PM’s Volte-Face

 

Mood was quite upbeat when the anti-nuclear activist delegation addressed a press conference last Friday (7th September) after meeting the Prime Minister. The PM, acting upon a Resolution adopted by Tamil Nadu State Cabinet last month after a 12-day long mass hunger-strike, promised the delegation in the afternoon that the work will be immediately stopped at Koodankulam nuclear power plant site and an expert committee with the movement’s representation would be set up to look into the issue.

Speaking to the press conference facilitated by the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP), leading activists Dr. S P Udayakumar, Bishop Yuvon Ambroise of Tuticorin Latin Catholic Diocese and M. Pushparayan described the resilience of the two decade old movement and the way it has been able to mobilize support across parties and communities in the region. Dr. S P Udayakumar also gave a detailed description of problems with the projects – its environmental impacts, safety concerns, its adverse effects on people’s livelihood and questioned the very rationale of the project.

However, even before the delegation reached back to Chennai, it came to know of two documents posted on the Prime Minister Office’s website – a press release and a personal letter from the PM to the Tamilnadu Chief Minister Ms. Jayalalita. In the press release, there is no clear assurance of stopping the work and even the expert committee has been given a very limited mandate to ‘interact’ with people and allay their fears regarding safety of KNPP. In his letter to the Chief Minister, the PM has sought her continued support for completion of the Koodankulam nuclear project.

The letter also talks about assurance given by NPCIL for the safety of Koodankulam reactors, while completely evading any reference to Russian agencies own safety audit done after Fukushima in which they have outlined 31 serious safety concerns, including with the VVER design that is being constructed in Koodankulam, in the eventuality of a major accident.

The PM talked about ‘welfare work’ done in the area by the NPCIL, but it is a standard practice of nuclear corporates worldwide to bribe government officials on one hand and to spent money on local infrastructure on the other to get support while imperilling people’s future and livelihood in the long run.

Manmohan Singh’s letter to Tamilnadu CM tries to reduce the entire range of issues raised by the movement to some misplaced over-reaction to Fukushima and essentially looks at it as a PR problem.

After Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s backtracking act on his promise, the people protesting against the Koodankulam Nuclear power Plant have decided to resume their struggle. The Struggle Committee has given an ultimatum to the central Government to stop the construction work in Koodankulam by October 11th. More than 7,000 people observed a token fast at Idinthakarai on Monday and vowed to intensify the struggle.

Dr. S P Udayakumar of People’s Movement Against nuclear Energy (PMANE) has expressed his dismay over the PM’s volte-face. Noting that the work at KNPP had not been suspended so far, he said “So, we staged the token hunger protest today. During the fast, representatives of people from various areas met and decided to continue the fast till Tuesday. We have urged the State government to again press the Centre to suspend the work at KNPP based on the (State) Cabinet’s resolution, and the Centre should respect the resolution.” Leading Koodankulam activist M.Pushparayan said that the movement would now put pressure on the State Government to suspend the construction work immediately and have an open dialogue with people. On the Prime Minister’s letter to CM Ms. Jayalalitha, he has been quoted saying “Centre is not concerned about the safety and security of the Tamils.”

The PMANE convenors  said “We urge the Tamil Nadu government to ensure that its resolution is enacted upon and the works on this nuclear power plant are stopped immediately.”

Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) in its statement has called this attitude of Central government unfortunate and undemocratic.  Greenpeace India has also criticized the government for reducing the issue to PR (public relations). The movement in Koodankulam has also got support from Kerela.

Dividing people for nuclear power

In another very unfortunate development, the intelligence agencies have been reported to be doing religious profiling of the agitators and probing the role of Church in “instigating the fishermen and local populace to scuttle future deals with Russia”.  Incidentally, majority of the fishing communities in the region is Christian and it results in active participation of their community and religious organisations. But using this fact for a divisive tactics in already delicate communal fabric of Indian politics would be mischievous on part of the authorities and their supportive media. Speaking to the press conference in Delhi on Friday, both Dr. S P Udayakumar and Bishop of Tuticorin had underscored the broad-based and multi-religious nature of the protests.

Media Offensive by the Nuclear Establishment

After the people’s movement forced the State Government to change its stance, the nuclear establishment in India seems to have gone on a media offensive. Senior DAE scientists like M R Srinivasan and Srikumar Bannerjee have labelled the protests misplaced and claimed that not only the Koodankulam project, but the all the nuclear facilities in India are fail-proof when it comes to safety. The AEC Chairman has denied any rethink on the project despite protests.

However, the nuclear establishment is completely avoiding the crucial questions regarding nuclear safety in India:

  • On the VVER design being installed in Koodankulam, the Russian agencies themselves have raised serious safety issues, while our nuclear theocrats are giving it a clean chit.
  • In case of Jaitapur, more than 3000 serious safety issues with Areva’s EPR reactor design have been highlighted by safety regulatory bodies of Finland (STUK), UK (HSE), France (ASN) and EU. Engineers working on the EPR have serious apprehensions of a “Chernobyl style” meltdown in the design because both the materials and workmanship were substandard, as per leaked EDF documents. In 2009, safety authorities had issued a joint request for EPR design improvement. The American Nuclear Regulatory Council (NRC) has also delayed the safety certification for the EPR for a year. Independent experts have raised serious questions on safety and viability of EPR projects.
  • Contrary to the government’s claims, India has a poor record when it comes to nuclear safety. A list of serious nuclear accidents in the recent past can be seen here.
  • Far from being open about safety issues, the DAE is known to be utterly secretive and undemocratic. The nuclear establishment has a history of avoiding public scrutiny by labelling its own safety audits ‘top secret’. The nuclear establishment has also badly victimized the whistle blowers and critics in the past.
  • The post-Fukushima safety review in India has been hastily done by NPCIL, the nuclear operator itself, in one month whereas in other countries have gone for detailed process. The report does a rather selective reading of events in Fukushima in the first place and, not surprisingly, has come out with reassurances about nuclear installations in India being totally safe. In the wake of Fukushima, people and independent experts had raised serious issues but for the government it remains just a public relations exercise.
  • In case of a Fukushima-like accident, people of India are left helpless as the government’s Nuclear Liability Bill caps the maximum liability arbitrarily. Even the watered-down provision for suppliers liability is not acceptable to the American and other international nuclear corporate and these countries are pushing India to do away with the suppliers liability and ratify the CSC.
  • The proposed Nuclear Safety Authority and Regulatory Bill 2011 which the PM has lauded in his letter to Ms. Jayalalitha, has been widely criticized for being toothless. Not only the new NSRA’s jurisdiction and role be even more limited than the existing AERB, the govt has overarching powers to supersede it and take any installation out of its purview citing ‘national security’ imperatives.  The NSRA bill provides no security to the whistle-blowers.

Besides safety, the people’s movement in Koodankulam has raised wider issues of environmental impact, displacement and livelihood, economic rational of the project and undermining of basic democratic principles by the authorities in pushing for it. In the light of protests in places like Koodankulam, Jaitapur, Mithivirdi, Fatehabad and Chutka, the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace  (CNDP) and other civil society organisations have asked for a open national consultation on nuclear energy. The government would do well to heed to these voices rather than undemocratically imposing a dangerous nuclear expansion on people of this country and using divisive tactics and dubious propaganda for this purpose.