Preventing a Nuclear disastor
By Praful Bidwai
India has come to treat World Environment Day, June 5, as a mere ritual, involving lip service to the cause of environmental protection while promoting policies and activities that are ecologically thoroughly unsound. On the eve of the G-8 summit, our government could not even formulate a response to the question the world is asking: what does India intend to do, as one of the globe’s fastest growing economies and its fifth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, to cut its emissions? What is its strategy to mitigate climate change, besides making money through carbon trading? How long is the Indian elite going to hide behind its poor people to resist demands for limiting its growing contribution to global warming?
In recent years the Indian government has sanctioned countless environmentally hazardous industrial and mining projects, promoted the profligate use of energy and wasteful luxury consumption by the rich, allowed extensive deforestation and pollution of rivers, gratuitously diluted environmental clearance norms, and failed to remedy the human and ecological effects of large dams, chemical factories, and harmful activities along our vulnerable coast. In 1994, it instituted a system of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for major projects, including public hearings—as a token of “transparency”.
However, this has been so comprehensively subverted in practice as to have become a farce. A whole army of “consultants” has mushroomed, who will produce appallingly bad reports extolling hazardous projects—as “command performance” for their sponsors. Public hearings are conducted with cynical collusion between state pollution control boards (PCBs), EIA consultants, project sponsors and the district authorities.
Typically, the hearings’ organisers ensure that the projects’ opponents are not properly informed, nor heard. The District Collector’s concluding report usually mocks the process and arbitrarily grants the project approval even when a majority of participants register their strong opposition. In any case, the report can be whimsically overruled by the Central Pollution Control Board or Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).
I had experience of this last week in respect of a public hearing for the Russian-designed Units 3 to 6 of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Station (KNPS), proposed to be built by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPC) at the Southern tip of India, less than 20 km from Kanyakumari. Ironically, Units 1 & 2, both of 1,000 MW, and costing a huge Rs 13,171 crores, are already three-fourths of the way through construction—without even an EIA, leave alone a public hearing. NPC claims, incredibly, that the new Units won’t add to the environmental impact of the original project.
If approved, the 6,000 MW KNPS will be India’s largest and most concentrated nuclear power centre, 10 times bigger than all other nuclear power stations (barring one). It must also be one of India’s most hated and unpopular electricity-generating facilities. The public hearing of June 2 at Tirunelveli bore ample testimony to this. More than 2,000 people from three coastal districts (Tirunelveli, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari) attended it—a number that speaks to the strength of the anti-project sentiment.
The hearing took place in intimidating conditions—a police posse of 1,500, tight security barriers, nasty riot gear, “Striking Force” trucks and watercannon vehicles, and armoured crowd control carriers called “Vajra”. Yet, hundreds of people insisted that they be allowed to speak. Under MoEF guidelines, the EIA report summary must be widely publicised in the local language, and made available to people in advance. This didn’t happen.
The Collector claimed that a Tamil translation of the EIA summary was available at designated offices. But he couldn’t produce a copy. None among those present at the hearing had seen it. Many said they nothing was available in these offices during their visits.
The Collector, say MoEF rules, must conduct the hearing in “a systematic, time-bound and transparent manner, ensuring widest possible public participation district-wise… Every person present at the venue shall be granted the opportunity to seek information or clarifications… The summary of the… proceedings accurately reflecting all the views and concerns expressed shall be recorded… and read over to the audience… explaining the contents in the vernacular language.”
None of this happened. Two hours into the process, after about 10 persons had spoken, the Collector abruptly closed the hearing and declared he would convey the assembly’s sentiments to the PCB and MoEF. It’s not as if there was violence or any other provocation to terminate the hearing. The people were simply not given a chance to register their views.
This gross violation of due process has further enraged the local people, who overwhelmingly oppose the project. They want the hearing to be resumed after MoEF requirements are fulfilled, including wide circulation of the EIA in Tamil.
It’s not difficult to understand why the people hate the KNPS. They don’t do so out of ignorance, but because they are literate, worldly-wise and aware of the hazards of nuclear power. The project is being foisted upon them without even an honest acknowledgement that nuclear power is fraught with problems, including generation of radioactive waste, routine releases of radioactivity and other toxic substances, and the possibility of catastrophic accidents like Chernobyl 21 years ago. It’s one thing to claim that steps can be taken to overcome the hazards and risks; it’s another to deny their existence altogether.
The Koodankulam project concentrates all the classical problems associated with nuclear power (discussed in this Column last February and in December)—in a magnified form. Thus, it will generate large amounts of spent fuel, which contains concentrated high-level radioactivity. But the EIA takes no account of this. The EIA greatly underestimates routine releases of radioisotopes like iodine-131 and noble gases. The plant will expose hundreds of occupational workers to high doses of radiation—a silent, invisible poison that damages cell DNA and causes cancers and genetic deformities. Like all reactor types—and Koodankulam is a Russian design, as was Chernobyl—KNPS can undergo a core meltdown, with devastating consequences for Tamil Nadu and Kerala, even Sri Lanka.
KNPS poses four additional problems that warrant its scrapping. First, it’s being built at the edge of the Gulf of Mannar, one of the world’s richest marine biodiversity areas, with 3,600 species of flora and fauna, of which 377 are endemic. The thermal discharges from the plant are liable to adversely affect this sensitive, vulnerable, yet precious, biological reserve. Available data suggest that the seawater in the secondary cooling circuit will be discharged at a much higher temperature than the 70C (above the incoming water) norm of MoEF. The amount of seawater circulated is 13 times higher than for the average Indian nuclear station.
Second, within a 5 km radius of the plant lie three large settlements: Koodankulam (pop. 20,000), Idinthakarai (pop. 12,000), and a new Tsunami (rehabilitation) Colony (pop. 2,000-plus). KNPS’s location violates the Department of Atomic Energy’s siting norms and a Tamil Nadu Government Order of May 31, 1988, which declares a 1.6 km-radius zone around the plant “prohibited”. The next zone, in a 5-km radius, is a “sterilised area”, where “the density of population should be small so that rehabilitation will be easier.” Finally, “in the outlying area of 16 km, the population should not exceed 10,000.”
Now, Koodankulam and Idinthakarai are just 2 to 4 km from the plant as the crow flies. And the Tsunami Colony’ last row is less than one km from the reactors. The population in the 16-km radius is at least 70,000. So either NPC will flagrantly violate its own norms, or thousands of families will be brutally uprooted—and separated from their livelihood as fisher folk. This is unconscionable and altogether too disgusting even to contemplate.
Third, the plant is being built in a seriously water-stressed area. It originally planned to bring fresh water from the nearest source, Pechipparai dam, 65 km away. But in the face of popular resistance, the idea was dropped. It will now daily desalinate 48 million litres of seawater—an exorbitantly expensive technology, unproved on an industrial scale. This will send the costs of electricity it generates through the roof.
Finally, even without this additional expense, the original (optimistically) estimated cost of Koodankulam’s power is Rs 3.08 per unit. By contrast, the cost of electricity from the nearby Neyveli thermal power station will be Rs 1.66 to 1.74 (on capacity factors of 85 and 70 percent respectively). The Koodankulam estimate excludes the costs of decommissioning nuclear reactors (which are one-third to one-half their capital costs).
KNPS represents a rotten deal, especially because Southern Tamil Nadu has become the wind energy capital of India—with hundreds of megawatts of renewable, cheap and safe energy.
Koodankulam was always a political bargain, signed during the last days of the USSR, to symbolically reaffirm “Indo-Soviet (Russian) friendship”. It remains that despite today’s changed conditions. But there are better, less toxic and expensive ways of expressing friendship. Koodankulam must be scrapped.