Why have the concerns of local communities surrounding the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant gone unaddressed for two decades? Why did a comprehensive environment impact assessment never reach them, and were the mandatory public hearings largely stage-managed?

The Koodamkulam town, with a sizable population and economic activity, is within one km from outer walls of the nuclear complex in Kanyakumari district


People from three southern districts – Kanniyakumari, Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi – of Tamil Nadu have been protesting against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP) for over two decades now. Over the last month, thousands of people joined in the protest against KNPP, with 127 of them going on indefinite hunger strike demanding complete closure of the project. People in and around Koodankulam are worried that the hot water discharged from the plant into the sea will adversely affect the marine life and fish catch. Nearly 100,000 people living within a 16-km radius of the plant fear displacement. And people are immensely concerned over nuclear risk and radiation in the event of accidents at the plants or during the movement and storage of radioactive material.

The struggles against nuclear power plants in Jaitapur, Haripur and Koodankulam need to be viewed in the context of economic growth-oriented development. In the context of globalisation, government after government in India has pledged 8-9% growth rates.

According to the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s (AERB) stipulations, a 1.6-km radius around a nuclear power plant should have no habitation, while the next 5-km radius should have a small density of population; in a 16-km radius population must not exceed 10,000. Two reactors, Unit-I and Unit-2, are ready for testing in December this year, but no rehabilitation has been carried out to date. Government after government has changed in Tamil Nadu and in New Delhi, but the plight of the people struggling against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant continues. The central government finally seems to have taken cognisance of the protests thanks to a letter from the Tamil Nadu chief minister. But people in and around Koodankulam village continue to live with the fear of nuclear risk and threat to livelihoods.

A brief history of the movement against KNPP

The KNPP has its roots in the 1974 Pokhran test conducted by India. Following the test, India came under the influence of the Soviet nuclear establishment because of its isolation from the West (the US had stopped fuel shipments to the Tarapur nuclear power plant after the 1974 test). Against this backdrop the nuclear deal with the Soviet Union was discussed as early as 1979 during Morarji Desai’s prime ministership. Finally, in 1988 the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project deal.

This triggered opposition in and around Koodankulam. The proposal to draw water for the nuclear reactors from the nearby Pechiparai reservoir and to discharge waste water into the sea threatened the livelihoods of the people. In May 1989, around 10,000 people assembled to protest against the plant under the banner of the National Fish Workers’ Union (NFWU). During this protest, police opened fire and disconnected the mike, preventing anyone from  speaking. However, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev losing power and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi stalled the Koodankulam nuclear power plant.

By the end of 1991 the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) declared that it had applied for government’s permission to set up two 500 MW indigenous reactors at the same site, but this never materialised. In March 1997 the then Indian Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda and  Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a supplement to the 1988 agreement and commissioned a detailed project report on Koodankulam.

Accordingly, Russia agreed to supply two VVER-1000 water-cooled and water-moderated reactors. In spite of concerns over the safety of VVERs, India went ahead with the deal as a cash-strapped Russian nuclear industry linked it with other defence deals like that of T-90 tanks, SU-30 planes and the Admiral Gorshkov submarine. The cost of the deal was US $ 3.1 billion (approximately Rs 114 billion). Russia extended credit of US $ 2.6 billion to India, which India was supposed to pay back at 4% annual interest over a period of 12 years from the time the reactors are commissioned.

Initially, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) acquired around 929 hectares of land for the project and another 150 hectares for the township. NPCIL acquired land in excess of what is actually required for the construction of two reactors. During this time the NPCIL promised jobs for the local people along with overall growth and development of the region. It also promised the people that it would use sea water for cooling the reactors by recycling it instead of drawing water from the Pechiparai reservoir. Land for the KNPP was acquired in the late-1980s. Many people sold their land for a paltry Rs 2,000 per acre and Rs 100 per cashew tree. For many, it was the only land they owned and they had tamarind trees on their land, for which no compensation was paid. Many sold their land in the hope that they would get jobs and sub-contracts in the plant. Thus, construction for two nuclear reactors, scheduled to be commissioned by December this year, began.

The promise of regular jobs, better livelihood options and improved standard of living did not materialise for the people of Koodankulam. Only some enterprising individuals were able to secure sub-contracts to construct streetlights and footpaths for the plant. The people of Koodankulam, realising that job offers and development as promised by the NPCIL were a myth, came together to oppose the expansion of the plant again in 2001 under the banner People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE). While the site was marked for two nuclear reactors, NPCIL moved towards expanding the plant by adding at least another four reactors on the same land. As a result, the people of Koodankulam further intensified their struggle against KNPP. A comprehensive environment impact assessment (EIA) never reached the people, while mandatory public hearings were conducted in faraway places and  stage-managed.

EIA and public hearings

For Reactors 1 and 2, there was no EIA and no public hearing. The process of EIA and public hearing came into existence in the context of four added reactors in the same campus. As it is mandatory to carry out EIA and conduct a public hearing, NPCIL approached the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, to carry out the EIA study. Activists argue that the data produced on radiation in the EIA is unreliable – atmospheric radioactive discharges from the reactors, they point out, are valued very low compared to other similar reactors. The EIA has no mention of impact of the KNPP on biodiversity in the Gulf of Munnar, of which the Koodankulam region is a part. People in and around Koodankulam state that none of them have been consulted for the EIA and argue that it is only natural for NEERI to give a favourable EIA to NPCIL, as it was NPCIL that commissioned the report.

The first public hearing for plant expansion was called on October 6, 2006 at the Tirunelveli District Collectorate. This public hearing was postponed indefinitely as the people protested against the manner in which the public hearing was announced. The protestors accused the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) of attempting to conduct the public hearing in a secret manner. They alleged that the notification for the public hearing was not published in the local dailies and the general public was not made aware of the hearing.

Since people of three districts would be affected, protesters demanded three separate public hearings. Soon after that January 31, 2007 was announced as the date for the next public hearing which was postponed. The public hearing was advertised to be held in the town hall of Koodankulam on January 31, but later it was found that the hearing was shifted to a hall in the Nuclear Power Project Township.

The advertisement also announced that the public hearing would discuss the issue of possible displacement. As a result there was huge resentment among the public and they organised continuous protests for three consecutive days before January 31. Thus, once again the public hearing was postponed. The public hearing was then scheduled for March 31, 2007. This time the announcement of the public hearing was published in all the vernacular dailies. However, this hearing too was postponed indefinitely due to the state-wide bandh called by the ruling Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) against the Supreme Court’s judgment on reservations.

Finally, June 2, 2007 was fixed as the date for public hearing. Around 7,000 people from the three districts came in huge numbers for the public hearing. Tight security was arranged with around 1,200 policemen in riot gear. People protested that the environmental impact assessment was not available in the local language, Tamil, and so many of the people who attended the public hearing could not comprehend the facts regarding radiation levels, impact on environment and livelihoods, etc. The public hearing was brought to an abrupt halt with the collector arbitrarily declaring that the questions raised by the people had been answered by the nuclear power corporation.

Centre-state politics

In India, energy is a concurrent issue, with both the centre and states involved in producing and distributing power. However, atomic energy or nuclear energy is completely under the central list and falls within the ambit of the central government. This means that the entire cost for the construction of a nuclear power plant is borne by the central government. Many state governments competed for a nuclear power plant to be situated in their states: first, the state government needed to shell out nothing for the nuclear power plant, second, getting a central project to their state was considered a prestige issue, and third, such a plant would prove a boon for the cash-strapped and energy-sparse state governments.

But if it is beneficial to the state governments, then why did West Bengal turn down a nuclear plant at Haripur and why does Tamil Nadu appear to be doing the same? It is here that centre-state politics come into play. In the case of Haripur in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee supported the anti-nuclear power plant movement much before she came to power. In other words, she used it as a tool to win the vote-bank in and around Haripur. In Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa blamed the central government in the context of growing support for the Koodankulam anti-nuclear movement. The same Jayalalithaa extended her full support to the Koodankulam nuclear power plant in her earlier tenure as chief minister in 2002-06. Thus, it is pertinent to understand that state governments often swing along with  public opinion. What was once seen as a prestigious project is seen with contempt in the wake of increasing protests.

Context of the struggles
The struggles against nuclear power plants in Jaitapur, Haripur and Koodankulam need to be viewed in the context of economic growth-oriented development. In the context of globalisation, government after government in India has pledged 8-9% growth rates. Such growth rates would naturally require more energy for consumption. Given increasing awareness of environmental issues, nuclear energy is often perceived as a viable alternative to high-polluting thermal power plants and big dams. It is in this context that increased investments in nuclear power plants need to be seen. In spite of the high costs and risks involved, successive governments showed keen interest in pursuing nuclear energy.

Such a pursuit of growth rates is putting an enormous burden on many people, particularly the marginalised sections of society – rural populations, tribals, dalits, women, the poor and others. Big projects like nuclear power plants are posing a threat to the livelihoods of these people, while putting them in a hazardous situation in the long run.

Patibandla Srikant has a doctorate from ISEC, Institute for Social and Economic Change, for his work on social movements. He has worked on anti-nuclear movements as part of his doctoral thesis. He is currently with the Public Affairs Centre, Bangalore. The views expressed in this article are personal


Article Courtesy: InfoChange India