by Praful Bidwai

Economic and Political Weekly

January 3, 1987

This article from 1987 describes the planning stages of, and opposition to, the Kaiga Nuclear Atomic Power Station in Karnataka, India. The plant was eventually built in spite of the problems described below. The first three units went critical in 2000, and a fourth was switched on in 2010. All of the four units are small-sized CANDU reactors of 220 MW. Two additional reactors are planned for the site, to be opened in 2024-25. The most well-known safety incident in the plant’s history occurred in 2009 when about 100 workers were exposed to increased levels of tritium from a contaminated water cooler believed to have been poisoned by a disgruntled worker, who was not apprehended.

This is the first digitized version of the article by Praful Bidwai that first appeared in print in 1987.

After battling it for months, the Department of Environment (DOEn) of the government of India has finally genuflected before the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and cleared the controversial Kaiga nuclear power project in north Karnataka. The decision to grant approval to the 2×235 megawatt station was taken, as most such decisions tend to be taken nowadays, at ‘the highest political level.’ The manner in which it was reached is itself illustrative of both of the way the DAE functions and of the nature of the process of nuclear decision-making in the country.

In the first place, what is remarkable about the Kaiga episode is that the DOEn should have raised an objection to the DAE’s proposal early last year. Such a thing was of course wholly unprecedented: the powerful nuclear establishment of the country had until then never had occasion to be questioned by another department of the government. But, secondly, it is equally noteworthy that’s the DOEn’s objection was not based on the questioning of the safety of the DAE’s nuclear reactors, nor on the potentially adverse impact on the environment of accidental releases of radioactivity from the proposed station. Rather it was focused more narrowly on two issues. The first related to a dispute over the interpretation of an earlier clearance granted by the DOEn to the two proposed reactors, as distinct from the project as a whole, which includes, besides reactors, several auxiliary facilities and an entire new township complete with a housing colony, schools, markets and banks, and provided with approach roads and civic infrastructure. The DAE interpreted the clearance of the reactors as being synonymous with approval of the project as a whole, although there is a substantial difference between the two. The DOEn disagreed.

The second component of the DOEn’s objection pertained to one aspect of the immediate impact of the project on the local environment, in particular the destruction of a tropical rainforest in the Kaiga valley of Uttara Karnataka the construction of the housing colony would involve. The DAE wanted to site the colony, occupying over 400 acres of land, on top of a hill about 30 km away from the plant, rather than at Mallapur village adjacent to it. Interestingly, several DAE engineers were themselves opposed to the location insisted on by the DAE secretary, Raja Ramanna, as that would involve an hour’s drive along hilly slopes and bends to reach the plant proper from the colony. They argued that locating the housing complex so far away could make no sense in simple operational terms, especially in case of an emergency at the plant.

But even more interestingly, Ramanna urged that the prestigious project demanded an equally special, indeed unique, site for the colony, even if that meant the wanton destruction of hundreds of thousands of trees, cutting up a lush-green hill and exposing a reserved virgin forest to encroachment by contractors. With its degraded forest, Mallapur, he said, was like a ‘slum’; he owed it to the DAE staff to ensure that they don’t have to live in a slum. Hence, they must be given the best, the most spectacular, location with a panoramic view of the entire Kaiga valley. They deserved a new hill station. Besides, siting the housing colony on the hilltop would obviate the need for air conditioners. And in any case, the DAE would plant many trees and beautify the area; had it not done so on the pretty campus of the BARC at Trombay?

The DOEn, for its part, conceded that the potential benefit from the project to a certain extent justifies its environmental cost in the form of destruction of the rainforest; but it argued that the destruction ought to be limited by siting the housing colony at Mallapur. It also maintained that the clearance granted earlier to the two reactors was not tantamount to approval for the colony and approach roads as well; and it pointed out that the DAE had not even bothered to submit a complete proposal before announcing that it was going ahead with the project, starting, inevitably, with the housing colony. In its Performance Budget for 1986-87, the DAE had already announced commencement of work on Kaiga and allotted funds without waiting for the DOEn’s clearance.

As the battle raged on, the prime minister himself told the Lok Sabha on November 12 that the center had not till then taken a decision on the location of an atomic plant in Karnataka. “We will definitely consider the location of the plant on the merits of the case.” He also said that India “has one of the best safety records in atomic energy, but there is one area where we have a weakness and that is our capacity to cope with a situation in case of an accident.”

But exactly four days later, the DAE ‘clarified’ that the Lok Sabha report by a news agency (PTI) was incorrect and that ‘the Centre’ (whatever that may mean) had already announced “its decision to set up a nuclear power station… at Kaiga in Karnataka.”

Meanwhile, pressure mounted on the DAE to give up the hill station plan and agree to locate the housing colony at Mallapur. It agreed to do so at the intervention of the prime minister’s secretariat. The DOEn in turn dropped its objections and cleared the project. The trade-off, however lopsided it might have been, was completed.

The whole episode not only highlights the arrogant posture of the DAE—a characteristic of the department which has always resisted scrutiny by any other agency. It also exposes the sloppy nature of the system of environmental impact assessment that is prevalent even in respect of projects based on hazardous technologies. Kaiga is indeed a prime example of a project that should never have been cleared on environmental grounds.

There are several persuasive reasons why the project proposal should have been rejected outright. First, the Kaiga valley probably has the last vestiges of a tropical rainforest left in one of the more vulnerable parts of the Western Ghats, themselves among the most gravely threatened ecosystems of the country. It is impossible to regenerate a virgin rainforest; a forest is not just a plantation. There is thus a strong case for leaving undisturbed a delicate and precariously balanced rainforest-based ecosystem by disallowing all industrial or mining activity in the area.

Secondly, the project is located within a 50 km distance from no fewer than six reservoirs on the Kali river; it will itself draw water (for final removal of the heat generated in the reactor) from the proposed dam to be located next to it. If past experience with reservoirs in the Deccan Plateau region—in particular with the Koyna and Panshet dams and the disasters that befell them—is any guide, the Kaiga site must be considered problematic from the geological point of view.

Thirdly, the site falls within seismic zone III, close to its boundary with zone II, according to the revised Seismic Zoning Map of India (15: 1893: 1975). A primary deep-seated northwest-southeast fault, reflected in the ONGC’s Tectonic Map of India, which runs from near the Cauvery basin up to Ratnagiri, lies just about 70 km northeast of Kaiga. There is another northeast-southwest trending fault passing through the Tungabhadra river and close to Raichur; this is also within 70 km of the site. And yet another northeast-southwest trending fault, postulated by the Geological Survey of India, which runs up to the Tungabhadra dam and curves down towards Nagarjunasagar is only 60 km southeast of Kaiga.

In addition, there are four other faults which lie within 25 km to 115 km of the Kaiga plant site. A UNESCO expert, Gubin, who studied the Koyna event, suggests another Western Ghats fault, prom Panvel in Maharashtra to Calicut in Kerala, emerging from beneath the Deccan traps near Sawantwadi, just 25 km east of the site. It is postulated that the Koyna fault which lies 225 km northwest of Kaiga is an extension of the Western Ghats fault. Besides there are several clusters of earthquake epicenters close to Kaiga with magnitudes going up to 5 on the Richter scale.

Fourthly, as if this were not bad enough, the Kaiga site is less than 30 km, as the crow flies, from the massive naval base coming up at Karwar. Thus, the plant is potentially an important military target in the event of war. It needs no deep analysis to predict what the dropping of a few small conventional bombs on the Kaiga reactors would achieve; it would precipitate a disaster much worse than the Chernobyl catastrophe, poisoning vast stretches of land and contaminating the air, water and the food chain with dangerous radionuclides.

And finally, even if the problems posed by the destruction of Kaiga’s tropical rainforests and by the displacement of thousands of people from near the site were somehow to be solved, or rather, to be ignored, the basic question of nuclear safety would still remain. There are three components to this: the generic problems of nuclear reactor safety; the specific features of the CANDU design which themselves posit the possibility of a Chernobyl-type accident; and the DAE’s own record in matters of nuclear safety.

Along with 150 serious nuclear accidents all over the world, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have shown that no reactor design anywhere in the world is acceptably or reasonably safe. It has also become clear that the prevalent designs have all matured, i.e., reached the limits of their potentialities and cannot be improved significantly any further for safety.

The CANDU design—based on natural uranium as fuel and heavy water as moderator and coolant—which the DAE has borrowed from Canada, has some distressing features, most importantly, a “positive void coefficient of reactivity” (a characteristic that ensures that a power surge in the reactor leads to the formation of more bubbles in the coolant which in turn only reinforces the surge and precipitates a runaway nuclear reaction leading to a potential fuel meltdown). This is a feature the CANDU reactor shares with the Chernobyl-type design.

And as for the DAE’s own appalling safety record—documented in “The State of India’s Environment: The Second Citizens’ Report” of the Centre of Science and Environment and elsewhere—the less said the better barring that it inspires no confidence whatsoever. Just the contrary; it would be perfectly reasonable for the people living close by to apprehend that the Kaiga station will jeopardise their safety and well-being, by exposing them to ‘routine’—but by no means harmless—releases of radioactivity into the air and water, poisoning the land, vegetation, water and animals and , most of all by presenting to them the permanent threat of a catastrophic accident that could spell the death of tens of thousands.

Such threats become all the more menacing because, as Rajiv Gandhi has himself confessed in a lucid moment, there is simply no plan for evacuation and because of the “weakness” of our “capacity to cope with the situation in case of an accident.” It hardly needs to be added that in a thickly populated and primarily agricultural or biomass-based country, the human and environmental consequences of a nuclear accident will be incomparably worse than in Europe.

It is precisely on account of such considerations that a popular movement to resist the Kaiga project has now arisen in Karnataka. At least three organisations have emerged in the state which have been campaigning against the Kaiga project. Besides criticising the proposal on grounds of safety and lack of manageability, they have also persuasively shown that the project has little relevance for Karnataka’s energy needs; indeed that it is not even necessary. These groups appear to have struck roots among the local population: no fewer than 100,000 people have signed a petition against the Kaiga station. One would have hoped that the government, in particular the DOEn, might at least in token recognition of and in the wake of the Chernobyl catastrophe take their arguments into consideration before clearing the project. Certainly, with such a strong case against it, Kaiga at least deserved a wide public debate, if not a sustained public hearing on the question of nuclear safety and the location of atomic power stations. But that was not to be. Clearly, the DAE has once again had its way, this time at the expense of the people of Karnataka and at the cost of the safety of millions who live in the Deccan or close to it.