India has second thoughts about launching Russia-built reactor – or building new ones in the future

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What started as low-key protests, as described in the Indian press, grew into an indefinite hunger strike that was started by anti-nuclear protesters in Tamil Nadu on September 11 and ended twelve days later following successful negotiations with the state’s government.

Around a thousand local fishermen also announced a strike in support of the protest, and 20,000 residents marched out to demonstrate their support of the activists.

On September 15, negotiations between the protesters and the government of the state reached an impasse, with the hunger strike becoming a serious threat to the 127 participants’ health. The protest culminated a week later with Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa announcing the government would adopt a resolution against launching the nearly completed nuclear power plant, a promise fulfilled at a government meeting the following day.

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The closure of the as yet unfinished site was not the only demand put forth by the protesters. Bishop of Tuticorin Roman Catholic Diocese Rt. Rev. Yvon Ambroise, who was among those meeting with Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa on behalf of the protesters, said the state needed to look at alternative energy solutions.

“We urged the Chief Minister that the State Cabinet pass a resolution demanding the permanent closure of [Kudankulam] and appealed to her to withdraw cases against some of the protesters during the agitation,” a September 23 story in The Hindu quoted Rev. Ambroise as saying. “We also appealed to her to draw a comprehensive alternative energy policy, which should ensure tapping of non-conventional energy sources at the optimum level so that the environment and people living near such power generation units do not get affected.”

Rev. Amboise also said the protesters were fully satisfied by the chief minister’s promises and agreed to discontinue the hunger strike.

However, more protest actions are planned until the federal government agrees to permanently close the site, The Hindu reports.

Russia upset over “unfortunate” protests

The Russian side insists all possible safety concerns have been already addressed in the design and called the protests “unfortunate,” according to a story in The Hindu of September 20. 

“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 although we have accommodated all new requests made by India,” the Russian Embassy’s Senior Counsellor Sergei Karmalito was quoted by the newspaper as saying.

The Indians’ safety concerns were intensified following the dual natural disaster that hit Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi last March and led to a still ongoing nuclear catastrophe.

According to the same story in The Hindu, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had agreed on an additional safety review during a meeting earlier this year.

“In the current atmosphere, [Russia’s safety] assurance was not good enough,” said officials and the two sides decided to go in for stress tests, the paper reports.

After delays caused by both post-Fukushima apprehension and late arrival of components and cost escalation, the first unit was slated to go critical in December, with the second one to follow six months later with 1,000 megawatts of the generated power feeding Tamil Nadu’s grid.

The two units are currently completed to 99 percent and 95 percent, respectively, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India said on its website.

Rosatom’s foreign reactor construction wing, Atomstroiexport, which is building the plant, said in a September 19 press release (in Russian) that Kudankulam satisfies all safety demands:

“Earlier this year, due to the events in Japan, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India studied the Kudankulam NPP project’s compliance with all safety norms and requirements. Atomstroiexport provided, as part of additional information, a presentation on the safety basics of the [Kudankulam] project, which fully meets the requirements of today’s technological standards and regulations of the Russian Federation and the [International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA] and is certified [as compliant with European requirements] applied to [nuclear power plants] built after 2000.”

…but remains hopeful for a resolution

The press service of Atomstroiexport declined Bellona’s request for comment citing a current unavailability of a press secretary responsible for handling such requests, but the same September 19 press release also reported the completion of one of the pre-launch testing stages at the site.

Still, according to the September 20 story in The Hindu, Russia said the imminent threat of the project being stalled would not impact future cooperation in the civil nuclear sector but could affect other projects such as the third and fourth nuclear power units at the same site, currently being negotiated by the two countries.

“People’s safety first. Power later,” Federal Minister of State V. Narayanasamy said after meeting with the protesters in Tamil Nadu, according to a September 21 report by NDTV.

NDTV further reports that Narayanasamy intended to brief the federal government about the situation, with a decision expected later on whether preparations at the nuclear plant should be put on hold. The authorities seem to be heeding the population’s sentiments seriously enough to postpone the launch of the nearly completed first unit, and the fate of altogether four additional units anticipated for Kudankulam looks also to be in limbo.

“According to reports, what we understand is that the agitation is happening because they want experts to explain and address safety issues relating to the power plant. We hope that [the] Indian government and the atomic department will soon do so,” Karmalito said, as quoted by The Hindu.

Decades of public opposition

But Kudankulam NPP was highly unpopular among the local population well before the horrifying news from Japan’s Fukushima last March sobered up a world that was lulled into enough complacency to entertain prospects of a nuclear renaissance. The initial agreement on building the station in Tamil Nadu was signed between India and what was then the Soviet Union as far back as 1988 – just two years after the Chernobyl catastrophe – and did not sit well with the locals.

Wide-scale protest rallies against the plant even resulted, in December 1988, in the cancellation of a brick-laying ceremony at the future site and were followed by public petitions and objections forwarded by experts who argued the chosen Russian design of the VVER-1000 series would not guarantee 100-percent safety of the plant. Both Russian and Indian authorities largely ignored the public’s sentiments, and construction was eventually started by Rosatom’s Atomstroiexport in 2001.

The launch was first scheduled for December 2007, and then pushed back to November or December 2011. With the construction time frame drawn out from six to ten years, Rosatom is now at least four years behind the initially announced deadline on its contract.

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Antiatom.Ru, a web-based information resource maintained by the Russian environmental group Ecodefense!, reports (in Russian) that activists with the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, an initiative that took part in organising the protests, say the decision to build the nuclear power plant was made without taking the public opinion into consideration in the first place. They also point out that at least half a million people live within the 30-kilometre perimeter around the site, and in case of an accident, evacuation of all the residents within this primary risk area will prove impossible, Antiatom.Ru reported.

Furthermore, the protesters say, Kudankulam will remain a source of ecological danger even if no accidents occur, as even the standard-mode operating regime will involve regular discharges of low-level liquid radioactive waste into the Indian Ocean – a potential threat to local fisheries that does not go underappreciated by the area’s fishermen, who are among the protests’ most active participants.

Fukushima scenario in India?

And the Japanese nuclear crisis puts into stark relief both the inherent safety concerns associated with nuclear energy and the implications of operating a nuclear power plant – even one certified to withstand the impact of a powerful ocean wave – in a tsunami-prone area on an ocean shore.

Tamil Nadu is India’s southernmost state, stretching across the south and east of the tip of the Indian Peninsula, washed by the Indian Ocean. The devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami killed over 7,000 people in that state when it hit India’s eastern shoreline.

Some ascribe the sentiments behind the Tamil Nadu protests to inflated fears or lack of reliable information. According to the September 21 NDTV report, Former Atomic Energy Commission chief M R Srinivasan suggested the anti-nuclear rallies were a “misinformation campaign” against the nuclear project, stoked, in part, by “misreports that more land will be acquired soon for the nuclear plant, and that the project will contaminate the sea nearby.”

NDTV quotes him as saying that “the Atomic Energy Department, Nuclear Power Corporation of India, […] and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board have done extensive rechecks and they are satisfied that the circumstances that led to the Fukushima accident are not at all likely to happen in Kudankulam.”

Srinivasan is also cited saying that fishing near the coastal nuclear sites of Tarapur and Kalpakkam has not been affected by the atomic facilities there, according to NDTV.

But Vladimir Slivyak, who co-chairs Ecodefense!, shares the significant safety concerns:

“Kudankulam NPP is located in an area strongly affected by tsunami, which breeds the risk of a recurring nuclear accident of the Fukushima scenario. Furthermore, it is built to an obsolete design and has numerous technological defects that have already manifested themselves in the operation of such reactors in Russia.”

According to Slivyak, “there are several scenarios for the development of an emergency situation that involve the risk of an explosion and damage to the reactor equipment. So the Indian ecologists’ demands are absolutely valid and deserve full support.”

“Kudankulam NPP must not be put into operation – it’s too dangerous,” Slivyak said in his comment to Antiatom.Ru’s report on the protests.

Rosatom’s marketing dilemma

Indeed, there may be little basis to the assertions that a nuclear power plant whose construction started in 2001 could satisfy all post-Fukushima safety standards.

The VVER-1000 design – also dubbed AES-92, for NPP-92 – is an old one. It is at any rate much older than the NPP-2006 project, with VVER-1200 reactors that Russia is building at a number of domestic sites – the second line of Leningrad NPP, near St. Petersburg, and Novovoronezh NPP-2, in Central Russia.

The NPP-2006 project has also been touted for export construction in Belarus and Turkey and is expected to be used for several new projects in Russia, namely, in Nizhny Novgorod, Kostroma, and Tver Regions.

The Russian nuclear corporation may be finding itself between a rock and a hard place as it faces, in an environment increasingly mindful of safety risks, the challenge of convincing its customers of the superior safety and reliability specifications of a product while offering a supposedly better, more powerful and modern, competing design elsewhere on the market.

At present, the NPP-92 project is also being carried out at such sites as Kalinin NPP, in Tver Region near Moscow, and Rostov NPP, in Russia’s Southwest. Rosatom has also suggested the old design for the completion of Units 3 and 4 of Khmelnistky NPP in Ukraine.

With so many different factors in place – not the last of which is perhaps the legendary non-violent civil protest tradition of a nation that gave the world Mahatma Gandhi – there is no accurate predicting of the outcome of the current stalemate. But if India’s government does not listen to its population’s demands and goes ahead with the launch of Kudankulam as planned, new protests, hunger strikes, and rallies may very likely be expected.

The fate of Kudankulam and other projects

In fact, continued opposition is what the protesters indicated was their immediate agenda. While the Indian government was pondering the future of the nearly completed plant, another rally was planned for October 2, The Hindu reported in its story of September 23, quoting one of the organisers, Swamy Balaprajapathi, as saying: “We’ll even lay siege to [Kudankulam] in the near future to ensure its permanent closure.”

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Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu’s protesters may find encouragement in the recent news from Vienna, where India announced during IAEA consultations that it would postpone its final decision on the purchase of EPR nuclear reactors from France until after the ongoing post-Fukushima safety tests have been satisfactorily completed, The Hindu reported in a separate September 20 article.

 In December 2010, France’s Areva signed a framework agreement with India to build the first of six EPR reactors at Jaitapur NPP in Maharashtra with an option of four more reactors to follow. But now, as quoted by The Hindu, France’s Industry Minister Eric Besson said, after meeting with the Indian side in Vienna, that India “want[s] the post-Fukushima certification” in addition to the EPRs’ existing certification.

At play here, aside from safety concerns, may be India’s lack of confidence in the future endeavour. An EPR construction project at Olkiluoto NPP in Finland has been plagued by delays caused by violations of construction standards and issues of supervision, as well as those of overspending, and the EPR plant under construction at Flamanville in northern France, The Hindu says, has seen interminable delays and a massive cost hike. Additionally, The Hindu said, two people died at the construction site and the plant is not expected to go online before 2016.

And in August, the government of the state of West Bengal pulled the plug on another NPP project, Haripur – also a joint Indian-Russian venture. This was one in a series of nuclear power plant projects that Prime Minister Singh and Russia’s President Medvedev had earlier agreed on.

But the plan to build a 1,000-megawatt site at Haripur was scrapped when the project, which had passed all stages of authorisation by the federal government, faced a mass-scale protest campaign launched by local farmers and fishermen with support from NGOs and the scientific community. According to the state’s Power Minister Manish Gupta, the present government has no plans to set up nuclear power plants anywhere else in West Bengal either.

Financial losses could serve as a lesson

The news from Haripur was an inspiration for the anti-nuclear protesters in Tamil Nadu.

The Hindu, in its thorough coverage of the protests, featured a social activist named Medha Patkar, who said that if the West Bengali government could stop the Haripur nuclear power plant, the commissioning of Kudankulam could also be halted.

Countering arguments that millions had already been spent on the site, Patkar said at the heart of the issue were human lives and natural resources, hardly countable in rupees.

“It teaches a lesson. Going further will result in further waste of money,” Patkar said.

According to Ecodefense!’s Slivyak, “Rosatom has repeatedly stated that it will not build nuclear power plants where the population is opposed to construction. Now is the time to support these words with actions.”

But where the cancellation of the Haripur project may benefit both India and Russia simply because no money has yet been pledged to the construction, the potential loss of the Kudankulam  investment may turn into a financial blow dealt to the two countries’ budgets.

Kudankulam, just like other nuclear power plants Rosatom is building abroad, has been built with loan money – $2.5 billion in export credit funding allocated from the Russian state budget. The return on investment can only be expected several years after a station is commissioned, and if no commissioning has taken place, that investment is lost – much as the payments for fuel deliveries that Rosatom would have otherwise received from the customer country or potential revenues that money could have brought if it had been invested elsewhere.

The Indian activist Patkar may be right in suggesting that such a loss would necessarily alert a government to potential financial risks that could undermine even a nuclear power plant project in the final stages of completion if enough opposition is expressed by the local population.

“Beginning in 1991, Russia has earmarked around $5 billion for construction of nuclear power plants in India, China, Bulgaria, Iran, and Cuba,” Slivyak wrote in his blog on Bellona’s website (in Russian) soon after Moscow and New Delhi signed in 2007 their agreement on new units in India. “So far, none of the five countries where Russia has decided to extend the brotherly gesture of exporting nuclear technologies has repaid even part of the funding that was provided as export credits.”

Given the unyielding protests, Kudankulam looks set to be soon written off as another financial loss for a corporation that is fast losing its stronghold in the post-Fukushima nuclear market. 

What about alternatives?

Observers in the Indian press indicate Kudankulam was meant to plug a significant hole in energy supply in Tamil Nadu, which is said to be lacking sufficient power capacities.

However, attempts to meet growing energy demands elsewhere in the state have shown safer alternatives are available and are giving good results.

Tamil Nadu already operates 6,000 megawatts’ worth of wind generating capacity that provides – depending on wind conditions – between 1.5 and 2 gigawatts of power into the grid. That is commensurate with the generating capacity of the two nearly completed units built at Kudankulam.

Furthermore, a number of projects have been put into motion that will tap into the considerable solar energy potential found in this southern state.

bodytextimage_India1.jpg Photo: Карта Корпорации по ядерной энергетики Индии www.npcil.nic.in

According to a report by the IAEA, the total installed nuclear capacity in India as of 2010 was 4,189 megawatts, corresponding only to 2.85 percent of total power production in the country.

At the same time, India is among the world’s top ten investors into renewable energy. In 2010, the total installed renewable energy capacity in India reached 16,500 megawatts, according to data by the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC). Of that, wind parks accounted for 13,065 megawatts in installed capacity and provided 3 percent in total energy production.

The wind energy sector has also been growing at an annual rate of 16 percent, while on the whole, investments into renewable energy sources in India are in excess of $2 billion a year, GWEC’s information says.

Andrey Ozharovsky

idc.moscow@gmail.com

Maria Kaminskaya