Why Koodankulam is untenable
by Suvrat Raju and M. V. Ramana
As the local people determinedly continue to resist the commissioning
of the Kudankulam reactors, the statements of the nuclear
establishment have acquired a desperate edge. The chief of the Nuclear
Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) claimed that a "foreign
hand" was behind the protests. The former President, A.P.J. Abdul
Kalam, while assuring the locals that the reactors were "100% safe,"
also wrote an article in The Hindu ("Special Essay," November 6)
arguing that nuclear energy is India's ticket to modernity and
Such claims go back several decades; for example, Jawaharlal Nehru
compared the "Atomic Revolution" to the "Industrial Revolution,"
arguing that "either you go ahead with it or ... others go ahead, and
you ... gradually drag yourself." However, in the intervening half
century, atomic energy has failed to live up to its promise, and the
idea that it is linked to progress and economic success is now both
clichéd and historically inaccurate.
Generation targets and reality
The grand hopes for nuclear power in India must be evaluated in the
light of the history of the numerous pronouncements of the Department
of Atomic Energy (DAE) about the dominant role for atomic energy it
envisioned — and failed to deliver. In the early 1970s, for example,
it projected 43,500 MW of nuclear generating capacity by 2000, whereas
what materialised was a mere 2,720 MW. Last year, the nuclear
contribution to electricity generated in the country was 2.8 per cent.
What little energy has been generated has been expensive. When viewed
in the light of the ample financial and political support from
successive governments, the nuclear programme has been a failure.
The gap between pronouncements and achievement is the largest where
thorium is concerned. In 1970, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)
explained that although "the programme [had] slipped badly," the
country would be in a position to start setting up thorium reactors in
about 15 years. Forty years later, there is no thorium reactor in
existence, and there is yet no solution to several serious technical
problems with the thorium cycle.
Unlike uranium, thorium itself cannot be used as reactor fuel, but
must be put through a nuclear reactor to first produce a fissile
isotope of uranium, uranium-233. Uranium-233 has three key properties.
First, it can be used to make nuclear weapons, being superior, in some
respects, to weapon-grade uranium (lower critical mass) and plutonium
(smaller spontaneous fission rate). Second, uranium-233 is produced in
conjunction with uranium-232, which emits energetic gamma rays, and
this is the main reason it has not been used to make weapons. The
second property is even more problematic when uranium-233 is used as
nuclear fuel, because it makes fuel fabrication hazardous to the
health of workers and expensive. Thus, the very properties that make
thorium unsuitable for weaponisation pose a greater hurdle to energy
generation. Third, the DAE's plans for producing uranium-233 in bulk
involve the use of plutonium-fuelled fast breeder reactors which, when
compared to heavy water reactors, carry a significantly greater risk
of catastrophic accidents and produce much more expensive electricity.
For some or all of these reasons, most countries have abandoned
thorium; India is a leader in this field by virtue of being one of the
In recent years, dreams of a nuclear-powered future got a fillip with
the India-U.S. nuclear deal. The deal served as the flagship of the
Manmohan Singh government's efforts to give its foreign policy a
pro-Western tilt. For the United States, the deal was, in the words of
Ashley Tellis, an important adviser to the Bush administration,
intended to craft "a full and productive partnership with India." But
this relationship is not one between equals. India soon fell in line
with U.S. strategic objectives, for example, by twice voting against
Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and halting the
Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project — an important potential
source of energy.
Dr. Singh's government is also willing to pay generously to reinforce
this "partnership." As the former DAE head, Anil Kakodkar, admitted in
an article published in a Marathi daily earlier this year, India must
import reactors worth billions of dollars because "we also have to
keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and of the
companies there." It is these imports and the larger foreign policy
shift that hasten the process of "neo-age imperial subjugation."
Are concerns being heeded?
So the "foreign hand" is partly behind the nuclear expansion, not the
local protests that have sprung up at every site earmarked for a
nuclear plant. The conspiracy theory being peddled by the NPCIL
amounts to dismissing genuine local concerns out of hand. The end
result of this policy is visible in Kudankulam. The villagers, who
have been opposed to the project since the beginning, were ignored and
ridiculed till they finally escalated their protest in desperation.
The public money that has been spent on the Kudankulam plant is
imperilled not by the intransigence of the local residents, but by the
failure of the government to heed their concerns earlier.
Residents have a right to be worried. Nuclear accidents can have very
destructive public health consequences. The impacts of Fukushima can
be gauged only over the long term but are certain to be grave.
Although some nuclear advocates quote the absurdly low and misleading
figure of 57 direct deaths in Chernobyl, the World Health Organisation
(WHO) estimated about 9,000 excess deaths due to cancer globally. Many
more thousands will have cancers that are assumed to be curable. The
American Cancer Institute's recent study found that children who were
exposed to Iodine-131 from Chernobyl are continuing to develop thyroid
cancer. Other epidemiologists estimate even higher figures. Even today
an area of about 10,000 square km around Chernobyl is under "strict
control" because it is polluted by Caesium-137, which has a
radioactive half-life of 30 years. A recent study conducted by a team
of atmospheric scientists in Europe and the U.S. estimates that the
multiple accidents at Fukushima released over 40 per cent of the
estimated Caesium-137 emission from Chernobyl. However, because the
wind was blowing towards the Pacific Ocean for a significant fraction
of the period, the area polluted with the same concentration of
Caesium-137 is estimated to be only about 10 per cent of the area at
Chernobyl. The wind may not always be propitious. These figures should
be of great concern in India since most people are dependent on the
land and the sea for their livelihood.
Claims about the reactor
The claim that modern reactors, such as the VVER reactors in
Kudankulam, are "100% safe" is scientifically untenable; every nuclear
reactor has a finite, albeit small, probability of undergoing a
catastrophic failure. More specifically, the VVER reactors have
previously had problems with the control rod mechanism. On March 1,
2006, for example, one of the four main circulation pumps at
Bulgaria's Kozluduy unit 4 tripped because of an electrical failure.
When the system reduced the power to 67 per cent of nominal capacity,
three control rod assemblies remained in an upper-end position.
Follow-up tests of the remaining control rod assemblies identified
that in total, 22 out of 61 could not be moved with driving
mechanisms. Control rod insertion failures can seriously compromise
safety in an accident.
Issue of liability is the test
There is a very simple indirect test by means of which even a
non-expert can evaluate the question of nuclear safety. If there was
really a "0% chance" of an accident, why would nuclear vendors work so
hard to indemnify themselves? Atomstroyeksport, the vendor of the
Kudankulam plant is protected by a special intergovernmental
agreement, which would prevent victims from suing it in the event of
an accident. Companies like Westinghouse are holding back on reactor
sales to India, since the new liability law includes some very mild
liability for suppliers. When nuclear companies are unwilling to stake
their financial health on these claims of "100% safety," how can the
government ask local residents to risk their lives?
(The authors are physicists with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament
and Peace. M.V. Ramana is the author of "The Power of Promise:
Examining Nuclear Power in India" — forthcoming, Viking Penguin.)