For months now, Tamil Nadu has reeled under scheduled power cuts, stretching to ten hours in many districts and causing hours of hardship to the common man and hitting the industries hard. Experts say that if the Kudnakulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNP) goes on stream, then 400 MW from it can end Chennai 's power cuts .
Kudankulam has been a classic case of so near and yet so far. But with the fuel loading completed, now the question is how soon can the fuel-laden reactor vessels be closed? Will the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) give the green signal soon?
The regulator had given the go-ahead to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) run plant to load the reactor with enriched uranium, after being satisfied that its recommendations on the process were followed at every stage. The loading of the vessels was completed recently, even as anti nuclear protestors, under the umbrella of People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) , continued their attempts to lay siege to the plant.
Experts from practically every scientific field have visited the valley of protests, while the regulatory body, AERB has been monitoring the processes at the reactor at every stage. Now, AERB has to certify that the closure of the reactor pressure vessel can be effected, enabling the power plant to move into the next stage, which is that of attaining criticality (starting the fission chain reaction for the first time in the reactor) . Once this stage is reached, then the 1000 MW reactor would start generating electricity This would be the first of the two reactors, both with the potential to generate 1000 MW each, for the next forty years.
Experts say that when fully functional, the two units are capable of meeting the power needs of 40 million homes in Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Kerala and Karnataka. Currently, Chennai city undergoes a one hour power cut, but the distress is far more severe in the districts.
After all, the KKNP has had a fatiguingly long gestation period, and everything from politics to protest by locals has come in the way of commissioning the reactors. The agreement to set up the plant with two reactors was signed in 1988 between India and the then USSR. But then USSR broke up in 1991. Additionally, USA raised objections to the proposal, saying it did not meet the terms and conditions of the 1992 Nuclear Suppliers Group. Finally, construction work commenced in 2001.
However, anti-nuclear activists lead by SP Uday Kumar of PMANE ramped up their protest, after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, which saw radioactive leaks , following the tsunami which struck the area. There was no loss of life, or any instance of radiation induced sickness, but a large number of people were displaced. The protestors in Idinthakarai near Kudankulam have been demanding the closure of the plant , saying the official machinery is ill equipped to handle large scale evacuation in an emergency. PMANE has also claimed that civil society was not consulted on the project.
In September 2011, the state government passed a resolution asking the Centre to stop the work on KKNP, until people 's apprehensions were allayed. A state experts panel and a central experts group, appointed by the Department of Atomic Energy undertook a thorough study and also held extensive talks with the activists, after which they gave a clean chit to the KKNP project.
Based on the findings of this panel , in March this year the state government announced that the start up work on the nuclear plant would commence. Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa also announced a Rs 500 crore development assistance package for the area. The packag envisages a cold storage and boat repair facilities, educational institutions, better roads and other infrastructure, all aimed at improving the quality of life of the people.
However, PMANE has been relentlessly campaigning for the closure of KKNP .
The National Disaster Management Authority has meanwhile certified that KKNP is safe and people living in the neighbourhood need not have safety concerns. "There is no need for any concern for any of the plants," NDMA vice-chairman M Shashidhar Reddy said in a press conference recently. "Not only Kudankulam but Kalpakkam Atomic Power Station, which too is located in Tamil Nadu, is also safe. The government has taken several safety measures and it would continue to do so. I think there is need for some awareness," he said.
The Supreme Court is also currently hearing a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) on the safety of the plant, but it has not issued any order stopping the works or the fuel loading, which is now complete, in the first of the two units.
Experts say that the reactor in the KKNP is the most advanced in the world, till date.
With the state facing a shortfall of 2500 MW , a lot is riding on KKNP.
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist