People power nukes Koodankulam nuclear power project

Hunger-strike continued for 11 days

People’s power has delivered a cracking punch that could halt Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s ambitious plan to roll out nuclear energy in India on a large scale.

Bowing to a popular upsurge, the Centre has abandoned its stubbornness and decided to reconsider the 2,000 MW Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNP) in southern Tamil Nadu.

The dry run is in progress for the first of the two 1,000 MW reactors – being built with Russian design and technology – and its commissioning is scheduled for November. Stopping work at this point, and putting off plans to set up four more reactors at the same site, will be a big blow to both India and Russia.

But a massive protest for the last 10 days at Idinthakarai near the project site has forced the government to halt in its tracks. Over one lakh people have joined the agitation to oppose the nuclear power project. More than 100 people are on an indefinite fast against it. The protest is not confined to Idinthakarai. It has become a burning issue in the coastal districts of Tirunelveli, Tuticorin and Kannyakumari with its fallout having an echo in the entire southern region.

“The Centre is ready to reconsider the project. People’s safety comes first. Power comes later,” said V. Narayanasamy, minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) after visiting the venue of the mass protest at Idinthakarai, close to the project site.

But, this apparent assurance has failed to mollify the people of the region. “We want the project to be abandoned. We want the chief minister (Tamil Nadu CM J. Jayalalithaa) to pass a one-line resolution in the (state) assembly to press for its closure. With this assurance, she should send a delegation for the fast to be concluded,” said S.P. Udayakumar, of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) that is spearheading the protest.

Narayanasamy was expectedly given a hostile welcome when he met the protesters. Cries of “shut the plant” greeted him on his arrival. Pushed on to the back foot, he told the mediapersons: “I will convey to the PM the people’s sentiments and apprehensions. Their fears appear genuine. We have to respect their feelings and legitimate concerns.”

Initially, Narayanasamy was to hold negotiations with the leaders of the agitation in nearby Radhapuram. With the leaders of the stir uncomfortable about joining the parleys with the government outside the protest venue, the minister reached Idinthakarai on Tuesday evening.

Meanwhile, a delegation of leaders spearheading the agitation against the nuclear plants are meeting Jayalalithaa to demand that she pass a resolution in the assembly or in the state cabinet to abandon the Koodankulam project. In fact, there has been a change in the CM’s position on the nuclear power plants following the growing protests. She had earlier defended the Koodankulam project but has now made a U-turn and slammed the Centre for its insensitivity on the issue.

“If the government does not do anything to address public anger and allay the fears about the safety of nuclear technology, the entire nuclear programme including running of the existing nuclear plants will be in trouble”, warned Dr A. Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.


Six years since the nuclear deal India signed with the US, not a single new project with imported reactors has begun. The landmark deal was supposed to open the doors for the import of technology and expansion of nuclear power generation in India.

The implementation of the accord was subject to the crossing of ‘hurdles’ such as waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the IAEA safeguard agreement. The problems associated with all these steps were known when the deal was signed, and they were addressed adequately. The government probably had no inkling that public opposition to nuclear power could be a stumbling block, so it made no contingency plan for them to be handled.

The integrated energy policy of the country projects the need for an installed capacity of about 778 GW of power by 2032 if India has to sustain a growth rate of 8 per cent. Of this, the share of nuclear power is envisaged to be about 63,000 MW.

Now it appears that the way forward for the nuclear establishment may not be smooth. The public mood on nuclear power has changed globally after the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

The protests in India have to be viewed in this context. First it was Jaitapur. Now it is Koodankulam. Haripur was nipped in the bud by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee even before protests could begin. In fact, Banerjee’s decision is likely to embolden protesters elsewhere.

Resistance against nuclear power plants is continuing in Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, where nuclear power projects have been proposed at Fatehabad, Mithi Virdi, Chutka, Jaitapur and Kovvada, respectively.

Given the public perception about safety of nuclear power and problems involved in land acquisition and environmental clearance, setting up a large number of plants and with technology from multiple vendors seems a tall order. “The government will have to learn how to handle public anger. You just can’t brush it aside. People have been protesting, but their voices were not heard by an arrogant nuclear establishment so far,” Gopalakrishnan said.

At Idinthakarai for instance, what began as a protest of the fishermen community has turned out to be a mass protest, with people cutting across caste and community joining the agitation.

On Tuesday, Narayanasamy attempted to counter the charge that the government had been insensitive to the concerns of the local community while pushing ahead with the Koodankulam project.

He pointed out that the PM had ordered a review of all nuclear plants soon after the Fukushima accident. “Accordingly, review panels were constituted and about two months back on the basis of the reports given by the committees, further strengthening of safety measures has been done by most nuclear plants, including at Koodankulam,” the minister told newspersons.

Vinuta Gopal of Greenpeace India said the concerns raised by the people of Idinthakarai were genuine. According to her, a report prepared by the Russian regulatory body had raised concerns about the safety of the Russian reactors being installed at Koodankulam. However, officials of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited said a safety review of the plant was done after Fukushima, in addition to safety features already incorporated in the design. It is located at an elevation and would be safe from storm surges.

Russia insists ‘all norms in place’

Terming as unfortunate the resistance to the commissioning of the Kudankulam nuclear plant – an Indo-Russian joint venture – Russia on Tuesday said all safety norms had been taken into consideration in view of the Fukushima accident in Japan.

It also ruled out the possibility of the ongoing protests influencing Indo-Russian cooperation in the future. “What is happening in Tamil Nadu is unfortunate.

It looks like that the protests will shadow the commissioning of the plant which is going to happen in December,” senior counsellor in the Russian embassy, Sergey V. Karmalito, said.

He added: “Last month, we conducted the trial runs (and) checked all safety measures. It is not correct to compare the Fukushima plant with the one in Kudankulam because the reactor in Japan was constructed decades ago and the one in Tamil Nadu is one of the most powerful and modern reactors in the world.”









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