, 2012. India's Supreme Court refused on Thursday a plea for an interim order to block the loading of uranium fuel rods at a nuclear plant in southern India amid fresh protests against the facility. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)

A Dornier surveillance aircraft deployed by the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) flies over hundreds of anti-nuclear activists as they take to the water during a ‘Jal Satyagraha,’ a protest by standing in the sea, demanding that uranium fuel is not loaded in the nuclear reactor of Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) on the beach at Idinthakarai village in southern Tamil Nadu on September 13, 2012. India’s Supreme Court refused on Thursday a plea for an interim order to block the loading of uranium fuel rods at a nuclear plant in southern India amid fresh protests against the facility. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)

Who is now responsible for the loss to the exchequer that is caused by repeated delays and the huge opportunity costs for not looking into the cautions raised? By the way, delays in Kudankulam didn’t start with the announcement of the commissioning. There were repeated delays in the date of commissioning itself: Narayanasamy’s repeated assurances of the reactor starting in “the next 15 days” had become a laughing stock.

Can we rethink?

The world is moving towards sustainable and renewable energy sources which have become increasingly more efficient and viable.

After all the heavy investment in Kudankulam, deliberate neglect of environmental and safety concerns and the bulldozing of local people’s dissent, India has got a nuclear reactor that’s not working. Will policy-makers and their cheerleaders now stop and re-think?

It’s too dangerous to allow Kudankulam to fade away as it doesn’t suit the dominant interests that underpin the public gaze in India. The issue may have become unattractive for them or have simply outlived its shelf-life as a headline, but it concerns safety of Indian citizens, larger public policy on an issue of national importance and the emptiness of promises made to people to sell the expensive and dangerous project to them.

The world is moving towards sustainable and renewable energy sources which have become increasingly more efficient and viable.

After all the heavy investment in Kudankulam, deliberate neglect of environmental and safety concerns and the bulldozing of local people’s dissent, India has got a nuclear reactor that’s not working. Will policy-makers and their cheerleaders now stop and re-think?

It’s too dangerous to allow Kudankulam to fade away as it doesn’t suit the dominant interests that underpin the public gaze in India. The issue may have become unattractive for them or have simply outlived its shelf-life as a headline, but it concerns safety of Indian citizens, larger public policy on an issue of national importance and the emptiness of promises made to people to sell the expensive and dangerous project to them.