The Russian-imported nuclear power plant on the southern tip of India was an issue of fierce contention for more than three years since mid-2011. While the government and nuclear-backers scrambled to prove that there is nothing more important and urgent than the power for solving the energy crisis in Tamil Nadu and other southern states, the local people, concerned activists and independent experts differed vehemently.
India's sole and public sector nuclear operator, the NPCIL, recently announced a delay in the restart of Koodankulam #1, which has been shut down for "annual maintenance" since June 26 this year.1 The plant was supposed to go online on August 22 but the re-start was delayed and September 23 was declared as the next date. As the new date approached, we were informed of yet another delay.
Since its was commissioned, for most of the time Koodankulam #1 has been shut down either for "routine maintenance" or has tripped and shut down leaving the plant authorities red-faced. The reactor was commissioned on 22 October 2013 but it took a prolonged period of tests to attain functioning at 100% capacity and was declared commercially operational only on 31 December 2014. During that test-period of 14 months, the reactor saw 19 'shut down due to tripping' and three maintenance outages. In fact NPCIL resorted to a rather hurried declaration of commercial operation as the unending test-period started feeling like an embarrassment for it and the then government.
While some tripping does happen in nuclear reactors undergoing tests, with Koodankulam such occurrences are exceptionally high. With 14 trips during 4701 hours of its operation, the rate for KKNPP is 20.8 per year. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) report on capacity optimization mentions an average global tripping rate per year of 0.37 for all the reactors in the world.2
This pattern of repeated shut-downs and closures for prolonged "routine maintenance" and the postponements of restart dates should bring home the seriousness of the problem and the government must constitute a high-level and independent probe into the white elephant that Koodankulam has become. It is important not only to assess the problems in the plant and find possible corrective measures to ensure that risks do not escalate, but also to reconsider planned new nuclear projects in light of the failure of Koodankulam.
The Congress government ignored informed voices and bulldozed grassroots protests
In its zeal to push for the project, the erstwhile Congress government disregarded cautionary notes from eminent independent scientists3 and the former nuclear regulator4 of India. These concerns were related to a scandal which happened in Russia between 2007 and 2011, involving supply of sub-standard equipment for which one of the Directors of the Zio-Podolsk company was imprisoned. Equipment from the same batch were used by Atomsroyexport in Koodankulam as well and the experts warned that this would lead to complications, inefficiency and would even have potentially dangerous safety implications. The former union power secretary of India also wrote to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raising the issue and advising him not to go ahead with the hurried commissioning of Koodankulam.
But the Singh government had made nuclear an ego issue that blinded it from all prudence and inconvenient truths. Protests against the reactor from local communities were based on their legitimate safety and livelihood concerns. The other important part was the dissent of social activists on ecological concerns, liability issues and the democratic rights of the local community to decide its development. But besides bulldozing these two set of arguments with brutal repression and stigmatization of activists as 'foreign hand', the Manmohan Singh government also turned a deaf ear to a more informed group of people who knew the gravity of the situation. The independent voices that cautioned about faulty equipment stand vindicated.
In Tamil Nadu, the government's PR machinery had also propped up orchestrated protests of a handful of agitated people angry at the delay in commissioning of protests, claiming the coming summer that year would be unbearable without the nuclear reactor. Now those folks5 are nowhere to be seen demanding answers from the NPCIL about why it has repeatedly failed to ensure smooth functioning of the reactor. Politicians like Jaya Lalitha, and non-Congress parties like the CPI(M) which eventually supported the Koodankulam project on the assurances of official scientists and the government of India, are not questioning them either. While the issue could earn BJP some brownie points against the Congress, it seems to be avoiding it both because it also supports nuclear energy in principle and because Modi's global nuclear shopping spree6 would be open to question if the ill-considered imported reactor project gets publicized.
Hard questions also need to be asked of the then Minister of State, Mr. Narayanaswamy, who claimed that protests resulted in losses of Rs. 5 crores per day by forcing a delay in the commissioning of Koodankulam #1. While the Tamil Nadu government did order a halt on the construction work for a few months, at no point did the court give a stay, and agitators did not block the construction or later the functioning of the reactor in any way. So who is now responsible for the loss to exchequer by these repeated delays and the huge opportunity costs for not looking into the cautions raised? The delays in Koodankulam didn't start with the announcement of commissioning. There were repeated delays in the date of commissioning itself and Mr. Narayanaswamy's repeated assurances7 of the reactor starting in next 15 days had become a laughing stock.
It's too dangerous to allow the Koodankulam issue to fade as it doesn't suit the dominant interests that shape the public gaze in India. It concerns the safety of Indian citizens, larger public policy on an issue of national importance and the emptiness of promises that were made to sell the expensive and dangerous project.