What’s with the stir over the Koodankulam nuclear power plant? Over the years, India has constructed 20 nuclear power plants — four units in Kaiga, Karnataka, two in Kakrapar, Gujarat, two in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, two in Narora, Uttar Pradesh, six in Rawatbhatta, Rajasthan, and four in Tarapur, Maharashtra, and has additional eight under construction (one in Kalpakkam, two in Kakrapar, two in Rawatbhatta, and two in Banswara, Rajasthan). Never have the local populations at any time at any of these various sites risen up as they have done in Koodankulam. It’s a mystery worth probing.
It cannot be the case that the people protesting in Koodankulam have suddenly become knowledgeable about the dangers posed by a nuclear power station in their backyard. The bulk of the protesters seem to be the bus-ed in crowd, prepared to shout slogans and sit-in for a price as the organisers strut about mouthing stuff the audience barely comprehends about Koodankulam being a horrendous nuclear accident waiting to happen. The disaster at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power complex has provided them a handle. Unfortunately for the world, Japan has provided two intertwined benchmarks — the catastrophic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic weapons, and the Fukushima civilian nuclear plant disaster, until now when Fukushima is portrayed as a Hiroshima by other nuclear means.
It does not seem to matter that the anti-nuclear rhetoric of the Koodankulam demonstrators has only a passing connection with the Fukushima reality — a ‘low probability-high cost’ incident triggered by a combination of earthquake and tsunami that ended up tripping the safety devices and negating the automatically activated safety measures, to a point where all control systems were overwhelmed, and the nuclear core reached melt-down condition. In such instances, the trade-off is between plant safety and cost. One can engineer the most stringent safety standards in building nuclear power stations to cater for the remotest contingency, if one is also willing to foot the enormously enhanced bill. So, a via media usually involves a compromise that eliminates the risk from extreme circumstances.
What has rendered Koodankulam an emotive issue, is the supposed shortfalls in nuclear safety that have ended up conjuring popular visions of a Fukushima in waiting. It brooks no reasonable debate as the issue has transited into the realm of faith, the physics and engineering of it be damned. This seems literally the case with the recently elected Koodankulam panchayat president Sandal V Muthuraja, who revealed to the Press that his election owed much to a parish priest of nearby Idinthakarai throwing his support behind him in return for opposing the nuclear power plant. It is possible that, unusual for a cleric, he is equally well-versed in Catholic liturgy and radiation risk analysis. More likely, however, he is an average Joe and a nuclear know-nothing convinced he is doing god’s work if it also results in the filling of church coffers. The question then is the identity and motivation of the donors. The anti-nuclear lobby in India, unlike the well-off Green Movement in the West, is cash poor and so marginalised it has become irrelevant. But along with local opinion leaders, it has been co-opted by the well-funded Greens from abroad, to lead the fight against Koodankulam. This is what S K Jain, chairman, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd believes has happened, referring darkly to “Foreign nationals who are green from the US, Finland, France, Australia and Germany…. and backing locals in their agitation.”
Of the five countries Jain has mentioned, the United States (partnering Japan), France and Germany, it turns out, are centrally involved in trying to sell India unproven reactors run on imported enriched uranium fuel and related technologies and, in such matters, Australia habitually plays the dummy to Washington’s ventriloquist. The sales of the American Westinghouse-Toshiba AP 1000 reactor and the Franco-German 1600 MW power plant (with the French Company, Areva, providing the principal nuclear systems and assemblies and the German giant, Siemens, the high-voltage, low loss, transmission technology) did not go through because of insistence by these supplier countries that they be exempted from Indian law, specifically the Civilian Liability for Nuclear Damage Act 2010, that does not cap the liability of purveyors of nuclear reactor technology. The AP 1000 reactor, for instance, has failed to win certification from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission on safety grounds. The new Areva reactor has yet to establish its bonafides with the only 1600 MW reactor, under construction in Olkiluoto, Finland, suffering huge time and cost over-runs.
Paris made common cause with Washington but only until it was assured a sale, when France decided to accept Indian government assurances and prepared to set up a 9,900 MW Areva nuclear complex at Jaitapur in Maharashtra whereas the US, trying to avoid future complications, wanted a binding Indian commitment that the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC), limiting liability payouts to $300 million that Delhi signed in October 2010, will be adhered to — a legal obligation the Manmohan Singh government finds it politically infeasible to undertake given the contrary Indian law passed by Parliament.
The US reactor deals are thus hanging fire pending, at best, papering over of the differences between the Indian liability law and CSC. Russia, having grandfathered the Koodankulam plant under a 1988 bilateral agreement, has contracted to build four more VVER 1000 reactor units at the same location, which is seen by Washington as unfair advantage accruing to Moscow. This Russian edge is perhaps sought to be blunted by funnelling monies into a popular movement against the Koodankulam plant just before its commissioning. Considering its predicament, Russia may have encouraged the Communist Party (Marxist) to form the ‘National Committee in Support of Jaitapur Struggle’ and do in this Konkan fishing village what the Western countries may be doing to it in Koodankulam — using environmental and safety concerns to rouse the ire of people to stop the Areva plants from getting off the ground. This is equalisation process at work where the dog-eat-dog and dog-in-the manger principles of international politics intrude into the domain of high value nuclear reactor sales.
[Published in 'The New Indian Express', Nov 3, 2011, at http://expressbuzz/op-ed/opinion/Nuclear-reactor-politics/329583.html ]