Rashmi Kohli

‘Like the sparrows, we will also vanish if the government continues with nuclear power reactors’ said one Chennai citizen reacting to the tsunami warning today (April 11). Despite the fact that that as of yet there has been next to no news on the implications of the tsunami with respect to the Koodankulam nuclear reactors under construction, Chennai residents are already reviewing their views on nuclear reactors. School teacher Meena Ramakrishnan said: ‘If in four months time the reactors are critical, and a tsunami happens, the reactors will not hold. We have brought this disaster upon ourselves.’

There was an earthquake tremor at 9.48 am Indian Time with the epicentre almost exactly in the same place near Sumatra as the 2004 tsunami. The tremor was followed by several aftershocks felt throughout south and east India which left journalists in a commotion as to when the tsunami warning was to be withdrawn or whether it ought to be extended. All the cell phone networks were congested and roads were heavily clogged in the Chennai metropolis leaving commuters stuck in traffic for up to four hours. Sun News has eventually reported that there is an official review meeting ongoing at Koodankulam and that work has been stopped for the day as workers evacuated.

Recognising that electricity is of a premium particularly in the cities, the need for power has also been artificially created. Unconfirmed sources have revealed that in the last two months, Tamil Nadu has been cut off from the central grid meaning that its power supply has been reduced by 800 MW, almost the same amount of electricity proposed from one Koodankulam reactor.

Pravin Kumar, IT engineer, ‘Since the reactors have not yet attained criticality, we are not yet that much afraid of it. I don’t support the reactor per se. But since there have been a structure in place, we will use it. There should be no second reactor. Such things cannot be allowed. Anyway Koodankulam is far away from us. People there have to fight it. We cannot directly get into protest mode. If you are so concerned you call Udayakumar and speak with him directly. I shall give you the phone number right now’.

It seems that even those who are not in the movement against nuclear energy know and respect the protesters. Udayakumar, leader of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, has persistently raised concerns over the reactors for being placed in not only a tsunami zone but also on a seismic fault and a region of small volcanic eruptions.

Kalpakkam is only 60 kilometres away from Chennai. Researcher Karthik said, ‘If the tsunami hits the Kalpakkam plant I will not be here. Our home would be the first to be affected. It is a ticking clock’.

Chennai residents are anti-plant and pro-power. Tremors are a visceral reminder of the horrors of December 2004. They have made them question their reliance on nuclear power. ‘We should be looking at alternative sources. People will not sleep tonight,’ said Karthik.

There are two main concerns should a tsunami hit Indian shores again: how would a reactor that was conceived in 1998 before many Indians had even heard the word tsunami be able to tolerate smashing waves against its structures? There are no independent reviews on this matter, for all the designated experts end up having some kind of allegiance to the Department of Atomic Energy which also supports the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. The tsunami at Fukushima in March 2011 flooded the generator rooms that meant there was no more electricity for the reactors which overheated. Moreover, the impact of a tsunami cannot be fully predicted or assessed and there is always something that is left out of even the most meticulous of disaster plans.

The second problem is how on earth would the government evacuate 1.5 million people from a 30 kilometre radius around the reactors in case of an emergency? Even to remove a lesser amount of people from the coasts in the case of a tsunami warning is proving to be a mammoth struggle as people get stuck on already clogged roads trying to escape the area. The government has not publicised its evacuation plans for nuclear disasters even though it has been compiled by the National Disaster Management Authority. They would prefer that the population lives in ignorance of emergency situations. But ignorance is not always bliss when it comes to the need to be prepared for the worst. This is not scaremongering but practical common sense.