Peter Custers in The Daily Star

The struggle did not gain the same national prominence as the hunger strike waged by Anna Hazare. Yet a landmark it surely was — in the history of India’s nuclear programme. On August 17, a group of activists started a hunger strike near Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu. It was directed against plans of the Indian government to commission a 1,000 MW nuclear plant.

From the very start it was apparent that this was not a struggle waged by a small disgruntled minority. It was both preceded and accompanied by mass demonstrations in which thousands of fisher-folk from surrounding villages took part. Moreover, whereas the Gandhian-style protests were temporarily suspended in late August, they were resumed after the Department of Energy (DAE) indicated it would ignore the protestors’ demand.

Then, in the second phase starting September 11, the movement peaked once more. This time, over a hundred people, including priests and nuns, went on an indefinite hunger strike in the village of Idinthakarai. Every day 10 thousand people or more would gather from the surrounding area to demonstrate their support. And every day support kept expanding, as students boycotted schools, merchants closed their shops, and gruel kitchens were set up in adjacent villages where fisher-folk refused to go out to catch fish.

This time Tamil Nadu’s politicians just had to respond. On September 19, Chief Minister Jayalalitha wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, insisting that the protestors should be heard.

Jayalalitha’s move capped an initial success for the protests, which arguably are the most widespread and sustained local protest ever to have occurred against nuclear energy in India. They closely follow on the open discontent which earlier this year was registered against nuclear construction plans in Jaitapur, along the coast of Maharashtra. Both Jaitapur and Koodankulam are crucial links in India’s plans to expand its reliance on nuclear energy.

The technology for the new nuclear plants in Jaitapur is to be supplied by the French company Areva, while the reactors being installed at the plants in Koodankulam are Russian in origin. They are known as the “VVER-1000/392” design. Though based on a design for light-water reactors that have been in use for long, the design is a new variant. Indian scientists have for long questioned whether Russia’s VVER-1000 technology is safe.

Doubts have further been fuelled by last March’s Fukushima disaster in Japan, and by the new assessments on nuclear safety made since then. In a report leaked to environmental organisations in June, an amalgam of Russian state agencies admitted that Russia’s nuclear industry is extremely vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters. Some 31 security flaws were listed. The document amongst others questions the capacity of Russian reactors to continue functioning safely if cooling systems fail. It also pinpoints the risks of hydrogen explosions.

Sergei Kiriyenko, the chief of Russia’s nuclear coordinating body Rosatom, said that the deficiencies could be overcome if only enough money was forthcoming (!). But Indian critics don’t feel re-assured. Fisher-folk in the south of Tami Nadu are also concerned that the dependence of the light-water reactors on sea water for cooling, and the flushing of effluents into the sea, will seriously disrupt the ecology along their coast.

Furthermore, Koodankulam protesters have pointed their finger at experiences gathered at Kalpakkam, the nuclear complex located close to Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai. In fact, here the wider significance of their movement becomes quickly evident. For the Kalpakkam complex does not just harbour a nuclear power plant, but also a reprocessing facility, i.e. a plant where nuclear fuel rods, after they have outlived their use in reactors, are chemically treated so as to extract raw materials for re-use as energy source.

This method of reprocessing nuclear fuel rods has always been defended as an appropriate way to dispose of dangerous nuclear waste, i.e. as a way of “recycling.” Yet nuclear reprocessing results in new waste, which is the most damaging industrial waste in the entire nuclear production chain. For it is high-level waste. It has to be stored in nuclear waste tanks for an indefinite period of time. In the past, the storage of high-level waste in tanks had resulted in catastrophic accidents, notably in Cheliabinsk (former Soviet Union).

The nuclear fuel rods from the reactors at Koodankulam, once depreciated, will most likely be reprocessed at Kalpakkam. Yet Kalpakkam has already proven to be a dangerous hotspot. Here, in January 2003, a valve connecting a high-level radioactive liquid waste tank and a low level waste tank leaked, leading to radiation exposure for at least six employees, an unknown number of deaths, and temporary closure of Kalpakkam’s main plant. The Kalpakkam nuclear complex also holds the dubious distinction of having been flooded when the devastating tsunami of 2004 struck.

Kalpakkam hence is an additional reason for worries. Not least because of the fact that the nuclear complex harbours a test reactor constructed towards enabling India to build a plutonium economy. Indian peace activists have expressed suspicions that the plutonium separated at Indian civilian reprocessing facilities will be diverted and used to increase the country’s stock of atomic weapons. These suspicions have not been allayed by recent developments.

Since the beginning of this year, India boasts three reprocessing plants. Further, the US government has in principle granted the Indian government permission to domestically reprocess fuel elements from reactors to be supplied under the 2008 US-India deal. Hence, diversion of plutonium towards India’s weapons programme is quite possible.

The use of plutonium separated at Kalpakkam for civilian purposes is no less questionable. For plutonium is the most toxic substance humanity has ever created. Even microgram quantities of plutonium, if inhaled or ingested by humans, are known to result in fatal cancers. In Europe, fast breeder reactors — so termed since they create additional plutonium even as they burn plutonium — have long been considered unfeasible.

The fast-breeder reactor at Kalkar in Germany, built in the 1970s and 1980s against fierce international opposition, could not be put into operation. And France’s fast breeder, the Superphoenix, had to be closed in the late 1990s after a poor record during 12 years’ operation. Yet these negative experiences are apparently being ignored by India. Technological preparations towards the building of a full scale “fast breeder”reactor at Kalpakkam reportedly are in an advanced stage.

In short, the significance of the struggle waged by villagers in the south of Tamil Nadu stretches well beyond the Koodankulam nuclear project itself. Resistance was called off after the union government in Delhi sent a Minister of State, Narayanasamy, to Tamil Nadu to talk to the Koodankulam protestors. Still, it would be wrong to believe that the demand of the protestors — that no nuclear production in Koodankulam be started — will be easily accepted. For the stakes are very large, since India’s nuclear lobby has set its mind on turning India into a plutonium power. Yet, because the Koodankulam project is closely intertwined with plans for expansion of the Kalpakkam complex, the struggle is bound to reverberate throughout the state of Tamil Nadu and beyond.