Will Kudankulam end Chennai’s darkest hour soon?

Last Updated: Mon, Oct 15, 2012 22:01 hrs

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