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Let out the steam at Koodankulam

As the deadline to commission the nuclear plant nears,there must be a reasonable settlement

Written by Sushila Ravindranath | April 16, 2013 12:36:51 am

As the deadline to commission the nuclear plant nears,there must be a reasonable settlement

In January,Ratan Kumar Sinha,chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission,stated that the much-delayed Koodankulam nuclear power project was set to be commissioned within the next two weeks as nuclear scientists had entered the final lap of a series of tests on its safety and efficacy. Such statements,assuring that power from Koodankulam is around the corner,have been made by the nuclear authorities,ministers and government spokesmen with great regularity over the last two years. In April last year,the minister of state for power in the prime minister’s office,V. Narayanasamy,announced that the first unit of the Koondankulam nuclear power project was expected to start generating electricity in the next 40 days. The minister had declared that the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) officials were at the project site and inspecting the plant. He also promised that the second unit would be commissioned within two months of the first. He says these things every time he visits.

It is now the turn of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,who promised Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Durban in March that unit one of the Koodankulam power reactor will become operational this month. But some controversy or other also erupts with regularity each time the plant is supposed to go online. There is a general air of confusion and obfuscation.

Koodankulam has a chequered history. In 1988,then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the president of the Soviet Union,Mikhail Gorbachev,signed an agreement for the construction of two nuclear reactors in Koodankulam. The project did not see the light of day because of the breakup of the Soviet Union. After getting over obstacles such as objections from the Americans that the agreement did not meet the 1992 terms of the Nuclear Suppliers Group,work on the project began in September 2001 with Russian collaboration.

There have been simmering protests since. People in and around Koodankulam are worried that the hot water discharged from the plant into the sea will adversely affect the marine life and fish catch. Nearly 1 lakh people living within a 16 km radius of the plant fear displacement. They also fear accidents at the plant during the movement and storage of radioactive material. However,in the early days,Koodankulam had no problem with the nuclear project. The villagers sold land to the Nuclear Power Corporation and hoped for jobs,which the corporation promised. But the jobs never came,and Koodankulam has not become prosperous. When two more reactors were announced and a public hearing was held in July 2007,the sentiment had turned negative.

The 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan hardened attitudes further. S.P. Udayakumar,coordinator of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE),has kept up a sustained campaign in the last two years. The government has cast aspersions on the movement and Udayakumar,including accusations of foreign funding. But when a warrant was issued for Udayakumar’s arrest a few months ago,hundreds of volunteers helped him hide. They guard him day and night.

When Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa gave a patient hearing to Udayakumar last year,PMANE was optimistic that its voice would be heard. The severe power shortage in the state has left both the state and the Centre wanting the project to become operational. Barring a few activists,there is little sympathy for the Koodankulam protesters outside the region.

The police machinery is coming down quite heavily on the activists. At a public hearing last year by a committee set up under Justice A.P. Shah,the representatives of PMANE said the government was harassing the people in the area by filing criminal cases against them under offences such as sedition and waging war against the state,and arresting them.Justice Shah saw merit in many of the complaints. He concludes his report saying,“The Government of India and the state government must initiate dialogue,come to [the middle ground,stop persecution of persons and resolve the issue mutually.” As the deadline to commission the plant nears,isn’t it time to sit and reason together?

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