Koodankulam Struggle: Resetting the Nuclear Priorities in India

At present, the people in and around Koodankulam in Tamilnadu State of India have intensified their agitation against Koodankulam nuclear power plant which is ready for commissioning. The nuclear plant has at present two Russian VVER 1000 reactors of 1000 MW each. The plant is on the east coast of India located next to the Bay of Bengal Sea.

Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant is destined to reset the nuclear priorities in India. Decisions on Koodankulam nuclear plant in the east coast would shape the things in the Jaitapur nuclear plant on the west coast of India in Maharashtra State.

Prime Minister of India Dr.Manmohan Singh is concerned that his coveted Indo-US Nuclear deal might become the ultimate victim. So he has deployed a team of “experts” to attend to the “legitimate concerns” of the people agitating against nuclear power plants. It only means the “experts” are to pull wool over the eyes of the people of India.

The people in and around Koodankulam in Tamilnadu took up the torch. What made their torch more visible is the sensible step the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu Jaya Lalitha has taken to ask the Indian Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh, who is directly in-charge of the Department of Atomic Energy, to assuage people’s fear of nuclear radiation and to attend to the issues raised by all those who are pursuing a sincere, informed, sustained, peaceful and democratic movement against the Koodankulam nuclear plant. This is certainly a notable response of Tamilnadu Chief Minster Jaya Lalitha to the people’s movement against nuclear power plants compared to the harsh response of Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan against people’s movement opposing Jaitapur nuclear power plant in Maharashtra.

Unfortunately, it appears, the Prime Minister is complacent with his view that the need of the hour is a bit of public relations (PR) exercise. So the Prime Minister has decided to send a small group of experts to interact with the representatives of the people of the region to satisfy all their “legitimate concerns.” This has brought the Koodankulam issue on the national stage. The public debate now is on the ‘legitimate issues’ that affect the people living in the vicinity not only of Koodankulam nuclear plant but also of all the nuclear power plants existing and proposed in India.

Legitimate Concerns

Foremost concern is the question “whether to abandon or to go ahead with the Koodankulam nuclear power plant?” Before looking for answer to this question, it is worthwhile to recall the facts and circumstances under which the Koodankulam nuclear plant came into existence.

It has been escaping public scrutiny for a long time that several legitimate issues affecting the nation have cropped up over the years from the mismanagement in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) and other affiliated establishments of DAE. A respectable name given to this mismanagement is “BARC culture.” A distinguishing feature of this culture is that the persons working in the Indian nuclear establishments are under constant fear. What they whisper in private, they cannot talk in public. They are even afraid of asking access to their own nuclear radiation dose records for there could be victimisation for ever thereafter.

It is not difficult to understand why and how this “BARC culture” developed. A major contributing factor for the development of this deplorable culture is the deliberate mixing of nuclear weapon pursuit for the defence application and the nuclear power pursuit for civilian application. Another crucial factor that contributed to the development of such a culture is the constant rivalry that exists between “engineers” and “scientists”. The term “engineers” refers to those who enter BARC with an engineering degree and the term “scientists” refers to those who enter with a degree in physics or any other stream other than engineering. These two streams commence their polarisations in BARC training school.

It is necessary for the present Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh to know more about this ‘BARC culture’. There was a time when Bhabha Atomic Research Centre Officers Association (BARCOA) wrote a detailed letter in the eighties to the then Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi explaining the ‘BARC culture’ and urging corrective action in the national interest. But the senior “scientists” and “engineers” knew how to misguide and misdirect the Prime Minister to escape scrutiny and to get over the BARCOA letter. However, Smt.Indira Gandhi resorted to another litmus test. Though BARCOA letter shed no discernable light on the Indian nuclear submarine propulsion plant development project at BARC, Smt.Indira Gandhi kept it as a litmus test to know the mismatch between the promise and performance of the scientists at BARC. When it became clear to her with the help of a knowledgeable officer of Indian Navy that the BARC scientists are incapable of developing a nuclear submarine propulsion plant design, Smt.Indira Gandhi made up her mind to look for design help from Russians. In the decision making process that followed during her term before her assassination and during the tenure of the next Prime Minister Shri.Rajiv Gandhi, the Russians came forward to help India with nuclear submarine design but they also demanded their own pound of flesh which includes Indians agreeing to purchase nuclear power plant in the civilian sector. That is how the Koodankulam nuclear plant came into existence. Continuing with Koodankulam nuclear plant will mean, the country continuing to pay for the failure of the Indian nuclear scientists. Russian help for the nuclear submarine design should not create a situation where the incompetent Indian nuclear scientists parade themselves as experts leaving our country dependent for ever on foreign help both in defence and civilian nuclear sector. On this point, there is lot more that needs to be said in our national interest, but that should be for some other time.

Life of Fishermen at Kalpakkam and Koodankulam

One of the legitimate concerns at the core of the agitation against the Koodankulam nuclear plant is, apart from the fear of nuclear radiation, the fear of fishermen on the east coast of India that their fish catching activity would be affected from the rise of temperature of sea while the nuclear plant is in operation. On this point a comparison with the presence of an operational nuclear power plant at Kalpakkam on the same east coast will be helpful.

Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) at Kalpakkam near Chennai is in operation and has two Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) of Canadian design using heavy water as coolant and moderator. It has two units, each of 220 MW installed capacity, the first went critical in 1983 and the second in 1985. However, at some point of time, due to technical and safety problems both the units have been downgraded to 170 MW each.

As of now, Koodankulam nuclear power plant is ready for commissioning. It has at present two Russian VVER 1000 reactors of 1000 MW each. They are Pressurised Water Reactors (PWR) using ordinary water as coolant and moderator. The total installed capacity at present is 2000 MW.

A common design feature of nuclear plants at Kalpakkam and Koodankulam is, feed water in steam generator is converted to steam using the heat transported from the nuclear reactor to the steam generator. Steam thus derived is used to run turbine to produce electricity. After passing through the turbine the steam is cooled and condensed to water in a device called Condenser. The water thus obtained is mixed with feed water on the way to the steam generator. This cycle goes on. The Condenser uses sea water sucked from the sea to cool and condense the steam to water. In the process, the sea water becomes hot and the hot sea water is delivered into the sea through a long pipe. It is at the outlet of this long pipe the seawater temperature rises which in turn affects the fish and other marine life in the sea.

Under normal conditions, the temperature of sea around Kalpakkam is about 85 degrees F. When both the units are in operation in MAPS at Kalpakkam, the temperature of the sea at the outlet of the Condenser cooling system shoots up to 140 degrees F, a dangerous level. If this is the temperature of sea water near Kalpakkam with a capacity of less than 440 MW, what will be the situation at Koodankulam when the 2000 MW power plant goes into operation? Has the Ministry of Environment examined this aspect before giving environmental clearance to the two Russian VVER 1000 reactors of 1000 MW each near Koodankulam? This requires a thorough examination with public participation and not a mere assurance from the NPCIL and expert committees that all has been taken care of.

The fishermen near Kalpakkam know that when both the units of MAPS are in operation, the temperature of the sea around it rises excessively. They say that when they go out to sea during those times in their small boats they are unable to catch fish because if they get hit by a wave while they are out fishing, they start to itch and the lower half of their body breaks out in blisters.

There was a time when crab, shrimp, shellfish, and a variety of multi-coloured fish could be found in abundance near Sadres, a quiet fishing village at the southern end of the Kalpakkam nuclear complex. The havoc caused to local life due to the plant is described by Japanese journalist Tashiro Akira and others who visited several nuclear sites in the world including India. Their findings were published in a book titled Resume . The fishermen at Kalpakkam tell them… “The reason why our catches have declined so drastically is that plant. The warm waste water that comes out of these keeps the fish away, particularly in the area within a few miles’ radius of the outlet.” The villagers added, “Lots of dead fish are floating out there. We gather them up and make karuvadu .” The Japanese journalists mention that karuvadu is a dish made by salting and drying fish for two or three days. The journalists heard from the villagers of Sadres: “It all goes to market. People here won’t touch the stuff because they know where it’s come from. The villagers take their catch of karuvadu to Madras and sell it there, where it provides a cheap source of protein for the poor people in the city.” When the journalists asked whether it was actually safe for people to eat this fish, the reply was, “Well, they’re probably contaminated, but we can’t catch anything else, and there is hardly any money coming in at the moment. We don’t have any choice.”

Therefore, the fears of fishermen at Koodankulam are genuine and well founded. Expert Committees cannot and should not pull pool over their eyes.

Dispel fears In Scientific & Democratic Way

Nuclear radiation is called invisible poison, it cannot be seen, touched or tasted. It is well known, nuclear radiation enters food chain. Affects of nuclear radiation include genetic transformations, cancer, leukaemia, still births and miscarriages. The fears of the people at Koodankulam and other places opposing nuclear power plants would remain justified till the DAE, AEC, BARC and NPCIL take urgent steps to appraise the public of the correct facts and if possible dispel their fears through scientific and democratic methods. For that, the following bare minimum steps are needed from the DAE and NPCIL.

(i) Contamination Around Nuclear Power Plants

Independent Committee with public participation should carry out examination around all the existing nuclear power plants, reprocessing units, fuel fabrication units and uranium mining areas, of the soil, waters and underground water table for nuclear radiation levels and make the results public. For nuclear power plants next to the sea like in Tarapur and Kalpakkam, examination of the temperature of water at discharge points while in full power operation, and examination for radiation levels in sea weeds, marine growth and marine plants and in the fish and marine organisms and in the soil on the shore should be carried out and the results should be made public.

(ii) Contamination in Thane Creek

It is known, there is a geological fault in the middle of Thane Creek on the edge of which the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) is situated in Mumbai on the west coast of India. After Tsunami hit the east coast of India, a Public Interest Writ Petition was filed before Bombay High Court, by the social organisation ‘Citizens for A Just Society’ founded by Dr.Usha Mehta, noted Gandhian, Freedom Fighter and Padma Vibhushan praying, apart from other things, that an independent examination of the Thane Creek should be carried out to know the radiation levels in the waters, bed and shores and also in the fish and marine organisms in the waters. Nuclear discharges from BARC into the Thane Creek have been going on for over forty years and there is a possibility of contamination like in lake Ontario in Canada where from the regular discharges of nuclear power plants into the lake over the years, the waters in the lake, the lake bed and fish in the waters and the soil around have been found contaminated and due warning signals have been erected and issued.

In the affidavit in reply before the Bombay High Court, the Department of Atomic Energy admitted that radiation is found in the fish and marine organisms in Thane Creek and stated that the actual levels of radiation cannot be disclosed in public interest.

Another prayer in the Writ Petition was that since the BARC has been officially declared in or around the year 2004 as a nuclear weapon making establishment and since in every other country nuclear weapons are made in establishments located away from thickly populated places and since Mumbai is thickly populated, the nuclear weapon making activity should be shifted from BARC to some other suitable location.

The Bombay High Court in its order recorded that the Petitioners appear knowledgeable in nuclear matters and the Central Government should take notice of the issues raised by the Petitioners and take appropriate steps in public interest. With its order, the High Court advised the Petitioners to deal with the officials of BARC directly. With such directions and advice, the Writ Petition was disposed off.

Thus an admitted fact that emerged from the Writ Petition is, there is radiation in the fish and marine organisms in Thane Creek and the radiation levels are withheld from the public by DAE and BARC. Such conduct on the part of persons heading Indian nuclear establishments, lends support and justification for the people of Koodankulam to oppose the Koodankulam nuclear power plant. The DAE, AEC, BARC and NPCIL should allow independent examination of not only of the Thane Creek, but also around all the nuclear installations and nuclear power plants to know the radiation levels in the waters, soil, underground water table, and in the sea weeds, fish and marine organisms and make public the results of all such examinations.

(iii) Narora Accident Reports Withheld

AEC, DAE, BARC and NPCIL deal with nuclear incidents and accidents in the most casual manner and keep the public in the dark at all times. The public in India does not get even the information mandatorily furnished to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The accident in 1993 in Narora atomic plant offers clear and conclusive evidence to know the abuse of power by the AEC, DAE and NPCIL. Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh can understand these things only if he can keep politics and science unmixed.

The Narora Atomic Power Station (NAPS) in Uttar Pradesh has Pressurised Heavy Water (PHW) reactors of Canadian design. It has two units each of 220 MW installed capacity. The first went critical in 1989 and the second in 1991.

On March 31, 1993 there was a serious accident at NAPS. India was close to repeating Chernobyl, in a nuclear disaster that could have changed the very face of this subcontinent. That night, a fire broke out at NAPS and for several agonising hours the country’s nuclear establishment feared the worst. But, as soon as they managed to avoid a catastrophe, the accident was, as usual, played down as a minor incident and within weeks of its occurrence, it was allowed to be forgotten.

Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) set up a Committee to investigate the NAPS accident and NPCIL set up its own Committee for the same purpose. Neither of the Reports has been made public so far.

But the truth partially surfaced, and whatever has already come to light is unnerving, to say the least. The finding of the expert committee set up by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board ( AERB ) to look into the causes of the Narora fire shows just how close the incident came to becoming a disaster because of the major chaos in the system. The fire broke out at 3:31 a.m. that day after two blades in the turbine generator of Unit-I at NAPS snapped under accumulated stress. The broken blades then sliced through 16 other blades, destabilising the turbine rotor system and causing it to vibrate excessively. Within seconds, pipes carrying hydrogen gas that cools the generator burst and caught fire. It rapidly spread to the oil used as a lubricant and engulfed the entire transmission complex. The cables of four power supply systems that act as back-ups in case of an emergency were also burnt, causing a total blackout within just six minutes of the fire.

Before operators in the control room were forced out, choking on the smoke brought in by poorly located ducts, the computers confirmed that the reactors in Unit-I and Unit-II had automatically tripped. The men then initiated the crash cooling command to rapidly dissipate heat in the core. After the complete power failure, using torches, some of them climbed to the top of the reactor building to open valves that would release boron in liquid form, which prevents the nuclear core from turning critical again. Full power was restored 17 hours after the fire broke out.

There were major flaws in the design and installation of the Narora plant, both procedural and structural, as detected by the AERB committee. Moreover, there were two immediate reasons for the occurrence and the consequent complications of the Narora accident in March 1993.

The first reason was that they ignored a warning from the UK-based General Electric Company (GEC) which had transferred the turbine blade technology to Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL). GEC had informed them as far back as 1989 of the possibility of such turbine blade failures as it had already observed 41 cracks in 5,304 similar turbine blades used elsewhere in the world. They had recommended design modifications for blades that had finished more than 10,000 running cycles. Unit-I of Narora had in fact completed 16,251 cycles and therefore there was an obvious failure on the part of the scientists at Narora to carry out the modification as per the warning from GEC. Even now, no one is being held responsible for this failure which was so dangerous and which resulted in a loss of several hundred crores of rupees to the exchequer.

The second reason was that the power cables for each of the four back-up power supply systems were laid in the same duct without any fire-resistant material dividing the layers. As a result, the fire from one set of cables spread to the others and made the emergency remote control systems unavailable. Fortunately, the fire at the Narora plant did not spread to two giant oil tanks on a lower floor in the same building, or to 14 spare hydrogen tanks stored nearby, or else much more damage would have resulted.

But for the heroism of the person who climbed atop the reactor in darkness to open manually the boron flow valve, there would have been more serious complications. Strangely, the country does not know the identity of this person. In any other country, such a brave act and devotion to duty would have been appreciated and amply rewarded.

Even stranger is the fact that two enquiry reports – one by the AERB Committee and the other by the Committee set up by the NPCIL, have not been made public. In a similar fire accident on March 22, 1975, at the Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant near Decatur, Alabama, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission published a detailed report on February 1976, marked it NUREG-0050, and made it available to the public.

The AERB committee found that the total loss of power had led to other major failures. The most serious was the loss of containment integrity. NAPS was the first of the reactors to be built with a double containment feature. The primary containment chamber was backed by another thinner dome. Nitrogen was used to create a difference in pressure between the two zones as a further prevention against leakage. But during the total failure of power and the consequent black-out, the nitrogen back-up system failed to function. As a result, the door seals of the airlocks were deflated. If a core meltdown had occurred, the radioactivity would have leaked out.

The expert Committee’s findings were not disclosed even to the Parliament. Having been misguided and misinformed by DAE, the Standing Committee on Energy of the Lok Sabha got a distorted view that reduced the Narora accident to a minor fire and gave a clean chit to DAE and NPCIL without any critical references.

However, despite protests from NPCIL, the AERB classified the Narora fire as a serious incident meriting a level-3 rating under the international nuclear event scale. It meant that if any further failure of safety systems had occurred it could have resulted in a nuclear accident in which even radioactive substances might have been released. From all accounts, the Narora fire in March 1993 in Uttar Pradesh was India’s worst nuclear accident since its first nuclear power plant was commissioned at Tarapur, Maharashtra, in 1969.

The DAE admitted before the Standing Committee On Energy (1996-97) of the 11th Lok Sabha that the Narora fire had triggered a chain of events resulting in long shutdowns required for rehabilitation and modifications, not only at Narora but also at Madras and Kakrapara atomic power plants. Our position in nuclear power would not have been as bad as it is now if there had been greater accountability and effective regulation. It is a practice with our nuclear establishment to keep everything secret. As a result, the public in India is in total darkness regarding the mishaps in our nuclear plants which the NAPS incident amply illustrates.

Therefore the people of Koodankulam are justified in refusing to believe the assurances of expert committees set up by the Prime Minister. Before canvassing that the Koodankulam nuclear plant be allowed to be commissioned, let the expert committee at first cause the NPCIL to make the following reports public:

· The two reports, one by the Committee setup by AERB and another by the Committee setup by NPCIL to investigate the accident that occurred on March 31, 1993 at the Narora Atomic Power Station in Uttar Pradesh. This will show that without any Tsunami, India is likely to face the very same disaster that occurred to nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power station in Japan that were crippled by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

· The two reports, one by the Committee setup by AERB and another by the Committee set up by NPCIL to investigate the collapse of the containment dome of Unit-I of the Kaiga plant in 1994. The collapse of the containment dome of Unit-I of the Kaiga plant in 1994 was unprecedented. In the more than half century of worldwide nuclear power history, such a thing has never happened anywhere else. If such a collapse had taken place during operation of the nuclear plant, about 130 tonnes of concrete falling from a height of nearly 30 metres would have damaged the automatic control rod drives that lie below the crown of the dome, disabling them and making the safe shutdown of the reactor difficult. The massive weight of concrete might have led to damage to the nuclear coolant pumps and pipes, resulting in severe loss of coolant. This could have led to nuclear core meltdown and the escape of large amounts of radioactive substances to the environment. To investigate the collapse of the containment dome, which the DAE and NPCIL prefer to term delamination, two investigating teams were commissioned, one by the AERB and the other by NPCIL. The AERB team consisted of experts from outside DAE, whereas the NPCIL made it an internal investigation with no outside expert participation. However, the findings of both Committees have been kept secret.

People who are opposing Koodankulam nuclear power plant as well as the people who are opposing the nuclear power plants in other places are justified to insist that the NPCIL and DAE must at first prove their bona fides by making public the reports that have been withheld from the public so far, though those reports deal with issues in civilian nuclear sector and as such are required to be made public. Mismanagement in AEC, DAE, BARC and NPCIL affects national interests apart from putting the people to the risk of dangerous nuclear radiation.

Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), though a Government of India Enterprise was registered as a Public Limited Company under the Companies Act, 1956 in September 1987. NPCIL is responsible for design, construction, commissioning and operation of nuclear power reactors. The fact that NPCIL is under the administrative control of Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Government of India, dose not afford NPCIL a veil of secrecy to escape scrutiny of safety issues in the nuclear power plants or for that matter any mismanagement in the NPCIL.

Therefore, decision on the commissioning of Koodankulam should not be taken till the public confidence in NPCIL and DAE is restored by making public all that has been kept secret up till now in the functioning of NPCIL.

Buddhi Kota Subbarao is former Indian Navy Captain with Ph.D in nuclear technology from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay . E-mail : bksubbarao@gmail.com .


    Join discussion: leave a comment