In the last few years, getting anywhere near Koodankulam has been a risk-filled affair. This Tamil Nadu town next to Kanyakumari looks and smells almost like a war zone. The police have barricades on every road. Visitors to the town are often stopped and asked bizarre, paranoid questions. Journalists, activists and visitors to the villages have even been unlawfully detained. Over this year I’ve made several sustained visits to Koodankulam and have been lucky to escape the nervous scrutiny of those defending the Koodankulam nuclear plant from aspersions.
I’ve been luckier still to spend time inside the village of Idinthakarai, the epicentre of the protest against the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP). Everyone who needs a refresher course in democracy should visit Idinthakarai. The people of Idinthakarai have organized themselves, educated each other and agitated for justice in the face of an enormous and self-righteous establishment.
Idinthakarai can seem, even after repeated visits, like a platonic ideal, the kind of dream Dr Ambedkar had. Groups of men and women sitting under the pandal facing the St Lourdes church have educated my ambivalent self about the tiniest of details about the nuclear plant, its risky location and technical flaws. I have seen their careful sifting of the lies and half-truths the government would like them to believe.
Regardless of all that, the government decided to do the sriganesham for the plant - make the plant go critical - on Saturday evening, 13 July. This was following the Supreme Court's May judgement giving the green signal to the plant, albeit with strict guidelines to be adhered to. The nuclear authorities did not bother to share the final report with the petitioners or with the citizens of this country. Consistent with their undemocratic modus operandi, they choose to secretly give the reports to the SC in a sealed envelope before commissioning the plant.
At this point it no longer matters which camp you are in, whether you are pro or anti-nuclear. Both camps have criticized the quality control and safety protocols of the plant. All that matters is if you are sure, absolutely sure, that the plant is safe to run? The people of Idinthakarai and many pro-nuclear voices are absolutely sure it is not.
Russians Bearing Strange Gifts
For months now, the People's Movement Against Nuclear and Atomic Energy (PMNAE) has been exposing the shoddy deals made by suppliers to the nuclear reactor at Koodankulam. When Ottavio Quattrochi died, the news made it to all the papers. Isn’t it time for a new household name? Sergei Shutov, for instance. Or Alexander Murach, or Denis Kozyrev.
Let’s start with Sergei Shutov. Don’t mistake him for the artist of the same name. Shutov was the procurement director of ZiO-Podolsk, a machineworks company that supplied components to the Koodankulam plant. In early 2012, the Federal Security Service (Russia’s main security agency FSB) charged Shutov with selling low-quality raw materials, pretending they were high quality and making a very tidy sum in the process. In the period that is cited in the case, Shutov supplied to reactors built by Russia, India, Bulgaria, Iran and China. According to the Russian news agency Rosbalt, on behalf of ZiO-Podolsk Shutov purchased 100 million rubles (about Rs 18.35 crore) worth of pipe sheets, reactor pit bottoms, and reservoirs – all made from inferior quality steel, and all intended for reactors in Russia and abroad.
The news of Shutov's conviction and imprisonment should have rung very loud alarm bells in India, but they haven't. Not even when Dr A Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) wrote that, "There could be a large number of equipment, components and materials of substandard quality from ZiO-Podolsk already installed in various parts of KKNP 1&2 whose deficiencies and defects are dormant today, but these very same shortcomings may cause such parts to catastrophically fail when the reactor is operated for some time."
Let’s move on to the next Russian. In May 2012, Alexander Murach was convicted for fraud and for selling counterfeit measuring equipment to nuclear and hydro power plants' turbines. According to Russian news agencies, Murach’s company Informtekh created and supplied instruments meant to measure the vibration of turbines operating at nuclear and hydro power plants. The news report says that Informtekh did this without the licence or certificate necessary for making this equipment. Informtekh gave its customers fake certificates claiming that the equipment had passed the mandatory tests – when in fact it had not. Murach was sentenced to three years in prison with an 18-month probation period.
Moving on to the third and newest contestant. Just last week, Denis Kozyrev, who was the head of Rosatom (the Russian State Nuclear Energy corporation) in 2007-08 was sentenced to four years of penal colony. Rosatom is the mothership company of which ZiO-Podolsk is a subsidiary.
Bulgaria has already asked ZiO-Podolsk and Atomstroyexport (the Russian engineering company responsible for the construction of nuclear power facilities abroad) to provide details of the materials used in their reactors, including quality certificates. Even China has raised hundreds of queries regarding materials supplied to its Tianwan plant.
On the other hand, in India, the largest democracy in the world, everyone has been simply evading these questions: the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) as well as its underlings – the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL).
Any real information that we have today about the plant is because the people of Koodankulam, Idinthakarai, Kootankulli, Perumanal, Kootapulli and other neighbouring villages have asked questions. Largely, the RTIs filed by anti-nuclear activists have either been answered with insufficient explanations or been altogether dismissed. It is only after great persistence and knowing fully well that they are painting themselves further as 'enemies of the state' that anti-nuclear activists have got confirmation that yes, India, too, has been supplied equipment from ZiO-Podolks and Informtekh.
The NPCIL confirmed recently (in its letter dated April 29, 2013, No. NPCIL/VSB/CPIO/2574/KKNPP/2013/737) that ZiO-Podolsk has supplied the following equipment and parts to the KKNPP: “Steam Generators, Cation and anion filters, Mechanical Filter, Moisture Separator and Reheater, Boric solution storage tanks, Regenerative blow down heat exchanger, Pipelines and fittings of different systems, Insulation materials, PHRS Heat exchanger.”
The NPCIL also confirmed (in its letter dated May 24, 2013, No. NPCIL/VSB/CPIO/2670/HQ/2013/884) that they have received “communication equipment” from Informtekh.
It isn’t just that the AERB is not seriously examining this life-threatening situation. The government is also criminalising anyone who asks questions. More than 2 lakh people in Koodankulam have had criminal cases slapped against them – 2,27,000 to be precise – under Sections 124A , 121A 307, 353 and 147 and 148.of the IPC. Most of them have been accused of sedition and waging war against the state – ironic, when they are the only parties who seem to believe in democratic processes. In June, the Madras High Court issued a notice to the government to withdraw these pathetic, bizarre cases. The cases haven’t been withdrawn, of course. Not while there is some chance that our citizens' freedom will interfere with jump-starting the plant.
The government of India and its ruling class shake hands at international summits, pose for cameras and refuse to doubt the gifts that the Russians bring. But the activists of PMNAE stand accused of foreign funding (the foreign hand again!). They can’t leave the villages they are stranded in while the nuclear and the political establishment issue celebratory press releases. Even the recent Supreme Court judgment repeatedly quotes reports of how the nuclear plant has been thoroughly checked and confirmed by the AERB and NPCIL – opaque and secretive organisations not answerable to the citizens of this country.
Things Fall Apart
The people of Koodankulam and the villages around it are fighting for something our country needs more than nuclear energy: transparency. Last month, the PMNAE, still determined on its path of non-violence and mind-boggling tenacity, wrested some information from the police through an RTI: the names of those who have died working at the plant. The terseness of the details are terrifying. Six men died from electrocution deaths. Then Arumugam from Thoothukudi “fell down while working.” Veerababu, a 25-year-old from Andhra Pradesh fell into a 6 m pit during welding and died. Fifty-year-old Ramasubramanian from Radhapuram fell into an 18 m pit. Anil Rishi from West Bengal fell while climbing down a temporary staircase. Fakrudeen from Vijaypathu fell into a 50 m pit. These are the recorded deaths we now know of, thanks to the PMNAE. And what the PMNAE can’t find out, the rest of us will never know. If the KKNP can't stick to safety protocols during basic building construction, if it can't avoid its workers from falling into the ground and dying, why do we assume that it can – and has – followed the complex protocols of building a nuclear reactor? And why do we automatically assume that they can safely run such a dangerous plant?
Last year, the CAG observed that the Department of Atomic Energy and related organizations had not complied with 375 out of the 3,200 recommendations by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s safety review committee for operating nuclear power plants.
Every other week some obscure and enigmatic reply comes from the government or the Department of Atomic Energy parroting the 3 Idiots anthem, All Izz Well. A former secretary of the AERB, KS Parthasarthy has told us in gavel-banging tones that exemplifies the arrogance of the Indian nuclear establishment: “The issue is settled.”
A press release issued by the AERB on April 19, 2013 confessed to technical faults in Koodankulam valves that have since “been replaced”. Would we have known about this had A Gopalakrishnan, an avowedly pro-nuclear man and former AERB chairman, himself not raised concerns in his article that appeared that morning, prompting the sudden press release?
Everyone who asks a question is either ignored or dismissed. Recently, Gopalakrishnan highlighted very serious flaws with the plant – the Indian inexperience in handling pressurised water reactors, substandard parts, electro-magnetic interference, and all the kilometres of power cables ‘missing’ in the plant's framework.
Gopalakrishnan also says something that although largely true might make us uncomfortable. "Russians," he says, "are very well-organised and systematic, and they rigidly follow the rules and expect others also to do so. While Indians, too, have rules and regulations on paper, to expedite work or to minimise cost, they would not hesitate to bend or break rules. In case of the I&C [instrumentation and control] design and installation details, the Russians had prepared detailed documentation including hundreds of drawings, which they expected the Indian installers to follow diligently, in the interest of performance and safety. The World Nuclear Association has reported that KKNPP control system documentation was delivered late by the Russians and, when reviewed by NPCIL, it showed up the need for significant refining and even reworking of some aspects. This was necessitated because, while waiting for details to arrive from Russia, the NPCIL team had proceeded on with the I&C work based on their PHWR experience, little realising that the PWR/VVER requirements contained in the Russian documents would be significantly different."
In reaction, the authorities scrambled for excuses rather than investigate Gopalakrishnan's concerns. Not even now, after the plant has gone critical, have they answered his questions. An overconfident KKNPP site director RS Sundar instead declared that “we will prove ourselves by commissioning the plant successfully” and “a small team of Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) officials has been tasked to clarify the I&C issues.” The promised clarifications have not been issued so far.
Then why did the Koodankulam plant have to be started up with such slyness and hurry? Because the Russian President is putting pressure? One can get a sense of the hurried attitude of the DAE from a quote given by the KKNPP station director in 2004, when he told Frontline that “difficulty arose with working documentation, which was to arrive from the Russian designers. But I shall not blame the Russians, there was pressure on them to advance their drawings and documents ... When you want to speed up ... you have to take certain decisions even if the input data are not available. As a designer and an engineer, you have to assume those data and go ahead.”
Are we to live with the consequences of such startling assumptions?
The Black Mirror
Nuclear accidents are real, not the figments of anyone’s paranoia. The scale of the 2011 disaster in Fukushima is something we are still unable to measure. Every week news pours in of even higher levels of radiation leaks. Some estimates put the cleanup costs of Fukushima at a staggering $500 billion. As high as 2,80,000 tons of contaminated water, something that is growing by the day, remains to be dealt with. The count of displaced people is at 1,60,000 and though one can debate deaths due to radiation, the fact remains that the plant is still a monster spewing radiation.
Where and how can we find out if we really have the necessary measures in place in India for disaster management? No one knows. The Kanyakumari district was massively affected by the 2004 tsunami. Today, some villages from this district are only about 15 kms away from Koodankulam. The tsunami (resettlement) colony of Idinthakarai sits 1.5 kms away from the nuclear plant. A month ago, the PMNAE (who else?) sent a list of questions to the District Collectors of Kanyakumari, Trivandrum and Kollam to know about emergency preparations, such as details of the Offsite Emergency Response Coordination Committee (OERCC), mass sheltering facilities in Kanyakumari and Trivandrum and Kollam districts, information on stock and distribution of stable iodine tablets in case of a radiation contamination. While the Kanyakumari Collector never responded and forwarded the request to NPCIL the others sent a cryptic reply dismissing the RTI application as a 'questionnaire'. Did the Trivandrum and Kollam Collectors expect poetry instead?
A recent IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) draft document states lucidly: “Despite all the precautions that are taken in the handling and use of fissile material there remains a possibility, while very small, that a failure (i.e. instrumentation and controls, electrical, mechanical or operational errors) or an incident may give rise to a criticality accident. In some cases, this may give rise to exposure or the release of radioactive materials within the facility and/or into the environment, which may necessitate emergency response actions. Adequate preparations should be established and maintained at local and national levels and, where agreed between States, at the international level to respond to nuclear or radiological emergencies”.
The Indian nuclear establishment in India, however, prefers to live in denial. Noted nuclear physicist MV Ramana recently wrote after the SC judgement in May, "Even though the AERB committee set up following Fukushima ‘to review the safety of Indian NPPs (nuclear power plants) against external events of natural origin’ came out with some sensible safety recommendations, when push came to shove, AERB permitted loading of fuel even though these recommendations had not been fully implemented in Koodankulam."
According to A Gopalakrishnan (speaking on NDTV on 14 July), the AERB made one gesture of disaster-preparedness after Fukishima. They conducted a mock drill in a small village of some 250 families. In Koodankulam, I also found out about the AERB’s one other gesture. They issued instructions for a mock-drill – in a local Tamil newspaper from Nagercoil. None of the villages next to the Koodankulam plant receive this newspaper.
The AERB itself confesses in the guidelines it has issued (Chapter 3, Para 20, point xvi) – also quoted in the SC Judgment – that 'presently there is no network of hospitals in the country which can manage radiation induced injuries on a large scale.'
To add to this, we have disturbing reports that India is unable to get Russia to agree to the terms of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Act, 2010 for its upcoming units. And one must not forget the absurdities of this act which limits the amount of liability to the operator at Rs 1500 crores, and limits the liability of suppliers at even lesser amounts (based on respective contracts), alongside a time-bound limit. To put this into perspective, the cost of building KKNPP is a whopping Rs 17,000 crores (estimated). That this is a completely unfeasible and expensive source of power is a totally different debate altogether.
Whether one is pro or anti-nuclear, the questions PMNAE is asking are essential for everyone's safety. As recently as June 2013, the T3 terminal at IGI Airport at New Delhi, rated as the second best in the world, turned into a water park after the rains. And while the UPA government has seen how devastating the floods in Uttarakhand were and how the disaster management was something the NDMA was so unprepared for that they had to call in the army, how can they neglect questions around disaster management near a nuclear plant?
As the Koodankulam plant goes critical, we must ask how many barricades will be further erected to keep us away from the truth? All is certainly not well. But then, the Supreme Court of India dismissed the protests as merely 'emotional'. I wonder if one can use that term to describe a people concerned about their lives and the environment today after the Uttarakhand floods?
And in Koodankulam, the local administration which should be busy preparing emergency measures in case of a nuclear disaster has spent more time, money and energy on lathi-charging protestors. Protestors whose agitation has as much to do with their deep understanding of their land and the sea as to protect their families, their livelihoods and the future of this planet.
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