EPW Editorial | June 20 2013 issue

Lack of transparency around the Koodankulam Nuclear Project should worry all of us.

With the first unit of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) attaining criticality on 13 July 2013, has the controversy surrounding it ended? The plant has begun functioning a full 25 years after the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi signed an intergovernmental agreement with the then president Mikhail Gorbachev to import a pair of VVER pressurised water reactors. Due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the construction of the reactors started only in September 2001. At that time, it was expected that they would be commissioned in the December of 2007 and 2008. That the first unit has only started functioning now, nearly six years after the initial deadline, is not unusual in itself given the record of time and cost overruns in the Nuclear Power Corporation’s operating reactors elsewhere.

Koodankulam movementIt is also not surprising that people living in the vicinity of the plant opposed it from the very inception of the project because that has also been the case with all nuclear projects since the 1980s. What is unusual though is the scale of the opposition, with thousands of people engaging in a wide variety of creative protests even in the face of severe police repression, with a relay hunger strike that has lasted over 700 days, and with moral support from people around the world.

Through its multiple open letters and constant engagement with public debates, the group spearheading these protests, the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), has thrown up a number of questions ranging from the technical, to the institutional, to the political and to the ethical. An important recent intervention is PMANE’s Open Letter of 16 June 2013 that highlighted the various “irregularities and improprieties” concerning KKNPP that have come to light in the last year.

In response to a Right to Information (RTI) petition from PMANE, the Nuclear Power Corporation confirmed that a Russian company, Zio-Podolsk, has supplied the following equipment and parts to KKNPP: “Steam Generators, Cation and Anion Filters, Mechanical Filter, Moisture Separator and Reheater, Boric Solution Storage Tanks, Regenerative Blow Down Heat Exchanger, Pipelines and Fittings of Different Systems, Insulation Materials, PHRS Heat Exchanger.” The company has been accused of corruption and fraud and in February 2012, the Russian Federal Security Service arrested the procurement director of Zio-Podolsk on criminal charges, specifically for buying low-quality raw materials on the cheap, passing them off as high-quality materials, and pocketing the difference.

Such practices violate a very basic requirement of nuclear safety – the adoption of the highest standards of construction and manufacture. This is because all nuclear reactors are susceptible to catastrophic accidents that could result in high levels of radioactive contamination of large areas. Any compromises on the quality of the facility would augment the risks associated with a nuclear power plant. Furthermore, the Koodankulam reactors are of a relatively untested design, although the limited experience with them does suggest problems involving their control rods.

What is even more worrisome about the revelations of PMANE is the response from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) to another RTI petition from PMANE asking for “a list of those equipment and parts that have been supplied by Zio-Podolsk to the KKNPP units”. AERB responded on 12 February 2013 (No AERB/RSD/RTI/Appl. No 329/2013/2421): “Selection of a company for supplying any equipment to NPCIL, is not under the purview of AERB.” Given the charges facing Zio-Podolsk, AERB should have made it a point to find out what pieces of equipment came from Zio-Podolsk and check them extra carefully. Not doing so amounts in essence to dereliction of duty.

A number of other examples cited by PMANE suggest a basic lack of transparency. For instance, the manufacturer of the Koodankulam plant, Atomstroyexport, has no liability in the event of an accident. The government has refused to release the text of the intergovernmental agreement between India and Russia. In addition to the liability indemnification, one does not know what other egregious clauses the agreement may contain.

The government has brushed aside opposition to the plant by arguing that because Rs 17,000 crore have already been spent on the reactor, it has to be commissioned so that the investment already made is not wasted. This is hardly an acceptable argument when the project in question is a nuclear power plant. The government is surely aware, given the experience around the world, that the costs of a catastrophic accident will far exceed the initial investment. Unfortunately, the government’s determination to go ahead with KKNPP despite widespread opposition is paralleled by its actions at other proposed nuclear power plants. In the case of the Jaitapur nuclear power plant in Maharashtra, for example, the local population has clearly shown that they do not want this plant. Doubts have also been raised about the type of plant – again with no prior experience – being imported from France. Yet, as in Koodankulam, the authorities have decided to ignore protests, dismiss even technical doubts and push ahead. Whatever one thinks about nuclear power and safety, such an attitude is unacceptable and not conducive to a healthy democracy.