Koodankulam: a lethal game of chance we must shun

M G Devasahayam

M G DevasahayamShri M. G. Devasahayam is a former IAS and Managing Trustee, Citizens Alliance for Sustainable Living, Chennai

He is the Convener of the PMANE Expert Group on Koodankulam.

Shri Devasahayam can be reached at deva1940@gmail.com

Article courtesy: GFiles

Koodankulam: Russian Roulette and the Mexican Standoff

Russian roulette is a potentially lethal game of chance in which a player places a single round in a revolver, spins the cylinder, places the muzzle against their head, and pulls the trigger.  ‘Mexican standoff’ is a situation wherein combatants stand with revolvers ready in which no one can emerge as a clear winner. This is exactly what the commissioning process of the Russian-built Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) in Tamil Nadu has landed itself into. Combatants are the Russian Government who are playing their ‘lethal game of chance’ on us by thrusting an unsafe nuclear plant manufactured from substandard material; Government of India hell-bent on commissioning this unsafe plant; Government of Tamil Nadu, standing sentinel to this lethal game and the project affected people, fighting to save their life and livelihood!

This is how the Russian roulette is playing out in KKNPP. The first of the two 1000 MWe VVER nuclear reactors, under commissioning and testing, is supplied by the  Russian atomic energy corporation, Rosatom, through its subsidiary, Atomstroyexport. Crucial  materials and  reactor parts have been sourced from the Russian government-owned company called  ZiO-Podolsk, which is another Rosatom subsidiary. ZiO-Podolsk supplies include  important safety subsystems, equipment, components and materials.

On the Indian side, the project is owned by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), a public sector undertaking of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). The overall safety regulation responsibility is with the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). All these entities come directly under the PMO.

The reactor and other core equipments had arrived at the site in early 2005 and KKNP was originally scheduled to start commercial operation in December 2007. There was no struggle or agitation till July 2011 (post Fukushima) and even this was ruthlessly put down within couple of months. After that the protest leaders have been confined to the coastal village of Idinthakarai posing no hindrance to the work inside KKNPP. There has been no restraint order from the courts. Yet, despite announcing several datelines by the Prime Minister, Minister of State in PMO and nuclear bigwigs there is no sign of commissioning the plant. Repeated tests appear to have failed and everything is being kept under wraps!

Despite thick layers of secrecy, truth started surfacing when there were specific complaints on the quality of the components, systems and individual parts installed in KKNPP. In June, 2012, there were reports of welding in the core region of the pressure vessel which was against the original design. At the beginning of this year, there were reports of Russian Federal prosecutors charging and arresting the procurement officers of Zio-Podolsk of corruption in connection with the supply of substandard systems and components to a few nuclear power plants including KKNPP. This included use of low quality steel in the fabrication of the Reactor!

What is worse, control and instrumentation system of the plant is suffering from serious flaws and is getting tripped during tests after emanating spurious signal/noise that has created panic in neighbouring villages. According to World Nuclear Association, an international body that promotes nuclear business around the world, the control system documentation for KKNPP was delivered late, and when reviewed by NPCIL it showed up the need for significant refining and even reworking some aspects. Therefore containment structures of the Reactor pressure vessel were cut open and instrumentation /control cables laid in the same tray making the system unreliable. According to experts “if reactor is under operation and if the control and instrumentation systems is not reliable, then it would lead to a catastrophic release of energy in a short time interval. Or the fission process can become uncontrollable and the nuclear reactor will turn into a nuclear bomb.” Yet, the Russians are brazenly playing the ‘lethal game of chance’ to get this substandard and risky nuclear power plant commissioned at any cost.

PMO, instead of being concerned about the life and safety of its own citizens is pandering to Russian interests due to a nuclear mania afflicting them. This could be seen from the fact that despite a miserable performance of installing just 4760 MW in the last fifty-plus years against a target of 43,600 MW, Indian nuclear establishment led by PMO is in insane pursuit of achieving 275,000 MW nuclear power capacity by 2050!

This insanity is due to the skewed and secretive institutional structure of Indian nuclear establishment. The Atomic Energy Commission was set up to report directly to the prime minister, based on the argument that matters related to the nuclear sector required secrecy. DAE, set up in 1954 subsumed the AEC and the secretary of the DAE became the ex-officio chairman of the AEC. AERB formed in 1983 to overlook matters of safety in the sector is not an independent body but reports to the DAE thus undermining its own effectiveness. A recent CAG audit report castigates AERB for doing nothing except prescribing codes, guides and safety manuals. In the event, safety of nuclear installations in the country is at great peril as is clearly manifested in the KKNPP.

But AERB apologists have a different story. They draw on the far-reaching, landmark judgment of the Supreme Court on setting up of the KKNPP and claim that ‘based on the existing legal framework, the court decided the unsettled (or settled) queries on matters related to nuclear power in India’ and has reposed faith in India’s nuclear regulator.

If only they had read Condition # 15 laid down by the Apex Court they would not be so elated: “The AERB, NPCIL, MoEF and TNPCB would oversee each and every aspect of the matter, including the safety of the plant, impact on environment, quality of various components and systems in the plant before commissioning of the plant. A report to that effect be filed before this Court before commissioning of the plant.” Further, Supreme Court placed public safety on the pedestal of ‘Constitutional Trust’ to be complied with in full measure by AERB and other players. This is clear expression of Court’s no-confidence in AERB’s functioning as an autonomous and independent regulatory body. Nothing more need to be said.

Substandard quality of components and systems in KKNPP and their non-reliability has been within the knowledge of the nuclear establishment since 2007. Even after Supreme Court gave green signal in first week of May they are unable to commission the plant and keep on putting off the date on flimsy grounds. Now the timeline is July 2013. The very fact that the plant has not been able to commence operation even after six years of its erection and installation makes it clear that it is substandard, suspect and unfit for commissioning!

After Supreme Court’s caveat and conditions one would expect that DAE and AERB would conduct a thorough investigation by independent experts on the quality of the plant, various components and systems and make them fool-proof. No such thing has happened till date and public confidence in the safety of KKNPP stands near-totally eroded! The depredation has gone to such an extent that PMO is putting extreme pressure for the commissioning of the plant even at the risk of millions of lives just to cater to the Russian rulers and their commercial interests! Reacting in panic, nuclear establishment is committing one blunder after another, rendering KKNPP unsafe and unreliable!

Government of Tamil Nadu is actively facilitating the ‘lethal game of chance’ by letting lose repression and oppression including slapping of sedition and treason cases and summary detention under Goondas Act on the project affected people crying out for safety of their life and livelihood. God forbid, if something untoward happens during or after the ‘forced’ commissioning of an unsafe plant, a large measure of blame would fall on the state government.

The ‘struggle committee’ representing project affected people have been crying hoarse about the massive corruption and substandard components and systems that have been used in the plant, lack of emergency preparedness and have been demanding its closure. Bearing all the torture and torment with fortitude they are steadfast in their stand and firm in rejecting the ‘lethal game of chance’ jointly played by governments of Russia, India and Tamil Nadu.

This is right-royal ‘Mexican standoff’. If there is some sense of justice and fairness in the functioning of PMO, they should immediately find ways and means to end this ‘lethal game of chance’ that could end up in major disaster and loss of life and livelihood for large number of Tamils of Tamil Nadu which cannot be countenanced.

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