Koodankulam: Statutory Violations Committed, Human and Environmental Safety Concerns Ignored

Dr. E A S Sarma
Former Union Power Secretary, Govt of India

Know more about Dr. Sarma HERE.

Prof. T. Shivaji Rao

Prof.T.Shivaji Rao is the Director of Center for Environmental Studies,GITAM University, Visakhapatnam (India)

Ever since 1988 when India signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement with erstwhile USSR to set up the two 1000MWe VVRS nuclear reactors at Kudankulam, there have been protests from the people in the area against the project. Instead of taking the people into confidence and engaging them in a frank dialogue, both DAE and NPCIL adopted an opaque and insular approach, compounding the fears of the people on the threat to their lives due to potential maximum credible accident that may occur at Kudankulam just as they occurred at Chernobyl and Fukushima. When they watched the full horrors of Fukushima last year, they felt that their apprehensions were genuine. The local public protests intensified as a result of this nuclear explosion. Unfortunately, there has been no attempt on the part of either DAE or the State government to reach out to the people and understand their strong feelings. We express our anguish at this.

Looking objectively at the way DAE, NPCIL and Tamil Nadu State Governments have so far gone about with the setting up of Kudankulam project, one cannot but feel distressed at the series of statutory violations committed and the total disregard for the citizen’s fundamental right to life and safety. In this connection, the following are some of our concerns.

DAE signed the first agreement with USSR in November 1988 on the premise that the spent fuel from the project would be shipped back to USSR for treatment and disposal. Union Ministry of Environment & Forests (MOEF) issued Environment Clearance (EC) on 9-5-1989 on that basis. 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 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, DAE went ahead with the construction of the project in violation of Environment (Protection) Act (EPA), 1986. It is a serious statutory violation that calls for cancellation of EC and stoppage of construction of the project. Alternate ways to make use of the power turbines already installed need to be explored by making use of less risky fuels like natural gas, oil or locally available lignite coal which is proposed to be utilised elsewhere.

AERB issued site clearance for the project on 10-11-89 subsequent to the EC issued by MOEF. In other words, when the EC was issued, site selection had not been finalised! This in itself was an illegality.

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 desalination plant drawing water from the sea. This substantial change in fresh water source would make it necessary for DAE to approach MOEF for a fresh EC and also clearance under CRZ. By not complying with these, DAE has violated the EPA. In addition, the EC also required NPCIL “to maintain the temperature gradient at 6oC between the cooling water and the receiving body (sea) so that the fish life and fish food organisms in the ecologically sensitive marine resource shall not be affected”. The EC similarly laid down a stipulation on the disposal of the harmful effluents without indepth studies on their damaging impacts in relation to the environmental resources. All these conditions have since been openly flouted.

Project construction activity should not have started without prior Consent for Establishment (CFE) of the nuclear reactors at Kudankulam. NPCIL applied for CFE as an after thought on 30-12-2001 and TNPCB granted it without any application of mind on 25-2-2004. This defeated the purpose of CFE and its importance from the point of view of the safety and the environmental conservation aspects.

Thus, the project as it stands today is the outcome of several illegalities that impinge not only on the local environment but also on the health and the safety of the people living in its vicinity.

Post-Fukushima, the concept of “safety” has undergone a paradigm change. It is now abundantly clear that it is near impossible to predict the non-occurrence of seismic events and natural calamities like tsunami nor is it possible to say with certainty whether an dent of the Fukushima type will not take place. Man made hazards such as internal sabotage, terrorist attack by bombing or war can also cause reactor accidents. When such an accident takes place, it is now evident that the consequences can far exceed expectations. In multiple reactor complexes like Kudankulam, an accident in one reactor can trigger an accident in all. Since additional units are going to be installed, the studies should cover the total number of reactors proposed to be set up. No such studies have been carried out.

To the best of our knowledge, NPCIL has not carried out risk analysis studies 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 study, it will be unsafe to start the reactor units.

As a responsible wing of the government, DAE should have reviewed the safety norms of the nuclear power plants on the basis of Fukushima experience and redefined the boundaries of the Emergency Planning zoning system to bring the same in line with what USNRC has adopted (80km). DAE has failed to carry out such a review in tune with the guidelines formulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

We believe that neither DAE nor Tamil Nadu government is ready to handle a disaster in case it takes place at Kudankulam. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), a statutory body chaired by the PM himself, has issued unambiguous guidelines on the institutional structures to be set up for handling nuclear accidents. The Tamil Nadu government is expected to set up State-level and District-level DMAs, identify nuclear shelters for the affected people, identify hospitals for medical care, orient the officials, the local Gram Sabhas and the people to respond to disasters, train the officials and the people to be fully prepared for sheltering and emergency evacuation to safer places in case of accidents etc. Neither DAE nor the State has cared to respect these norms. In such a situation, it will be foolhardy for the government to misinform the people about the “safety” of the plant and start the units in a highly unprepared manner particularly when the mock drills conducted at Kudankulam are unscientific.

Based experience with accidents spanning over 14,500 reactor-years so far, including Fukushima, J. Lelieveld et al of Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, in their paper entitled “Global risk of radioactive fallout after major nuclear reactor accidents” (published in Atmos. Chem. Phy on 12-5-2012), have estimated the probability of a serious accident to be 1 in 5,000 per reactor-year, implying that a serious accident can occur once every decade to two decades. A catastrophic core melt in an accident in Asia can contaminate 100,000 square kilometers of the area around it. Defining the accident risk as the product of the probability of an accident (assuming it to be once in twenty years) and the consequential costs (Fukushima liability is Rs.3,00,000 crores as reported at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-09-30/tepco-sees-climbing-fukushima-damage-claims.html), a rough estimate of the risk liability for Kudankulan works out to Rs.15,000 crores. The cost of Kudankulam itself is Rs.14,000 Crores! Clearly, the project is unviable and on this basis alone and the government should drop going ahead with it in view of not only the safety concerns but also the cost of an accident. These estimates do not take into account the known adverse impact on the health of the people living around Kudankulam on account of low-intensity radiation exposure, the implications of which can be extensive and inter-generational.

In view of the foregoing considerations, we believe that there is a strong case for MOEF to revoke the EC, direct NPCIL to commission a competent agency to prepare an EIA and order a comprehensive, people-oriented public hearing in different places within the 80km zone around Kudankulam based on standards followed by an experienced nuclear regulatory commission such as the one in United States. As a part of the fresh EIA, NPCIL should be mandated to carry out comprehensive risk analysis studies to understand the implications of an accident and also the risks of even low-intensity radiation exposure for the people. Before MOEF issues an EC, NDMA’s norms should be put in place and tested for its implementability by an independent agency.

We strongly believe that AERB in its present avatar is far too subservient to DAE and therefore it cannot invoke enough credibility as a regulator particularly when the burden of disaster management has been placed over the shoulders of a highly inexperienced and ill-prepared Tamil Nadu State Government which does not have the required expertise to deal with nuclear emergency planning. Even the newly introduced law on regulation is beset with several shortcomings as pointed out by the Parliamentary Standing Committee and recently by C&AG. Unless a truly independent regulator is in place, India is perhaps not ready to set up and operate nuclear power plants, safe enough for the people. The existing civil liability law is a flawed one and, in that regime, imported nuclear reactors will not be safe to operate.

We hope that there will be a public debate on these issues. We believe that the citizen’s fundamental right to life and safety guaranteed under Article 21 will be at stake if the above suggestions are not heeded. We appeal to the Prime Minister and Tamil Nadu people to ponder over these suggestions with the necessary seriousness and act independently, firmly and decisively.


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