Rashmi Kohli

Soon after the mock drill and hot run at the Koodankulam reactor in August 2011, the Department for Atomic Energy scientists argued that by stopping work on the reactors, the agitating people are creating a dangerous situation because some of the processes are not reversible. But the reality is, not only are the nuclear power plant stopped for regular maintenance and emergency monitoring, in various cases, operational reactors had been shut down for reasons pertaining to popular disapproval, safety and costs.

Now that Reactor 1 has been given the go-ahead at the Koodankulam Nuclear Power plant on March 19, 2012, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited and those who support them assume that the game is over, that the protesters have been defeated, and that a major irreversible process has occurred in nuclear expansion.

The nuclear authorities sold the commissioning of the reactors in that they will provide a solution for meeting the power crisis on a false PR basis. The nuclear plant will not be in a position to actually provide electricity until a year down the line.While the Tamil media is abuzz with how start-up of Koodankulam has actually eased the power shortage in Tamil Nadu, the reactor has definitely not been commissioned and started commercial operation. Newspapers such as the Dinamalar that kow-tows to the nuclear authorities has already reported that the Tamil Nadu’s state power crisis has been resolved (March 23) even though the reactors are not even operating. Whilst the peaceful resistance has been on, there have been systematic increases in power cuts that have reached all the way to Chennai so as people buy into the idea of there being a desperate power crisis in the state.

The NPCIL needs AERB clearance before the start-up. After the delay in the last 3-4 months, the reactors require a through check-up and drill. There is news that Croatian experts are being invited to recheck equipment and vessels in the Koodankulam plant. For actual commercial operation, it would take several months, so the entire urgency of helping Tamil Nadu’s power supply in the summer was nothing more than a misleading PR exercise.

Each 1000 MW reactor after energy distribution losses will only be able to provide about 300 MW to the cities where it is intended. After all, who would invest such vast sums in the power plant for neighbouring villages who will only feel the brunt of increased radiation not electricity throughout their surroundings.

Elsewhere, nuclear reactors have been stopped even after being built and even going critical. They have been stopped mainly for two reasons: the exorbitant costs in running them without the buffer of subsidies; and, civil action groups who have successfully mobilised against the nuclear authorities demanding that proper evacuation and safety procedures be followed. It is due to these obstacles that nuclear companies are turning to the east to fulfil their corporate ambitions because building them in the west has proven to be too much bother than it’s worth.

India has now become the main dumping ground for nuclear technologies. For instance, the merged General Electric-Westinghouse in a previous life had built a nuclear boiling water reactor in East Shoreham in New York between 1973 and 1984. But it was never operated as in 1984 the Suffolk County Legislature had voted that the county could not be safely evacuated in the event of a nuclear accident. The plant was fully decommissioned in 1994. It has now been converted to a natural gas-based power plant.

It has proved easier for the company to locate nuclear technologies in places such as Jaitapur in India rather than their home turf, particularly after allowances permitted by the Indo-US nuclear civilian agreement and laxity in the Nuclear Liability Bill.

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited has not even publicised or conducted its evacuation plans for those in its 30 kilometres radius in south India. Legislature in India cedes to the expertise of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, itself manned with people approved by the Department for Atomic Energy. There is never any independent expertise as all those with nuclear expertise have a certain obligation to the state that employs it.

The William H. Zimmer nuclear power plant in Ohio was converted to fuel combustion when it was 97% complete. In 1982, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that the plant was poorly constructed, including two instances of defective pipe welds, that industrial safety documents had been forged, and imposed a record-high fine of US $200,000 as well as halting construction work on the plant.

The Midland Cogeneration Facility, Michigan was originally designed as a nuclear power plant with twin pressurised water reactors. It was terminated in 1984 when it was 85 per cent complete after 17 years and over $4 billion US dollars in investment. Fluor Engineering converted the unfinished plant to a combined-cycle, natural-gas-fired cogeneration facility.

In Seabrooke in the USA’s New Hampshire state, two reactors had been planned from 1976. But they too never saw the light of day as completed structures for the project ran into construction delays, accelerating costs, and financial problems. By the time the first unit was completed in 1990 more than a thousand anti-nuclear activists had been arrested. A further four thousand engaged in non-violent civil disobedience in an effort to stop the plant over a thirteen year period. These included eminent people such as the Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis. They all raised environmental issues and lambasted the shortcomings in emergency evacuation plans.

Notice that all these stopped reactors were in the west where civilian action and greater safety standards have made the projects unviable. Notice the pressure exerted on senators by nuclear companies for the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement, so as they could continue operations in India where such issues are believed to be of less importance as less value is put on human life in India. Notice too how these very companies have made deals with India in their own interests where they cannot be held to account for liabilities in India. This all means that Indian people are being given a raw deal from state governments and multinational companies. They will be the ones to bear the brunt of any hazards or problems with the reactors.

Indian nuclear officials and scientists believe that just because a technology is new, that it would be a shiney improvement on what preceded it. There is no basis for such simplistic thinking as new technology also implies less tested technologies, and we all know that technology can be unpredictable even as we try to put on a computer or television set.

Post-Fukushima, Japan has stopped 48 of its 52 reactors almost overnight. It is believed that they will not re-start them. Already having lived through the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese people were sold a massive lie that has returned to them again in a recurrent nightmare.

Germany has up until last year received 25% of its electricity from nuclear energy using 17 reactors – much more than the measly 3% produced currently in India despite crores of rupees in funding. From 1998, a coalition government developed the policy to phase it out. It was cancelled with the new government in 2009 and then reintroduced in 2011 with eight reactors shut down immediately. Five of these are VVER-440 units (Pressurised Water Reactors) similar to the ones built at Koodankulam. The majority of the public recognise the dangers and exorbitant subsidisation of nuclear power. To oppose nuclear reactors is not seen as a threat to national security as it is in India. This is also one reason why nuclear officials do not trust the Germans on the assumption that all Germans in India are anti-nuclear and therefore a security risk as is clearly demonstrated by the outrageous deportation of Rainer Sondaag from Kanyakumari District last year.

Other countries such as Switzerland have also planned to phase out their nuclear reactors by 2034. So why is India not listening?

It seems that the so-called developed world is moving away from nuclear energy whilst those in the so-called developing world are turning to it with a vengeance. A large percentage of the Indian energy budget is allocated to nuclear power. Just like unused dams in Mexico, they are waiting in the ranks to become elephant’s graveyards. Only these elephant bones glow.

Elsewhere, nuclear power stations are being turned into museums as signs of an obsolete and cost-ineffective technology. After people expressed their concerns about where to put the radioactive waste in Austria, it was decided that the nuclear reactor at Zwentendorf could be a museum for failed technologies. Koodankulum is also a technology that despite all the latest innovations and safety procedures is one that is destined to fail. This failure may not be obvious as radiation is released and invisibly weaves its way through the air, sea and people.

It is imperative that people make sure the Koodankulam nuclear power plant also becomes obsolete and the crores of rupees that are dedicated to nuclear authorities be put to scientific and technological research in newer, less dangerous and obsolete forms of energy production for India.