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18 December 2011

Should Koodankulam Nuclear plant be abandoned?

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By Syed Ali Mujtaba

The Russian built Koodankulam nuclear plant in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu is at the centre of controversy since October 2011. Thousands of villagers living around the site are blocking highways and staging protest, preventing further construction work at the nuclear plant citing safety as the reason for demanding the closure of this nuclear power plant.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has written to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha that all precautions would be taken at the Koodankulam nuclear plant to maintain the highest safety standards..

However, the protesters remain unconvinced. They fear the nuclear accident similar to the radiation leak in March 2011 at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant may could be repeated at Koodankulam and not amount of persuasion seems to convince them.

They have filed a public interest litigation against the government of India at the Supreme Court, staying of all proposed nuclear power plants in the country till satisfactory safety measures and cost-benefit analyses are completed by independent agencies.

To substantiate the argument the litigants have claimed that even advanced countries like Germany has decided to shutdown all its 17 Nuclear reactors through which it gets 23% of its energy.

The Koodankulam controversy is now being debated in the colleges of Tamil Nadu. A Chennai based NGO; “Nandini Voice for the Deprived,” organized an essay competition on the subject for the college students of Tamil Nadu.

One hundred and twelve college students from across the state participated in this essay competition amongst them, 65% were girls.

About seventy seven percent of the students held the view that the Koodankulam nuclear plant should be commissioned, and about twenty three percent were of the opinion that it should be abandoned.

The students who want the project to be commissioned pointed out several reasons in favor of the project. One said, India has no options other than nuclear power in view of the huge scarcity of conventional source of energy and their rising international prices. While the non conventional energy such as solar and wind power should be utilized to the maximum, they may not be adequate considering the futuristic demand for power in the country. So nuclear energy is essential for the country.

Second one said; given the serious shortage of power situation in Tamil Nadu, there is great urgency to commission the nuclear power plant in the state. This would avoid production loss of several crores of rupees.

The third said, many suspicions are raised such as fisheries getting affected, threat of tsunami and cyclones, radiation effects etc. The arguments advanced are based on suspicions, pessimistic view and lack of understanding. Senior Indian nuclear scientists have found all of them to be untrue. So there is little truth in abandoning the nuclear power plant.

Some other points that, there is certainly political undertone in the present agitation, most of the protestors are from lower income group and are uneducated, quite number of them are elderly people or school students or relatives of fishermen; they have little knowledge about the issues related to nuclear power plant. They are being misguided and are giving an impression that they are sworn opponents of nuclear power.

However, there were some students who seriously want the project to be abandoned. They are convinced about the futility of a nuclear power as a source of energy.

One of them argue that the local people are the real stake holders and even if the majority of the people would want the project to be commissioned, it should not be done so because the local stake holders object to it

Another view was that there have been instances of accidents in nuclear plants elsewhere in the world and this cannot be ignored by the local people. In such unfortunate event it’s the people living near Koodankulam area that would bear the consequences of such catastrophe.

Someone argued, human life is more important than the issues of economic and industrial development and such development factors cannot get priority when safety concerns for human beings are in question, particularly when local stake holders are not in it favor.

One opinion says that the scientists are not able to communicate with the local people and convince them effectively. The opposition that’s simmering is due to their lack of training in the communication skills of the scientists.

Someone feels that Tamil Nadu government is giving an impression that it is in favor of abandoning the Koodankulam nuclear project. In spite of the huge controversy, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has not spoken in favor of the project. So in the wake of the silent stand against the Koodankulam project, the Tamil Nadu government should see to it that Koodankulam nuclear project is abandoned.

Going by the arguments for and against the motion, it can be noted that most of the students attempted to address the issue in an objective way. The views of the students are certainly valuable should be considered for being allayed.

Notwithstanding the facts, the former chairman of Atomic Energy Commission M. R Srinivasan has come out in favor of the commissioning of the Koodankulam nuclear plant.

He has reportedly said that one should never compare the Fukushima plant with Koodankulam. The Fukushima plant was built on a beachfront, but the Koodankulam was constructed on a solid terrain and that too keeping all the safety aspects in mind. Also, it’s not in a tsunami prone area and the plants have a double contaminant system which can withstand high pressure.

Srinivasan further said that more than Rs 14,000 crore has been spent on the project and if the plant is not operated immediately, it will affect the economic stability of our country.

A fifteen member center panel constituted by the Government of India did a survey of the safety features in the plant. In its report it has said the Koodankulam reactors are the safest in the country and fears of the people are not based on scientific principles.

So far the expert panel has met the protestors three times to discuss their concerns but have been unable to convince the local people who are against the nuclear power project.

The previous two meetings of the committees were held on November 7 and 18 but had failed to break the impasse as representatives of the agitators wanted more information and documents relating to their safety concerns.

The central committee was set up to allay fears of the locals over the nuclear power plant after the prolonged protests delayed the commissioning of the reactor scheduled for this month to March next year. Only essential maintenance operations were underway at the plant right now.

Meanwhile, the report of the expert group on Koodankulam nuclear power project is handed-over to the state panel members, and the district authorities of the Thirunelveli district on December 15, 2011. It can be downloaded from the PIB website www.pibchennai.gov.in

[Syed Ali Mujtaba is a Journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba@yahoo.com]

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