OPINION: The battle of Kudankulam, or the chronicle of one unlikely anti-nuclear triumph

The Hindu

Publish date: October 20, 2011

Written by: Vladimir Slivyak

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW - The robust grassroots movement that has stood up against the launch of the Russia-built Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) in the Indian southern state of Tamil Nadu is fast becoming a force authorities can no longer afford to ignore: The protesters’ ranks are growing, and against all odds, they might just prevail.

On Monday, the campaign’s organisers moved to temporarily halt protest actions in order to allow the area’s residents to vote in a local election. Once the polling stations closed, however, the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) continued the ongoing blockade of the nearly completed nuclear power plant Kudankulam. On Tuesday, some 2,000 activists resumed their hunger strike in protest of Kudankulam’s anticipated launch.

Earlier plans envisioned taking the site online in December 2011, but recent official statements indicate the launch may be pushed back if the vigorous public protests continue as they have since last September. 

Kudankulam (or Koodankulam) is a Russian-Indian nuclear power plant project that was started by an agreement signed with what was then the Soviet Union on November 20, 1988, with an addendum inked a decade later, on June 21, 1998. In 2001, Russia extended India an export credit of around $1.5 billion to start construction, and the following year, the Russian Nuclear Corporation Rosatom laid the first brick at the site.

By mid-September, the two VVER-1000 pressurised-water reactors built at the plant, with an estimated combined price tag of $4 billion, were completed to 99 and 95 percent, respectively. Come September 11, 2011, and the population of Tamil Nadu scrambled to oppose the anticipated launch, starting a protest that soon grew into an indefinite hunger strike and thousands-strong demonstrations. 

On October 13, protesters locked the construction site in a siege, preventing access to it to over 1,000 employees, including some 150 Russian specialists. It wasn’t before late Sunday, October 16, that the operator company was able to send in a new crew to replace the fifty employees who were on shift when the blockade started.

The Indian media report some 10,000 local residents gathered to block access to the site, including over a hundred on a hunger strike. On October 14, police allegedly attacked some of the hunger strikers, with between four or six protesters, according to varying reports, sustaining injuries during the raid. Still, the peaceful protest continued until Monday.

On Tuesday, protesters again blocked all entry points to the site. The protests’ organisers said that the federal government was showing complete indifference to the Tamil Nadu residents’ plight by refusing to heed their demands. As if reassuring the protesters in their exasperation over not being heard, the central government’s principal scientific adviser R. Chidambaram said in a statement on Sunday that “the reactors are very safe. Our scientists have looked at all the safety aspects” and that he hoped “all the opposition against the plant would be over and the project will come up in due course.”

It’s hard to say what the government’s adviser was trying to achieve with this assertion, but it will unlikely help relieve the tension that keeps building up in Tamil Nadu. The driving force of this opposition includes not just the residents of villages around the site but also a number of renowned scientists, whose word carries more weight for the locals than that of a government envoy.

One of them, Dr. S.P.Udayakumar, says that even under normal operating conditions, Kudankulam will be discharging low-level liquid radioactive waste into the Indian Ocean, which could affect local fisheries. Other activists in the movement say in interviews that the decision to build the plant was made without any public consultations. More than that, Tamil Nadu residents have not even been given the opportunity to see the environmental impact assessment report on the Kudankulam project. In Russia, public hearings where such environmental impact assessment studies are made available for the population are usually held before a project is started.

Protesters also point out that over a million people reside within the 30-kilometre perimeter around the plant, which renders virtually impossible any evacuation efforts, should an accident occur at the site. However one chooses to assess the likelihood of an accident, as long as the world is yet to see absolutely safe nuclear reactors, all possible scenarios must be taken into account. This is something that the Indian government seems to be unwilling to do.

Kudankulam stands on an ocean shore, in the northern part of the Indian Ocean. The area is known for the risk of devastating tsunamis, which makes the new station a promising candidate for a repeat disaster of a Fukushima scope. Yet this is by far not the sole possible scenario for the development of an accident that could lead to an explosion and damage to the reactor. If an uncontainable leak breaks out in the primary circuit of a VVER-type reactor, or other failures cause water to stop circulating in the cooling system, core damage could occur, complete with the resulting massive release of radiation.

Notwithstanding all assurances made by nuclear energy proponents, the local population’s fears are well-founded. Another confirmation of that comes with the state’s Chief Minister J.Jayalalithaa’s siding with the protesters after she met with the hunger strikers in late September. When mass protests sparked up that month, the authorities in New Delhi hoped to the very last that they would succeed in bringing the situation under control. But the opposition snowballed to such proportions that the head of Tamil Nadu saw no other choice but to throw her weight behind the protesters.

As the protests progressed, a shadow of uncertainty loomed over Russia’s reactor export prospects as well. Rosatom is hoping to wait out this post-Fukushima crisis of confidence in nuclear technologies with new contracts in India and China – as well as in Iran, which just announced it was looking to build up to 30 new reactors with Russia’s help, in addition to the recently completed and launched, Russia-built Bushehr. Iran could indeed become a new donor for Rosatom’s future export construction contracts, but so far it remains unclear how serious Tehran’s statements are, and whether Rosatom could compete against other nuclear giants that the Islamic Republic has also suggested might offer a hand in bolstering its nuclear programme.

And the successes of the Indian anti-nuclear activists could help engrave the tombstone on the Russian nuclear corporation’s Napoleonic plans, at least in India. Discomforted by the force of the protests, Rosatom’s PR jockeys even resorted to the time-honoured tradition that we know all too well in Russia – that of sniffing out a “Western trace,” accusing activists of selling out to Western competitors. But these arguments will hardly find resonance in India, where this year’s anti-nuclear rallies have targeted Russia and French reactor projects alike. And they have not gone in vain: Last August, the state of West Bengal pulled the plug on another Russian-Indian nuclear power plant project, Haripur. The activists themselves never tire of emphasising (in Russian) that it makes no difference to them which country a new NPP comes from: Their protest is against the use of nuclear energy, not against the nuclear peddlers’ nationalities.

On October 4, as he tried to negotiate the tricky waters of the popular discontent that threatens to elicit the ire of India’s Russian partners, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote Jayalalithaa, seeking her support in bringing Kudankulam online, and assured her of nuclear energy’s complete safety.

But last month, the many thousands who marched out rallying against Kudankulam, and the more than one hundred hunger strikers, refused to take empty assurances for an answer and only stopped when Jayalalithaa met with the protesters and promised to adopt a resolution against the expected launch – which her government did the following day. The protests’ organisers then showed a gesture of good faith as they agreed to negotiate with the federal authorities. After the state government spoke in support of the local residents, the protesters met with Singh and handed him a petition. Two, in fact.

One, written on behalf of the government of Tamil Nadu, asked the federal government to place a hold on the works at the site until the population’s concerns were addressed satisfactorily and in detail. In the second, the PMANE demanded an unconditional halt to the completion of the plant.

In his turn, Singh promised to send a group of qualified experts to Tamil Nadu to explain the issues of nuclear safety to the locals. The protesters were so impressed with the government’s intransigent stance to use PR instead of solutions that they immediately announced they were resuming their opposition, starting October 9. And they did. Even sitting face to face with Tamil Nadu residents, the prime minister had showed no desire to listen to their objections. Instead of giving a direct answer to their demand to stop Kudankulam from completion, Singh pretended that the only problem was the lack of a proper educational campaign, and a few lectures and Q&A sessions would completely take care of the population’s fears.

Three days into the resumed protests, which gathered around 10,000 people, the prime minister gave up and wrote Jayalalithaa another letter, again asking her to change her position.

“Halting the works will impact negatively the region’s industrialisation and development prospects,” the Russian ITARTASS news agency quoted the prime ministers letter as saying, in its Russian translation. “I count on your further support of the Kudankulam project.”

And the very next day, October 13, the state’s chief minister gave her public reply:

“As [far] as Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project is concerned, Tamil Nadu government will certainly act respecting the local peoples’ sentiments. I will be one among you in the issue,” Jayalalithaa said, speaking at a campaign rally.

Then, realising that neither the usual whitewash strategies nor the entreaties in the prime minister’s missives were quite working, the central government last Saturday again addressed the Kudankulam opposition with an offer to meet and discuss the matter further.

“My request is, let us negotiate and discuss with an open mind and we are ready to remove apprehensions,” Singh’s Minister of State V Narayanasamy told reporters.

As of last Monday, the protesters had not yet responded to this offer, but such run-arounds are unlikely to please them. And on Tuesday, the central government announced that pre-launch works at Kudankulam would be started already next month – a statement that caused harsh criticism from Jayalalithaa, who insisted no further work at the station should continue until the local population’s fears were addressed.

With what started as a low-key local issue now spinning out of control unpleasantly enough to include an added headache of a vexing stand-off between New Delhi and the state’s government, the federal authorities are still demonstrating, time and again, their unwillingness to listen to the people – an attitude that rarely sits well with voters.

And the results of the local elections is in fact something that could, to one degree or another, influence how the situation will unfold in Tamil Nadu. Depending on the outcome, activists could continue to rely on the state government’s support, and they might equally lose it as well. Still, the first protest against nuclear power plants to have swept India with such force in all of this country’s history is bound to leave an imprint. Irrespective of whether the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy succeeds in closing down Kudankulam forever, 2011 will be the year India has joined the club of nations with staunch public opposition to nuclear power. This powerful grassroots movement can certainly be expected to throw more than a few hurdles in the way of whatever new projects the nuclear industry may anticipate for India, where quite a number of nuclear power plants are in the planning stages. It is obvious that local residents are no longer content to just sit quietly and watch this or that nuclear corporation making billions while subjecting India to the risk of another tragedy of the likes of Japan’s Fukushima. Next time, they will know what to do.  

Until recently, some may have still wondered whether the tradition of civil disobedience – the force of non-violent resistance that fuelled Mahatma Gandhi’s historic campaign as he led his country to independence – was still alive in India. The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy not only answered that question, but also laid a first brick in the road that will take India toward a safe and environmentally clean future. Until now, the world’s major developing economies have, for one reason or another, chosen to follow the same fundamentally flawed path that developed countries already travelled on their way to industrialisation and economic prosperity – making the same mistakes that have pushed the planet into the grip of an ever-growing ecological crisis. India now has a chance to become a first developing nation to learn these lessons and take a wiser route.

As this comment was being prepared, Hindustan Times reported that an environment ministry committee has “declined coastal clearance for new nuclear reactors at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, on the grounds of its impact on marine life and overall safety aspects.” These would have been four new reactors in addition to the two that Rosatom built at the site. Coastal clearance is mandatory in order to proceed with the project, the report says. While being a laudable move, this decision comes a few years too late and two reactors too short: Is the central government now of the opinion that building a nuclear power plant on an ocean shore is too dangerous? Then why did it green-light the project in the first place?

New Delhi seems to hope to appease the anti-nuclear movement by throwing a bone or two its way, but this hope is poorly based. There is little indication that the thousands protesting the launch of Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu will be satisfied by anything less than the central authorities’ complete scrapping of the project. After all, the activists have already spoken loud and clear: Ecological safety is not something they will compromise on.

Vladimir Slivyak, a frequent contributor to Bellona, is the co-chair of Russia’s Ecodefence.