Kudankulam: NPCIL’s recent celebration hides its massive failure

G. Sundarrajan | Courtesy: Times of India, Chennai

The recent announcement about both the units of Kudankulam nuclear power project reaching their full capacity may be a reason to rejoice. But the euphoria could be short-lived as there are more problems to the project than meets the eye.

Since its inception in 2002, the Kudankulam power plant has constantly run into problems. While many officials initially tried shifting the blame on protesting villagers of Idinthakarai it has now become evident that the plant generates more problems than power. Even those in support of nuclear power have warned that the plant will pose a major threat to the entire South India if not reviewed independently. Dr A Gopalakrishnan, former chairperson of Atomic Energy Regulator in India (AERB) for instance, has repeatedly voiced such concerns and demanded that the issues be resolved. Despite such warnings, Koodankulam continues to be ‘ill and untreated’.

In a sense, Kudankulam was too ambitious. It was touted as India’s first 1,000 MW reactor and 100% first imported reactor. It was reported to be India’s first PWR (pressurised water reactor). It was also claimed that Kudankulam was the world’s first V413 reactor. But the issues in Koodankulam easily outnumber its purported ambitions. While unit 1 has failed more than 35 times in the past three years, on November 29, Kudankulam authorities said unit 2 has tripped too. After being connected to the grid, unit 2 ran only for eight days and recorded an erratic power production.

A SRLDC (southern regional load despatch centre) report on November 28 said that the two units in Kudankulam produced 2,089MW at their peak, which is risky. Excessive power production is dangerous. Experts say that the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in erstwhile USSR had recorded similar power production when the electrical team had wanted to test the maximum withstanding capacity of the systems. History had witnessed the adverse effects of such a trial.

On August 15 this year, the Kudankulam site’s director proudly announced that unit 1 has produced 14,438 million units till date. The number accounts to only 43.19% of the plant’s capacity while the unit should have ideally produced 32,760 million units in the same period. A new reactor should run on at least 80% PLF (plant load factor) but the status of the new reactors speaks volumes about their inefficiency.

Various reasons can be attributed to the repeated failures in units 1 and 2 of Kudankulam power plant. It has been established beyond doubt that the components of the nuclear power plant that have come from Russia are substandard in nature. Various cases were filed against Zio-Podolsk, the subsidiary company of Russian nuclear group Rosatom and procurement director Sergei Shutov was arrested in Russia for certifying low quality steel as high quality. It was this steel that went into making parts for reactors in India, Russia and Iran. After a clear-cut instrumentation problem was highlighted by A Gopalakrishnan, NPCIL (Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited) said they will setup a committee to study the issue. The report never saw the light of day.

Based on various affidavits filed by Poovulagin Nanbargal highlighting the supply of substandard components from Russia, the Supreme Court in its verdict on May 2013 asked NPCIL and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board to check each component and systems, and file a report. The court said the plant can be started only after that. The atomic energy department did submit a few reports with the Supreme Court registry within two months of judgment and went ahead with the commissioning of the plant.

The lack of experience of the Indian atomic engineers in installing PWR reactors is another issue. Since October 2013, unit 1 has tripped for more than 35 times. Globally, a nuclear reactor is restarted within 45 to 60 days after maintenance. But every time the unit 1 of Kudankulam is shut for maintenance, it takes at least four months to restart.

Even by its own policy of using nuclear power for development, the Indian government seemed to have hit a major roadblock with Kudankulam power plant. Unless the state takes corrective steps, the white elephant will become the state’s own Frankenstein monster.

(The writer is a volunteer with Poovulagin Nanbargal, an NGO)

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