Govt Bluffing the Country on Koodankulam Safety: M G Devasahayam

After the recent high-level pronouncements about Koodankulam and repeated reassurances from the DAE as well as the Prime Minister himself, spoke to M G Devasahayam, the retired civil servant and energy policy expert, who also heads the independent expert’s panel supported by the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy(PMANE) in Koodankulam. Here is his interview:

M G Devasahayam
M G Devasahayam
Shri M. G. Devasahayam is a former IAS and Managing Trustee, Citizens Alliance for Sustainable Living, Chennai
Recent articles byShri Devasahayam:

1. What do you think has been behind the nuclear establishment’s repeated postponements of KKNPP’s commissioning?

I feel that despite their bravado, the nuclear establishment is jittery, being torn between relentless Russian pressure and persisting public protest. Never before have they been so intensely challenged and they know they cannot afford to make even small mistakes. And since absolute perfection is virtually impossible in any technology, let alone nuclear, they are not sure about its commissioning.

Besides, the matter is pending in Supreme Court and there is every possibility of an unwritten and undeclared assurance that the government lawyers have given to the SC that NPCIL will not proceed towards making this reactor critical and raise power level until the SC judgement is given. And yet, the government would not like to admit this openly because it will be an admission that Udayakumar and PMANE have succeeded in at least temporarily halting the project progress.

Hence the repeated postponements

2. The DAE Chairman has said everything is safe in Koodankulam and it is their extra efforts to ensure safety which is causing the delay. There have been reports of German and Ukrainian experts being flown in and also rumors of a blast. Do you think doubt the KKNPP’s design safety?

If the design is safe and secure and the nuclear establishment is so sure of it why don’t they share the plant safety report at least with experts. Them not doing it only creates doubts. As a layman, I have a lurking suspicion that the design/technology is unproven and in the process of fuel loading NPCIL has come across several glitches which they are unable to satisfactorily fix. After all too much of secrecy has its own after-effects.

3. The Supreme Court is still hearing the case. What are the major issues being raised there?

Supreme Court has completed hearing and has reserved orders. The major issues before SC are:

i. In 1988 India signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement with erstwhile USSR to set up the two 1000MWe VVRS nuclear reactors at Kudankulam. This agreement was signed on the premise that the spent fuel from the project would be shipped back to USSR for treatment and disposal. Accordingly Union Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) issued Environment Clearance (EC) on 09-05-1989. Based on this EC, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) issued site clearance for the project on 10-11-1989 meaning that when EC was issued, the plant site had not even been finalised! This is gross illegality.

ii. In the Supplemental Agreement signed with Russia in May, 1998, DAE changed the basic scope of the project by agreeing to retain the spent-fuel in India probably within the plant itself. Since spent fuel is highly radioactive and very toxic, its handling and storage involves very high risks and serious environmental implications. Due to these changed conditions DAE should have approached MoEF for a fresh EC which it failed to do. Instead, Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCL) went ahead with the construction of the project in violation of Environment Protection Act, 1986 (EPA). This was a serious statutory violation that called for cancellation of EC and stoppage of construction of the project. This was not done by the MoEF and the construction commenced and continued.

iii. When the EC was issued, it was assumed that cooling water for the project would be drawn from Pechiparai reservoir, whereas the source was later changed to a seawater desalination plant. This substantial change in fresh-water source would make it necessary for DAE to approach MoEF for clearance under CRZ Rules. There was further urgency because under the 1998 agreement high-quality fresh water was critical to keep the spent-fuel in safe storage. By not doing this DAE has violated the EPA.

iv. Project construction should not have started without prior Consent for Establishment (CFE) of the nuclear reactors at Kudankulam. NPCIL applied for CFE as an afterthought on 30-12-2001 and Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) granted it on 25-02-2004 without any application of mind. This defeated the very purpose of CFE and its relevance to safety and environmental conservation aspects. Thus, the project as it stands today is the outcome of several illegalities that impinge on the local environment as well as the health and the safety of the people living in its vicinity.

v. NPCIL has not carried out risk analysis for the worst case scenario based on Fukushima experience to assess the consequences up to 30km and even beyond depending on the direction and velocity of wind. From the time of the original EC in 1989, the local conditions such as population growth have changed significantly and such studies are imperative to understand the implications of an accident. In the absence of such a comprehensive analysis, it will be unsafe to start the reactor units.

vi. As the initiator of the project, DAE should have reviewed the safety norms of KKNPP on the basis of Fukushima experience and redefined the boundaries of the Emergency Plan zoning system to bring the same in line with international best practice and the guidelines formulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This has not been done.

vii. National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), created post-Tsunami 2004, is a statutory body chaired by the PM himself that has issued unambiguous guidelines on the institutional structures to be set up for handling nuclear accidents. This calls for State-level and District-level DMAs, providing nuclear shelters for the affected people, hospitals for medical care as well as training and orientation to the officials, local Gram Sabhas and the project affected people (PAP) to respond immediately to disasters and evacuate to safer places in case of accidents. None of these have been complied with and Tirunelveli Destrict where KKNPP is located has no such plan or Authority.

vii. Though the Government claims that KKNPP is 100% safe, yet the Russian reactor manufacturer company does not trust its own reactor and has refused to share any part of civil liability in case of an accident due to defect in the reactor. Government of India (to appease that Russian company and Russian Government) has signed an agreement with Russia stating that in case of an accident the public exchequer or the tax payers would foot the bill (that might run into lakhs of crores of rupees) while the Russians would be indemnified.

vii. AERB as it functions is not an independent regulatory body. Comptroller & Auditor General of India (CAG) has come out with a scathing report about the ‘lapses in safety measures’ by the AERB posing ‘grave threats.’ CAG has highlighted several lapses by AERB: Non-preparation of a nuclear and radiation policy; no safety documents as recommended by two expert committees; no decommissioning plan which is extremely critical for public safety and non-adoption of international safety standards and practices. Typical example of AERB’s servility is the fact that NPCL was allowed to go ahead with fuel loading without implementing the 17 safety measures recommended by the post-Fukushima taskforce appointed by the Government of India. For several months NPCL has been telling AERB that it would implement these 17 safety measures by October-November 2012. AERB counsel stated before the Madras High Court that these 17 measures would have to be implemented before any further clearance was given. However, on 10.08.2012, AERB gave initial fuel-loading clearance even while 11 of these safety recommendations were yet to be implemented.

4. Do you think the DAE is misleading the Supreme Court?

DAE has tied itself in knots in the SC. A careful reading of the affidavits filed by AERB, NPCIL and MoEF clearly brings out the fact that no approvals as mandated by the Rules framed under Environmental Protection Act 1986 have been obtained after complying the leagal requirements. What they have got are only patch-works of Environment Clearance (EC) dated 09-05-1989 which was not under any of the EPA Rules all of which have been notified post-1992.

5. The PM has recently said that people’s safety comes first and nuclear energy can wait. How do you respond to this?

As far as nuclear power is concerned Prime Minister has been hypocritical in his statements and actions and does not carry much credibility.

6. As the head of the independent experts’ team in Koodakulam, what do you think are the minimum requirements which must be ensured before commissioning?

Given the series of illegalities and irregularities, lapses and regulatory capture, MoEF should step into the scene and enforce the EPA-1986, revoke the EC given in 1989 and direct NPCIL to undertake a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as per extant Rules which include full public hearing among the Project Affected People. As part of the EIA, NPCIL should be mandated to carry out comprehensive life & livelihood risk analysis on the PAP and the risks of even low-intensity radiation exposure on marine ecosystem. Before MoEF issues fresh EC, NDMA’s norms should be put in place and tested for its effectiveness by an independent agency.

7. People’s movement in Koodankulam is still on. Other places like Kovada, Jaitapur etc are also rising in protest. In coming days, what future do you see for nuclear power in India and what is the scope for replacing it with Renewable Energy and Energy conservation.

Relevance of nuclear power is linked to country’s energy security and the overall welfare of our communities. The present Indian state is clueless on both counts. In the event there is neither any blue print nor any vision as to how energy could serve the cause of people’s welfare and not just the interests of a few investors and MNCs. Hence the rabid argument by the Indian state that nuclear power is essential to bring electricity for the masses While many countries with large percentage of their electric power coming from nuclear source are phasing out, India with a measly 2.5% share is clinging to it like leech, ignoring the massive Renewable Energy potential that the country has.

Germany is the most prominent among these countries which is determinedly moving away from nuclear power. It has a clear plan to reduce the share of nuclear power from the present 23% to zero in 2022 without having to compromise on the energy security or to give up its position as a world economic power-house. And it is planning to eliminate the nuclear power without adding other fossil fuel or dam based power plants. This calls for some scrutiny so that lessons could be learnt

Germany gives six major reasons for switching to renewable energy and to increase energy conservation:

A – Fighting climate change

B – Reducing energy imports

C – Stimulating technology innovation and the green economy

D – Reducing and eliminating the risks of nuclear power

E – Energy security

F – Strengthening local economies and providing social justice

Germany has identified five main problems with nuclear power:

1. the risk of a nuclear disaster at a plant;

2. the risks of proliferation (plutonium from nuclear plants for military purposes)

3. the risk of radiation from the storage of nuclear waste;

4. cost, with nuclear being unbankable at the moment – banks will not finance the construction of new nuclear plants because the cost is too high in comparison to renewables, so all plants currently on the drawing board in Western countries have massive state support; and

5. the limited availability of uranium resources.

Germany considers the third risk is even greater because this will affect future generations, who will not even be able to consume the nuclear power that is produced today but will be forced to deal with the waste. Even when all nuclear fission plants have been shut down, mankind will have to protect its repositories of spent nuclear fuel rods for up to 100,000 years.

There are also several other reasons:

  • Nuclear power is far more limited than renewables. Nuclear plants produce electricity but not useful heat or motor fuel, as in the case of renewables
  • Germany rejects nuclear power because of the risks, the costs and the unsolved waste issue. In ad­dition, nuclear power does not have the potential to play a major role in the world’s energy supply.
  • With 30 kM of evacuation zone around its nuclear power plants, as in the case of Fukushima, it is estimated that about 12% of its population would be affected; with 80 kM evacuation zone as recommended by US around Fukushima about 51% of its population would be affected. A pretty compelling reason for saying NO to nuclear power.
  • Nuclear is simply too small a player on global markets; it does not even account for six percent of global energy supply right now, and more plants are scheduled to be taken off-line over the next decade than are expected to go online.
  • If it is feasible to gradually transition to a renewable energy supply, then it seems irresponsible to have nu­clear plants today – and unethical to pass on these risks to future generations.
  • Renewables will reduce dependency on energy imports, making India less vulnerable to rising prices for fossil fuels and to political influence from abroad.
  • Renewable energy can consist of numerous small, distributed units, but it can also consist of a small number of large, central plants. In the latter case, the power stations can be gigantic solar arrays in deserts or large wind farms on coastlines.
  • Local ownership of renewables provides great economic payback to investing communities. Energy efficiency and renewables together give the poor a way around higher prices for fossil fuels.
  • Another important aspect of the energy transition is social justice. Energy efficiency in particular not only helps promote domestic added value, but also reduces energy poverty.

Key findings of German Energy Transition Report – Arguments for a renewable energy future (

a. The German energy transition is an ambitious, but feasible undertaking.

b. The German energy transition is driven by citizens and communities

c. The energy transition is Germany’s largest post-war infrastructure project. It strengthens its economy and creates new jobs.

d. With the energy transition, Germany aims to not only keep its industrial base, but make it fit for a greener future.

e. Germany demonstrates that fighting climate change and phasing out nuclear power can be two sides of the same coin.

f. The German energy transition is here to stay.

g. The energy transition is affordable for Germany, and it will likely be even more affordable for other countries.

These are more applicable to India than Germany and the potential for RE and energy conservation is far more in India than in Germany. Yet we are mad in pursuing destructive nuclear energy, while playing just lip service to Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation.

8. How should the anti-nuclear movement proceed in India in the future?

From protest to proactive advocacy of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency. We must expose the hollowness of India Energy policy driven more by alien interests and kick-backs than national interest and indigenous potential. Advocacy and awareness building should be the major tool in this strategy. Since mainstream media is unlikely cooperate in this we need to develop social media as an effective and powerful tool.


Heavy police deployment in Koodankulam (file picture, courtesy: PTI)









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