Koodankulam: Lessons from Shoreham where a nuclear power plant was stopped after running just for a day

Shoreham Power Plant


P K Sundaram

Update: The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms. Jayalalita has written a letter to the Prime Minister and urged him to halt the Koodankulam project ’till an amicable solution is found’


The unfortunate stalemate in Koodankulam is continuing even as the health of more than 125 people on hunger-strike is deteriorating. The ongoing mass hunger-strike against the planned commissioning of 1000 MW Russian-design VVER in Koodankulam (Tamil Nadu, India) has reached its 9th day today. While the state’s Chief Minister is still maintaining it’s safe to commission a reactor on seashore that experienced devastating Tsunami in 2004, the Union Government and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) have been criminally silent about the issue.  The protesting people from the region have raised objections to the project on the grounds of safety, health, livelihood, and environmental protection and have also questioned the economy of the project and its relevance for the ‘development’ of their area. They have also cited the international trend of countries phasing out their nuclear power programmes after the Fukushima nuclear accident. The post-Fukushima safety audit report of the Russian governmental agencies submitted to President Dmitri Medvedev has pointed out the under-preparation of Russian nuclear establishment and its reactor designs against major accidents.

The protesters’ recent talk with ministers and state government officials has failed. An official party to this talk has revealed that they had clear instructions that the State Government would neither urge the Centre to scrap the project nor would it pass a resolution in the State Assembly against the Koodankulam NPP, so hardly anything could be expected out of these talks. Justice V R Krishna Iyer has written a personal open letter to the Chief Minister Ms. Jayalalita requesting her to ‘to judge sensitively to the appeal of the masses and show compassion and political wisdom without further delay.’ Some political parties in opposition have also come out to support the cause.

Leading civil society activists like Medha Patekar and Arundhati Roy have come out to support the struggle. The Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) has asked the Central and State Governments to end the stalemate and hold a ‘democratic and transparent national consultation on nuclear power projects in the country with proper assessment of economic, environmental and human cost of such expansion’ without delay.


Is there a way out?

While government has only shallow reassurances and concocted facts and figures to justify its massive nuclear expansion despite Fukushima, in the case of Koodankulam, a major pro-establishment argument is that the reactor is already constructed and is going to be commissioned in December, so scrapping it would mean an unacceptable loss of huge amount of public money and effort. The protesters have been questioning this argument saying why such a dangerous mistake cannot be amended even if the authorities have gone far to implement it.

The experience of Shoreham power plant might prove instructive at this juncture.  The Long Island Lighting Company – LILCO announced plans for a 540 MW (later in 1968, it was increased to 820 MW) nuclear reactor in Shoreham, New York. The construction began in 1973 and since the beginning it witnessed strong opposition and protests from the environmentalists, labour unions and local communities.  While the construction and protests were on, the Three Miles Island accident in the US happened, leading to widespread concerns about safety and justifications of nuclear power projects. 15,000 people came out to demonstrate against the Shoreham reactor on June 3, 1979.

The government agencies and the LILCO initially tried to duck the strong public pressure through offering bureaucratic changes, delaying the project for years and coming out with safety assurances that were further questioned by the public-leaning experts. Finally, even after doing a trial run of the reactor in July 1985 (at 5% of its capacity), LILCO and the Federal agencies had to bow before the public pressure and Shoreham was turned into a natural gas-fired power station, not nuclear. Technically this was possible with some extra cost for the conversion and same steam turbine as nuclear reactors are ultimately nothing but extremely dangerous and expensive way to boil water. Shoreham reactor ran on nuclear fuel for less than 48 hours, or according to another estimate just 24 hours – that is equal to one single day ! Even after being turned into a non-nuclear power plant, Shoreham still has to continue storing dangerous nuclear waste, a threat for generations to come.

In India’s case, although the justification for a gas-fired power plant can also be challenged on environmental and economic basis, converting Koodankulam NPP into a more sustainable, co-generation energy production centre can be given a serious thought at this juncture. This could be a healthy and democratic way out of the current stalemate.

Finally, the Koodankulam experience should also lead to a comprehensive review of India’s power generation goals, strategy and search of more people-centric sustainable models where power plants are granted permission based on an assessment of extent and nature of people’s genuine needs, and not to get some illusive diplomatic gains as it has happened in case of Jaitapur.


 Editor, DiaNuke.org



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