Koodankulam Desalination: Looming Calamity for Gulf of Mannar

Prof. Elaine Hunter

An independent researcher and citizen scientist, Prof. Elaine Hunter, D.Sc., D.Ac. has researched and given testimony in a variety of nuclear and environmental concerns over a period of 30+ years. She did field work in the Sea of Cortez in the 1970s.

I have not been to India, but have seen her lush green southwestern coast on the way to Colombo several times.

Not an employee of an NGO, no one asked me to write this article and no one paid me. It is emergency service for our Mother the Earth, our Father the Sea. Many places the Sea has many names, yet they all connect. I learned of the Koodankulam situation when it showed up on the internet news in the USA about 1 month ago. Our State recently refused legislation that would have permitted the construction of 8 nuclear power plants.

At the not yet commissioned Koodankulam nuclear power plants (KKNPP,) there looms a serious threat from a chain reaction in the Gulf of Mannar that would happen even if a nuclear catastrophe never happened. That threat is a biological chain reaction, a biodiversity collapse.

For each nuclear power unit, four desalination (desal) units are required to supply the water. These behemoth wet-vacs suck in enormous quantities of seawater. However that is not all that is vacuumed into their voracious maws (maw = the opening into something felt to be insatiable). The essential base, the heart of the developmental stages of marine life and food chain, microscopic to tiny sea flora and fauna, including phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish eggs and larvae of myriad sea creatures, will be impinged, entrained and killed in large quantities in the desalination units.

Impingement occurs when organisms are pulled into an intake pipe and trapped against a fish screen covering the intake, causing injury or death. Entrainment occurs when small organisms pass through the fish screen and are actually taken into the intake pipes.

The desalination plant at Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant 1 has four units, each producing 1,06,000* litres of water an hour. (NOTE: *the nonsensical number of litres/hr is from the original article)

The four-unit desal plant will use the mechanical vapour compression technology to produce freshwater. Sea water from the Gulf of Mannar will be heated up to 70 degrees Celsius and sprayed inside the vacuum developed in the chambers in the streams. Any previously living organisms that pass through the filter that keeps out larger ones such a fish will be killed at this point.

Part of the hot water will evaporate and this vapour will be condensed into fresh water. It will be further purified in a demineralization plant. The pure supply will be used as primary and secondary coolant in the reactor, and as “make-up” water during operations.

Like King Nuptune’s or Lord Shiva’s trident, the harm to marine life plus shore and pelagic birds will be three-pronged when we add in the that concentrated brine waste and the waste of chemicals used to demineralize the desalinated water will be dumped into waterways further damaging sea life.

According to the Sierra Club, for every 378 litres of water a desalination plant takes in, it emits between 38 litres and 151 litres of highly concentrated salt water or brine that must go somewhere.

Red Tides and Red Devils in the Future for Gulf of Mannar?

Another Gulf’s Experience with Desalination

The Arabian Gulf is peppered with desal plants. Most of the Arabian Peninsula is desert, and the people who live there have always struggled to find fresh water. Now, the region relies on desalinated seawater for most of its needs – from drinking water to irrigation. A report available on YouTube.com shows the dozens of fresh-water factories across the Gulf have a high environmental cost:

Arabian Gulf desalination plants harming the seas

Red Tides

Algae in the Persian Gulf was to blame for 45 tons of dead fish and marine mammals. A phenomenon known as a 'red tide' is actually the result of an algal bloom

I see “red tide” has political meaning in India. These red tides are biological and kill surreptitiously. They are deadly to most marine life. The desal plants at KKNPP would cause disruption of environmental factors in Gulf of Mannar waters that would probably lead to red tides in the area.

Red tides are a phenomenon caused by high concentration (bloom) of harmful microscopic algae. There are a variety of culprits, one example is a single-celled organism Gymnodinium breve, a type of dinoflagellate. They are highly poisonous and obliterate life of other organisms, causing mass mortalities of fishes, marine mammals and birds.

The organisms produce a toxin that affects the central nervous system of fish, paralyzing them. As a result, dead fish are washed ashore. It is not safe or possible to touch, collect or sell organisms that die in this way.

Mollusks, clams, and oysters are immune. However, the toxin emitted by the dinoflagellate does build up in their bodies. Eating clams, oysters, or mollusks that have been exposed to red tide can be poisonous not only to humans, but other marine life that eat them. Seafood restaurants cannot serve these dishes when a red tide occurs in the area from where they get their supplies.

These tides are harmful to humans to even be around! Because their presence in mist from breaking waves can cause burning eyes and respiratory problems. If humans consume the toxic fish or shellfish/seafood they can experience illness or even death. Symptoms experienced may be: mouth numbness, fingers tingling, paralysis is possible since the algae produce neurotoxins.

Red tides can occur due to temperature, salinity, and nutrients reaching certain levels, besides lack of wind and rainfall and cannot be controlled by humans. The outbreaks are commonly called red tides, though scientists prefer the term ‘harmful algal blooms’, because though usually red, they can also be orange, brown, bright green, or not even discolored.

Red tide in India already? Here it is,

Red Tide Invades Cocoa Beach, Florida. This is a beach where the author spent much time in her young years. No red tides those days. Now days they are happening many places. The sea goes blood red.

Another Gulf’s Experience with Biodiversity Collapse

Red Devils

Diablos rojos (Spanish for ‘red devil’), the locals’ name for the Humbodt squid, is a large, predatory squid in another gulf once very rich in diversity of marine life probably equal to the Gulf of Mannar, the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). This is no longer the case. The Sea of Cortez lies between the western coast of mainland Mexico and the part of Mexico known as Baja California. I know from first-hand experience that the threat of overfishing there has been warned since the 1970s.

Humboldt Squid: an invader in the Sea of Cortez (see here)

The cause of biodiversity collapse was not desalination, it has been overfishing. Six of one, half a dozen of the other, it is nevertheless biodiversity collapse. Biodiversity collapse makes the way for invasive species.

In the Sea of Cortez the elusive and cannibalistic, huge and voracious squid moved right in, moving up from South America. These ferocious hunters can weigh 318 kg and be up to 2.4 m long. They spend 95 percent of their lives at depths well beyond those safely observed with scuba. It’s a main staple of sperm whales. Some experts believe that ocean-going squid like the Humboldt are increasing in numbers as fin-fish populations around the world decline.

There are numerous accounts of the squid attacking fishermen and divers in the the Sea of Cortez. Their colouring and aggressive reputation led to the nickname diablos rojos from fishermen off the coast of Mexico. They flash red and white when struggling with the fishermen.

The Humboldt squid feeds primarily on small fish, crustaceans, cephalopods, and copepods. These squids are very adaptable to eating prey, if the squids manage to consume all others, it’s okay with them. Then they will just continued on, eating each other. The big ones will get bigger.

Have such huge squids been found in the waters of Gulf of Mannar? Couldn’t find any reports of such, local’s would know, though. There is a published report mentioning such in Sri Lanka:

“Big squid surprises Hikkaduwa fishermen ….The squid caught at Hikkaduwa was three-and-a-half feet long and weighing 21 kilograms…This is the first time that such a large specimen was caught in southern waters…Once in a while we get reports of large squid being caught, but most of these reports are from the Batticaloa area…” (source)

Are these squid edible? Yes, indeed, they are supposedly very tasty. The Japanese consider them a delicacy and are in the market for them. However, are you prepared for this scenario?

He: (it’s Monday) What’s for dinner, darling?

She: Squid curry. It’s delicious.

He: (it’s Tuesday) Darling, what’s for dinner?

She: Deviled squid….

He: (it’s Wednesday) What’s for dinner, darling?

She: Squid masala…..

He: Squid again? It’s getting really boring

She: It’s the only thing in the market these day, darling.

Some Perspective on the Gulf of Mannar

The Gulf of Mannar is a rich treasure for South India, Sri Lanka and even the world. It must be protected.

“It may well qualify as the world’s richest area of marine biological resource. There is a particularly rich diversity of ecological niches including 21 uninhabited islands, with estuaries, beaches, forests of the near-shore environment, with marine algal communities, sea grasses, coral reefs, salt marshes and mangroves! “ (source)

Marine biological diversity are of special value, locally, nationally and globally, but are under threat from and being depleted by a variety of human activities, including fishing and harvesting by large numbers of local people who are directly dependent on the area’s marine resources for subsistence and for livelihoods and employment. Desalination has been added to the mix already at other sites in India in already threatened seas.

From concerns about the Arabian Gulf:

The ocean is the cradle of life. Until recently, it was believed that man could not change the ocean and the delicate web of food chain that supports its biodiversity. These views are no longer tenable. Changes have taken place all over the world, especially in the coastal waters causing serious risk of loss of species, food chain changes and consequent changes in fish stock and other exploitable living resources. The present study is part of a long-term plan to monitor the marine ecosystems bordering Saudi Arabia. (See here)

It is hoped this knowledge, information will add to the already reasons sleuthed out by other researchers to halt the commissioning of nuclear power plants at Koodankulam before it is too late to realize the serious mistakes that have happened and are in the offing.

If you live on an island made of gold what will you eat?


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