On August 10, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin will virtually commission the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant Unit – I, jointly through a video conferencing by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.
It may be interesting to look at the long history behind the origin of Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) that faced series of protests, violence, state suppression, hundreds of sedition cases, accidents, repeated failures of the reactor and serious concerns and safety questions raised by nuclear experts.
1. The Origin
The Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) was the outcome of an inter-governmental agreement between the erstwhile Soviet Union and India in 1988.
During the period when KKNPP was first proposed, two other similar proposals were defeated following protests from local residents – one in Peringome near Kannur and another in Bhoothathankettu in Ernakulam district, both in the state of Kerala.
It was a government schoolteacher and the then general convenor of anti-nuclear power project protests, N Subramanian, was the leader of protests that defeated Peringome project in 1990-91. “Ours was the first successful protest in India against the installation of a nuclear power plant. Our protests lasted for two years to finally send back the project,” Subramanian would say two decades later, in 2011, while leading a protest March of 100 villagers from Peringome to Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu at the peak of struggles by People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) led by S P Udayakumar, another school teacher.
In October 2011, people from Bhoothathankettu had also joined the peace march from Peringome to Kudankulam, which was flagged off by late Justice V R Krishna Iyer.
2) KKNPP triggered India’s largest anti-nuclear protests
Inspired by the ideals of German Greens and their leader Petra Kelly, it was a Green Party launched by Udayakumar in the early 2000s had eventually embraced the cause of Kudankulam villagers and their movements against KKNP. Udayakumar, who has a doctorate in Peace Studies from a US university returned to India and settled near Idinthakarai, a village lies in the shadow of the giant KKNP.
It was a church bell at St. Lourdes Church at Idinthakarai, the nerve centre of Kudankulam protest, alerted residents, mostly fishermen, to converge in front of the church whenever there was a police action.
Besides Udayakumar and PMANE supported by hundreds of villagers, mostly fishermen, another powerful force that wielded powers in the protest was the church with its overwhelming Christian population. During the elections that followed Kudankulam protests, the church supported Udayakumar, who is a Hindu when popular parties fielded Christian candidates.
In Kudankulam protests, the number of people who were charged under Section 121 (waging war against the government) and Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was more than 6,000, or more than the number of cases on Maoists and militants in the country. And the person who faced maximum number of cases including sedition was Udayakumar – 101 cases – all except 35 cases remain pending in its initial stages of investigation without chargesheets and trials even after half a decade.
At the peak of Kudankulam protests six years ago, 182 people including women were arrested, many charged under sedition. A total of 8,000 cases have been registered. They faced charges for mobilising people, raising slogans against the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh etc. Most common charges imposed on villagers were Section 121 (Waging, or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war, against the Government of India), 124 (A) (Sedition) and 153 (A) (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony) of IPC and other charges such as unlawful assembly.
3) What raised suspicion?
Construction of two VVER-1000 reactors, the Russian version of pressurized water reactors (PWRs) with a capacity 995 MW began in March 2002. The first reactor became operational in October 2012 and was connected with the electricity grid a year later, which was expected to begin commercial operation by the middle of April 2014.
Besides the protests of anti-nuclear protestors, what had triggered the fears of public in southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala districts bordering the Kudankulam region was long delays in the execution of the project, alleged shady deals by activists and mysterious profiles of the Russian firms that supplied crucial components for the plant.
There were some 45 commissioning tests. Various reports from Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and independent experts show that the AERB attempt to clear the final test in which the reactor had to be operated for ‘non-stop 100 days on 100% Full Power (100%FP)’ started on May 5, 2014.
“During the 825 days, between May 5, 2014 and August 6, 2016, the reactor was on 100% FP for 217 days, not non-stop, but in 13 instalments. The maximum it ran non-stop was 45 days in January-March 2015. All the 11 attempts so far ended up either in emergency shutdowns or abrupt drop in output and the last attempt began on 19 July 2016,” says an independent study done by V T Padmanabhan of the Society of Science Enviornment and Ethics and Joseph Makkolil, a researcher in Applied Chemistry, Cochin University of Science and Technology.
International nuclear safety standards insists that the commissioning tests alone can ensure that a reactor will operate in accordance with design and is capable of responding to anticipated transients and postulated accidents. But, despite all repeated failures in the final commissioning tests, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) declared the commercial commissioning of the reactor at on December 31, 2014, two days after its transfer for warranty period operation.
Studies and operational data shows that the reactor was supposed to work at Full Power for non-stop 335 days in a year as 30 days are earmarked for refuelling and maintenance. However, after working for about six months after the commercial commissioning, the reactor was shut down on Jun 24, 2015 for a seven month-long maintenance, “which is 7 times longer than the earmarked duration. After the maintenance and refuelling, the reactor was grid connected on January 31, 2016 and it attained 100%FP 73 days later on April 13, 2016,” says the study.
Reports show that performance of the reactor did improve during the extended warranty period. “During the year 2015, the machine was off-grid for 49% of the time as against 26% during 2016. Percentage of days on full power increased from 30% to 40%. During the 521 days of the warranty period, the reactor was on full power for 172 days. While the improvements during the extended warranty period are substantial, there are sufficient room for more,” says the study by Padmanabhan-Makkolil study.
4) Does the reactor holds the world record for scram?
The reactor was expected to generate 23.88 million units (MU) and transfer 22.3 MU to the grid as the unit consumes 1.58 MU every day. During 521 days of the warranty operation from December 27, 2014 to June 30, 2016, reports says the grid received 5990 MU, as against the norm of 11,618 MU – which is around 52% of the reactor’s potential. The receipt was 43% and 68% of the installed capacity during the first and the second year respectively.
Studies quoting official figures also cites the World Nuclear Association (WNA) standards on the average scram rate for commercial reactors in the world, which is 0.5 per 7000 hours. But the scram rate at KKNPP-1 is 9 times higher than the global rate.
“The number of reactor scrams during the warranty period operation was two during 2015 and three during 2016. As the reactor worked for 3993 hours during 2015 and 3240 hours during 2016, the scram rate per 7000 reactor hours is 3.5 during 2015 and 6.5 during 2016,” notes Padmanabhan-Makkolil study citing the global scram rate – which is 1.5 days were lost per scram against six days at KKNPP. “This reactor holds the world record for scram,” says the Padmanabhan-Makkolil study.
5) Repeated accidents and questions from atomic experts
An accident on May 14, 2014 at KKNPP had left six workers with severe burn and musculo-skeletal injuries following a pipe burst accident in the feed water system of KKNPP-1. And recently, the National Human Right Commission (NHRC) fined Rs 300,000 on the NPCIL, an amount to be paid to the victims. “An enquiry report by the AERB pointed deficiencies in the safety standards at the Unit of KKNPP. The report pointed fingers towards negligence on the part of KKNPP and NPCIL and suggested that the incident could have been avoided had the guidelines under maintenance manual were followed,” said the NHRC statement.
Besides protests from anti-nuclear activists, a major jolt against the KKNPP came from India’s senior atomic energy experts. In 2013, nuclear scientist and former chairman of atomic energy regulatory board A Gopalakrishnan raised suspicions over substandard equipment arrived in the plant. “Foolish and dangerous things have been done undercover. AERB officials are not responding to any queries. On the background of recent reports from Russia about the supply of substandard atomic energy equipments, it has to be investigated before they go ahead with the project. Since faults may not be known for few years, safety concerns of the people has to be cleared,” said Gopalakrishnan, addressing a delegation of scientists in Chennai, seeking an independent investigation to study the plant.
MV Ramana, a nuclear physicist at Princeton University said repeated failures constituted a safety hazard. “…given the nature of nuclear technology and its inherent capacity for accidents, any small failure might provide the trigger for larger failures and severe accidents.”
In May 2013, 60 eminent scientists from premier national science institutes in India petitioned to the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, requesting them to demand an independent safety audit of Kudankulam.