Suvrat Raju and M V Ramana

(Courtesy: THE HINDU)

Villagers living around Koodankulam are justifiably scared as empirical data suggest a far higher probability of accidents than claimed by the nuclear establishment

Contempt for democracy is as old as democracy itself. The British liberal, John Locke, wrote in 1695 that for “day-labourers and tradesmen, the spinsters and dairy-maids … hearing plain commands, is the sure and only course to bring them to obedience and practice. The greatest part cannot know, and therefore they must believe.” The Indian ruling classes have evidently taken these medieval ideas to heart. They are simply unable to acknowledge, anywhere in India, that farmers and working-class people may have a valid and independent perspective on infrastructural projects that must be respected.

The strife in Koodankulam illustrates this attitude. When peaceful rallies against the plant started in 1988, immediately after the project was mooted, the police responded with live ammunition. At the public hearing for the environmental impact assessment of the proposed units 3 to 6, the project met with overwhelming opposition; the government simply ignored this. Last year, when the commissioning of the first reactor became imminent, a large body of people shifted from sporadic expressions of opposition to active but non-violent resistance. The Jayalalitha government stalled for a while but soon — possibly after striking a political deal with the Manmohan Singh government — rolled ahead with the project. The recent incidents of state repression — in which one person was killed in police firing and paramilitary forces were seen literally driving villagers into the sea — form the latest addition to this pattern.

‘Foreign hand’

Government officials apparently subscribe to the axiom that they understand the interests of the local people better than the people themselves. This is why they tie themselves into bizarre knots, when faced with genuine dissent. For example, earlier this year, the Prime Minister’s Office started insisting that a “foreign hand” was guiding the protests. In an incident straight out of an Orwell novel, the police captured and deported a cash-strapped German backpacker who had almost no relation to the movement. Since the removal of this “mastermind” from the scene has regrettably not had the desired effects, the Home Minister has again started to see visions of “foreign nationals” near the Koodankulam plant.

Lower-level officials seem to be no different. As the Superintendent of Police, Tirunelveli, said succinctly: “the villagers are good. They are being instigated.” This point of view is echoed by pundits who are concerned that the “educated” leadership might get the presumably “uneducated” villagers to act against their “own best interests.” What the Union Ministers, the police and the pundits have in common is a profound contempt for the rights and abilities of ordinary people to control their lives, combined with an ignorance of the actual dynamics of the movement.

All available information suggests that the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) largely comprises the local villagers and fisherfolk. If these people had been as “gullible” as the government claims, its large-scale propaganda campaign emphasising the benign nature of the plant would have succeeded.

The locals are not being irrational. To the contrary, it is the top echelons of our technocracy which have persisted in making scientifically untenable statements. For example, the previous Chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission stated that the chance of a nuclear accident in India was “one in infinity”! It is easy for people, even without specialised knowledge, to weigh this against the patent evidence from Fukushima offered by TV screens around the world — that nuclear reactors can and do explode on occasion — and decide not to trust the assertions of “experts”.

More quantitative comparisons do not change the broad picture. By means of a process known as probabilistic risk assessment, the nuclear industry routinely trots out precise-looking figures, claiming that the probability of a severe accident is very low. However, empirical data from the past decades of nuclear plant operation sharply contradict these claims and suggest a far higher probability of accidents. This obvious dichotomy has engendered public distrust, and nuclear technocrats have only themselves to blame for this.

It is unclear whether the industry itself believes its safety claims. The manufacturer of the Koodankulam plant, Atomstroyexport, is protected by an intergovernmental agreement between India and Russia, which completely absolves it of any responsibility in the event of a disaster. This agreement is probably inconsistent with India’s domestic laws and judgments of the Supreme Court.

The government has refused to release the text of the agreement despite a Right to Information request, a court petition, and even a parliamentary question, leading to the suspicion that it contains clauses that are even more egregious than commonly suspected.

The government points out that India has never suffered a catastrophic accident. However, India’s total operating experience of about 350 reactor years — a tiny fraction of the world total of about 15,000 reactor years — is too low to allow a valid extrapolation into the future.

If anything, the risk of a nuclear accident in India is likely to be higher than elsewhere because of weaknesses in the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). As the Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out in its recent scathing report, the AERB remains “subordinate to the Central Government,” which also operates all nuclear plants in India. The CAG report also stated that the AERB had failed to develop a mechanism to ensure regulatory compliance or oversee the procedures for radiological emergencies.

On Koodankulam, the AERB is unwilling to take its own reports seriously. After Fukushima, an AERB committee recommended that reactors must have sufficient power back-up and freshwater supply for emergency cooling of the reactor and spent fuel pools; the use of seawater for this purpose can corrode a reactor. Instead of ensuring this, the AERB has simply accepted the government’s promise that it will construct a water tank, and provide a mobile diesel generator sometime in the future. The locals have no way of holding the government to account on this assurance.

The fisherfolk near Koodankulam are also worried that the routine operation of the nuclear plant will adversely affect their livelihood. Rather than engaging with these concerns constructively, which it could easily have done, the government has simply dismissed them with more expert opinions.

Impact on health

There have been a few independent epidemiological studies of the health of people living in the vicinity of nuclear facilities. One study compared the health status of the inhabitants of five villages within 10 km of the Rajasthan atomic power station and four other villages more than 50 km away. It observed statistically significant increases in several indices including the rates of congenital deformities, spontaneous abortions, still births, and solid tumours in the villages closer to the reactor.

This survey does not reveal the precise cause of these differences but, in the absence of any other plausible factor, indicates that it is the nuclear plant that is responsible in some way.

The Koodankulam-1 plant will augment Tamil Nadu’s total installed capacity by about 5 per cent. The question is whether this benefit justifies the risks and costs associated with the plant. For an individual or corporation based in Chennai, the risks may be small enough to be outweighed even by marginal benefits. But the people who are being asked to bear the brunt of the risk and the inconvenience caused by the plant — the locals near Koodankulam — will benefit only minimally.

The government could determine how the locals balance these factors through a meaningful dialogue with the PMANE or direct public consultations. Instead it wants to force them to trust the decisions of its officials and experts. This brings us to the central issue at stake in Koodankulam: is the course of development in India to be charted only by technocrats guided by corporate and upper-class priorities or will India move towards a true democracy where people have control of their own resources and environment?

(The authors are physicists with the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (Bangalore) and Princeton University respectively. Ramana is also the author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India, forthcoming from Penguin India. The views expressed are personal.)