It is famously said: “In public domain, truth is not the truth, perception is the truth”. This adage could be related to the discourse on the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP). While the arguments in favour of the plant is that it will generate electric power essential for ‘development’, People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) say that the plant will be ‘destructive’ to the life and livelihood of the Project Affected People (PAP).

While the touted ‘truth’-that the plant is the safest in the world- is couched in utmost secrecy, public ‘perception’-serious misgivings on the safety of the Plant is out in the open. As the nuclear establishment is racing towards the commissioning of the plant this perception among the PAP is increasing and not diminishing. And there are several reasons for this.

First and foremost, the project is being commissioned without any legal Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), a fact admitted by the Ministry of Environment & Forests in a sworn affidavit filed in the Madras High Court. According to this affidavit, environmental clearance for Units 1 and 2 was given ‘as early as 9th May 1989’ and renewed on 6th September 2001. Since EIA Notification under Environmental Protection Act came into existence only on 27th January, 1994 and provision for public hearing was introduced only on 10th April, 1997 there was no need for KKNPP to go through these critical processes.

Nuclear establishment has taken shelter behind this fig-leaf to ram a 2000 MW nuclear power plant down the throat of over 1.5 million PAP without even going through the most basic process of EIA and public hearing. What is more, Nuclear Power Corporation Limited (NPCL) has been consistently refusing to share the Site Evaluation (SE) and Safety Analysis Report (SAR) with the PAP.

This forced PMANE to appeal to the Central Information Commission who in turn ordered NPCL “to provide an attested photocopy of the SAR and SE Report after severing any proprietary details of designs provided by the suppliers to the appellant before 25 May, 2012.” But the NPCIL has refused arguing that SAR ‘is a third party document belonging to a Russian company’ and therefore ‘cannot be shared with anyone.’ NPCIL even threatened to take CIC to court. Obviously NPCL is more interested in protecting a Russian company (third party) than safeguarding the PAP (first party)!

In the face of such persistent stone-walling, the humble PMANE scientists dug deep and did some quality research. Result is the startling revelation that there has been a serious breach of contract and perhaps deceit in that the VVER reactor under commissioning at KKNPP differs from the one featured in the inter-governmental agreement between Russia and India. According to documents published in 2006, there was no weld on the beltline (middle portion) of the reactor pressure vessel (RPV). Now AERB says that there are two welds on the beltline of the RPV installed at KKNPP exposing it to high failure risk that could lead to offsite radiological contamination. If the reactor is hot-commissioned, it will be virtually impossible to subject the vessel to a detailed inspection and remediation. From a safety perspective, the IAEA-mandated study of pressurized thermal shock has to be done before commissioning the reactors at Kudankulam.

Pure fresh water is a critical input for KKNPP during operation as well as safety of the spent fuel. While approval for the plant was given in 1989, AERB mandated accessing of fresh water-from two reservoirs through pipelines with an on-campus reserve of 60,000 cubic meters, sufficient to maintain the spent fuel pool and the reactor cores (under shutdown mode) for 30 days. These sources are not available and have been replaced by four imported seawater desalination plants with a reserve of 12,000 cubic meters of water i.e. just 20% of what was stipulated by AERB and that too from artificial source. This is serious breach of safety, because fresh water is the only remedy in the event of a nuclear emergency.

All these takes us to an essential pre-requisite before the plant is commissioned-mock evacuation drills in the 30 km or at least the 16 km radius of the project. This has not been done. On June 9, 2012, the Tirunelveli district administration and the NPCL officials went through some motions in the remote hamlet of Nakkaneri of hardly 300 people and claimed that the ‘mock drill’ was a great success. According to a fact-finding team that went to the village subsequently, on that day revenue officials accompanied by a large posse of policemen came to the village, got some papers signed and announced it as ‘mock-evacuation drill’. The district administration as well as NPCIL has been extremely secretive in the matter!

No EIA, no public hearing, no sharing of Site Evaluation and Safety Analysis, no natural fresh-water, no evacuation drill and to cap it all breach of contract and installation of low quality Pressure Vessel. By all accounts it is ‘no-go’ for the project. The least the nuclear establishment should do is to defer the commissioning process and undertake a comprehensive review and analysis of all the fears expressed. While doing so the two cataclysmic events-2004 Tsunami and 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster-that rocked this part of the world since KKNPP was given ‘environmental clearance’ should be factored in.

Heavens are not going to fall if a few hundred megawatts of nuclear power are not added to the grid in a mad hurry. Much more important is the safety of the plant in the perception of the PAP.
(Author is the Convener of PMANE Expert Team)