Kudankulam Nuclear Project for THE Future A Reflection

Perspective By Prof V. Shiv Kumar and Ms. P. Vimala Gowri

Meeting increasing energy demands will remain one of the critical issues for India in the 21st century owing to high dependency on energy imports. Nuclear energy offers both opportunities and challenges for any aspiring country. Without nuclear power, achieving energy security will be much more difficult.

Prior to the formation of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) in 1987, the design, construction and operation of nuclear power plants were carried out as a departmental activity by the Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India.

In 1962, India signed the nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States, under which the American firm, General Electric, agreed to supply two 200 MW reactors to India to be constructed at Tarapur site near Bombay. By then, the United States already had a well established Nuclear Liability Law - popularly known as the Price Anderson Act - which was passed by the US Congress in 1957.

Similarly, when India signed an agreement in 1965 with the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) to build the first two reactors at Rawatbhatta site in Rajasthan, an indemnity protection was extended to AECL and its suppliers as well. On the question of whether India was right in extending such an indemnity to suppliers, there was no doubt that without either of these two agreements, India would not have been able to develop and become self-reliant in civil nuclear power.

As India’s civilian nuclear programme progressed steadily, The Power Projects Engineering Division was set up in 1967 within the DAE for the construction of power reactors indigenously as well as in collaboration with various foreign entities. The Power Projects Engineering Division was subsequently converted into the ‘Nuclear Power Board,’ and it became the NPCIL - as a public sector enterprise - on September 17, 1987.

Civil Nuclear Liability

Before discussing the specific Kudankulam case, it is worthwhile recalling some of the international practices with respect to civil nuclear liability. By the time the first Kudankulam contract was signed in 1998, all countries with nuclear power plants, with three notable exceptions - India, China and Russia - had one of three types of nuclear liability laws operating in their territories - their own nuclear liability laws. For example, in the USA and Canada, or one of the two international civil liability instruments - the Paris Convention on Third Party Liability in the Field of Nuclear Energy of 1960 established under the auspices of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) or the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage of 1963 established under the auspices of the IAEA. While the OECD treaty is regionally confined, the IAEA treaty applies worldwide.

The Kudankulam project has had a chequered history. On November 20, 1988, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) for the construction of two VVER-1000 units at Kudankulam. It was to be a turnkey project - the Soviet Union providing the design, bringing in all the equipment and fuel and also constructing the reactors. The spent fuel was to be taken to the Soviet Union. However, the project proved a non-starter because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Differences over the rouble-rupee payment ratio stalled the project further. In the early 1990s, the then AEC Chairman M R Srinivasan tried hard to revive it. Finally, it came alive with the signing of a supplementary agreement to the IGA in New Delhi on June 21, 1998 by Russian Minister for Atomic Energy Yevgeny Adamov and AEC Chairman and DAE Secretary Dr R Chidambaram.

In July 2005, the India-US nuclear deal was announced jointly by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George W Bush during the former’s visit to Washington. While the process of allowing for nuclear trade with India by the NSG members was in progress during President Putin’s visit to India in January 2007, the two governments signed a Memorandum of Intent on Development of Cooperation for the Construction of Additional Nuclear Power Plant Units at Kudankulam site as well as on the construction of Russian Design Nuclear Power Plants at New Sites in India.

Industry and Energy Requirements

Tamil Nadu was going through an unprecedented power shortage, with an installed capacity of 11,640 MW including from Central projects such as Neyveli Lignite Corporation through power sharing agreements, and the state experiencing a 4,460 MW deficiency. The demand from the Power Utility was projected at 13,450 MW for 2013-14. While pitching the whole, ‘Tamil Nadu is an industrial destination’, to foreign investors, Tamil Nadu state planners were faced with the imminent threat of power shortage both domestic and industrial. The State Planning Commission and the policymakers began to look into various options, including hydroelectric power output, and wind and solar energy to meet the energy requirements of the ‘power-stressed’ state.

It goes without saying that there has been little capacity addition toward energy demands since 2000 in the state and opposition to projects such as the 1600 MW Jayamkondan Lignite Power Project had meant that the state quickly went from energy surplus to energy deficit, buying power from the North Eastern States. Demand had increased from 6000 MW in early 2000 to 12000 MW within a decade. Many of the thermal plants are operating only at 50 percent capacity and dwindling resources at Naively Lignite Corporation posed its own problems. The state needed to add capacity and that too quickly.

In 2011, Tamil Nadu’s total power requirement jumped to 12000 MW with growing demands from the industrial belt in Coimbatore, Madurai and Greater Chennai divisions. However, the state’s existing electricity generation capacity, stood below 9000 MWs.

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, however, experienced significant delays. Kudankulam is a small fishermen village in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. Not far from there is the heavy water plant in Tuticorin station. Not very far is the indigenously developed Kalpakkam Atomic energy station near the famous Mahabalipuram on ECR (East Coast Roadways) along the coast of Bay of Bengal.

Agitations over the ongoing Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) and the not-so-recent Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project have created roadblocks for the realisation of India’s civilian nuclear ambitions. After all, nuclear energy is hoped to be the answer to meet India’s growing energy needs in a relatively affordable, effective and sustainable manner; at least such is the official policy. This reasoning resonates in KKNPP’s mandate – to generate electricity for the southern states of India facing acute power shortages, most notably Tamil Nadu.

In May 2013, Supreme Court dismissed the petitions by nuclear activists questioning the safety of the nuclear power plant and granted the go-ahead for the commissioning of the first two units. However, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), NPCIL and the Department of Atomic Energy of India have been asked by the court to ensure the safety of the plant and give final clearances before the start of commercial operations.

A panel of two judges has concluded that the Kudankulam nuclear power plant is vital for the country's economic growth and dismissed widespread public apprehension of the project as having 'no basis’. Judges K S Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra reached their decision after considering detailed submissions including the criticisms levelled against the plant by its detractors and submissions from the legal representatives of the NPCIL and AERB. Their 247-page ruling covered India's nuclear power history, safety, international agreements, social responsibility, environmental issues and civil liability for nuclear damage among many other things.

After considering the evidence presented to them, the judges ruled that NPCIL had met all safety requirements, both on and off site, and that the code of practice laid down by the AERB, conformed to national and international safety standards. Furthermore, Justice Misra focused on the vital role of nuclear power in meeting India's energy needs. "The present case is one where there is need for nuclear energy for the welfare of the public and for other welfare of the people of India," he said.

The judges found that the decision to build the plant was justified, that all safety and security measures had been taken and necessary statutory permissions and clearances obtained. "Apprehension expressed by some sections of the public that if the units are commissioned or put into operation, it will have far reaching consequences … in our view has no basis," the judges noted.

Naturally the judges stressed that full regulatory processes must be followed in the commissioning of the plant, but they also directed that criminal charges against protestors should be withdrawn ‘so that peace and normalcy be restored at Kudankulam’ while steps are taken to communicate to people ‘the necessity of the plant, which is in the largest interest of the nation particularly the state of Tamil Nadu.’

In fact, eminent scientists such as our late President Dr A P J Abdul Kalamji, who hails from Tamil Nadu, after visiting the plant gave a clean chit for ‘clean power‘.

The agitations certainly cannot be generalised within the ‘people v/s the state’ debate. On the surface are the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ nuclear lobby. The pro-nuclear lobby includes but not limited to representatives of the official nuclear establishments such as the NPCIL and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), while the anti-nuclear lobby can be divided into two groups. On the one hand, there are people who are ideologically and fundamentally opposed to the N-word in all its formulations, and on the other, people who have genuine concerns over their safety and that of the environment.

Closely intertwined with safety concerns are livelihood concerns of the locals (basically fishermen), who fear that condenser water from the power plant could affect fish yield and harm marine life. The concern of Tsunami hitting the coast, the plant and the village was looming large in their minds!

Most of the protestors, except perhaps the leaders of the movement, belong to lower income group who do not know from where their next meal would come. The protestors include aged people some of whom live in orphanages and school children in 10-15 age group. Certainly, these protestors do not have the capacity to grasp the intricacies of the safety issues relating to installation and operation of nuclear power plants. There are other leaders involved in the protest movement, who seem to be highly motivated and determined people with good international connections. They managed the media very well and constantly ensure that their voices are heard. Some of them have even attended the meetings organised by the pro-nuclear group and disrupted the proceedings. Their leaders have been invited for foreign agencies to address without knowing their background or intentions.

Another debate embodied in the agitations is between science and democracy, articulated in an article by Shiv Visvanathan, senior fellow at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. He highlights the ability of democracy to question the ‘sanctity of expertise’ today. He also goes on to add that in a ‘democracy, the scientist and the activist have to work in tandem, each understanding the challenges the other faces.’ Perhaps then the conflict is more between the logic that science provides and the existence of an uncertain future that neither science nor democracy can explain. The People's Movement against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) is at the forefront of the anti-Kudankulam campaign.

The immediate need is to generate a consolidated grievance list ideally revolving around safety and livelihood as the only concerns with the Kudankulam nuclear power plant.

It is time for the people to let go of their vested interests and associate with the justness of the cause. It is also time for government officials to actively offer quick and reliable long-term solutions.

Nuclear Energy - A Clean Solution to Growing Energy Needs

The number of nuclear projects worldwide has been steadily increasing every year with new projects now being planned in West Asia, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, apart from developed countries such as the USA and Russia, Brazil and Argentina. Germany has advanced the date for suspending the operation of nuclear projects to 2020 but even in this case, there are considerable doubts as to whether this would really happen, since German government has so far not evolved any convincing alternate energy plans. The alternate energy plans would be difficult for Germany, since in that case the anti-nuclear protestors would be replaced by anti-coal based thermal power project protestors. If such options would go away due to any reason, Germany may revert to its nuclear power plants. The year 2020 is still far away and one has to wait and watch.

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) will have a production life of 60 years, which can be extended by another 20. The plant is expected to supply power at a cheaper rate of about INR 2.50 per unit. Kudankulam, or Koodankulam, is India's first nuclear plant to use imported PWR technology. The existing nuclear power plants in India use pressurised heavy water reactor or boiling water reactor technology. KNPP uses the advanced version of Russian-developed PWR nuclear technology, VVER-1000 type reactors; also known as water-water power reactors.

Kudankulam has become the largest nuclear power generation complex in India producing a cumulative 2 GW of electric power.

Safety Measures

Both units are water-cooled, water-moderated power reactors. The reactors have advanced safety features such as passive heat removal system, double containment, core catcher, and hydrogen re-combiner instead of conventional systems.

The AES-92 includes a combination of active and passive safety solutions. It retains the traditional active safety provisions such as the use of neutron absorbing control rods to control the reactivity.

The passive safety relies on natural factors such as pressure differentials, gravity or natural convection, to ensure protection against malfunctions during emergency situations. This include the fast injection of high-pressure boron and the provision of extra tanks for long-term supply of borated water to the reactor in a passive way, as well as a system for inter-containment area passive filtration.

The reactor building has a series of passive hydrogen re-combiners to convert abnormal production of hydrogen into water. This also includes a system for containing the molten-core of the reactor during severe accidents.

AES-92 has a double protective containment with the inner envelope made of steel and the outer one made of heavy reinforced concrete steel. This prevents radioactive release into the environment during possible disasters, including tsunami, earthquakes, tornadoes or aircraft crash. The inner containment is equipped with a water-sprayer system to ease the steam pressure in the reactor.

Former President A P J Abdul Kalam came out with a 10-point plan for the development of the area around the KNPP, even while reiterating his satisfaction over the safety net in place at the site to prevent a Fukushima-like tragedy. He asked the people not to have ‘even a nano-sized doubt’ on the protective ring, arguing that it met all the four safety aspects - nuclear criticality, radiation, thermal hydraulic and structural integrity safety. He had suggested construction of a four-lane highway connecting Kudankulam and villages 30 km around it with Madurai, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari.

The confidence-building measure was aimed at persuading anti-nuclear energy campaigners to give up their opposition to the plant. The action plan includes creation of 10,000 jobs, construction of a four-lane highway connecting Kudankulam with other major towns of Tamil Nadu and a world class hospital.

At present, India is the 6th largest energy consumer in the world and is projected to emerge as the 4th largest consumer after the United States, China and Japan in the coming decades. India’s commercial energy basket is currently dominated by coal (53%); oil (31%) and gas (8 %).

Energy Demands

Meeting increasing energy demands will remain one of the critical issues for India in the 21st century owing to high dependency on energy imports. Nuclear energy offers both opportunities and challenges for any aspiring country. Without nuclear power, achieving energy security will be much more difficult.

Indian economy has taken big strides forward, bringing to the fore an acute shortage of the infrastructure to support and sustain the acquired tempo, and scarcity of energy resources. Customary power sources, chiefly based on hydro power and coal-based thermal power are no match to this emerging new scenario. Environmental and land use restrictions mean thermal power producers are having difficulty securing coal, which accounts for 60 percent of India's energy use, not withstanding scams and other hurdles. Low natural gas output is another restraint.

Atomic energy, thus, becomes increasingly important as India struggles to meet growing demand of clean energy. There can be no further advancement without meeting the growing demands of industrialisation and urbanisation. City and industry has become the future of mankind. Nuclear energy is the best clean and green source of energy known to mankind till now. At present, considering the level of technology at the disposal of mankind, only nuclear energy can fulfil the requirements of rapid urbanisation.

We have, no doubt, that the present NDA government at the Centre under Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a clear agenda of development will proceed faster in this area to meet the energy requirements of our nation. Food and energy security are two important aspects of our growth and development followed by health and education. We have a great commitment for our future generation to provide clean environment, Swachh Bharat, employment, human dignity, health and education.

Culture and religion cannot be taught in empty stomach. Politics is a means for healthy and noble governance, not for resorting to unethical practices. Hope India has a better future under Modi ji leadership!

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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