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Dr Kalam is knowledgeable, belongs to the region and has empathy for the local populace and it is unthinkable that he would issue a certificate of assurance if he had the slightest doubt about the safety of the pant and site

The Kudankulam Factor

Neither Kudankulam nor Jaitapur nor any other existing or proposed nuclear power plant site in India is in an earthquake zone of the same magnitude as Fukushima.

By B G Verghese

New Indian Express, 13 November, 2011

The Kudankulam nuclear plant was the flavour of the past week. Dr Abdul Kalam visited the site, saw the two reactors’ plants (2000 MW) that are nearly ready for commissioning, spoke to the scientists and engineers about the technology, in-built safety measures and redundancies to meet unforeseen emergencies, met with the local population and pronounced the facility safe from the perils of any Fukushima-type earthquake and tsunami. He also suggested an augmented package for compensation and enhanced livelihoods. Dr Kalam is knowledgeable, belongs to the region and has empathy for the local populace and it is unthinkable that he would issue a certificate of assurance if he had the slightest doubt about the safety of the pant and site.

That of course constitutes no absolute guarantee. The impossible can and, sometimes, does happen. Which Kudankulam critic can guarantee that he or she may not be crushed under the next bus passing by? Will they therefore forever refuse to stir out of home for fear of sudden death? Nations, like individuals, behave rationally and take acceptable marginal risks. Presumably most if not all those affected by the tsunami that struck the Coromandel coast a few years ago opted to be rehabilitated at more or less the same sites. Why? Because other options in their judgement probably entailed higher costs. Of course added safety measures have been taken. Tsunami warning measures have been improved and evacuation plans and disaster management norms have been upgraded.

However, it appears that the local population was not fully taken into confidence in a timely manner and that a mock drill raised sudden alarms for lack of prior information. Some earlier promises of compensatory benefits were also delayed. Carrying the local population with one is always important and hopefully the right lessons have been learnt.

Technologically, we have been assured that the Kudankulam reactors are built to superior safety standards than the more old-fashioned plant at Fukushima or earlier generation nuclear power plants in India. Cascading damage possibilities have been eliminated and redundancies provided to ensure as near fail-safe measures as possible. Safety standards have been reviewed and if any further viable safety norms are declared necessary, these can be incorporated whether here or at Jaitapur in Maharastra or elsewhere.

The Fukushima argument is exaggerated for two further reasons. That plant was struck by a 9 M earthquake that triggered a powerful tsunami that set in motion waves that rose to a height nine metres. Neither Kudankulam nor Jaitapur nor any other existing or proposed nuclear power plant site in India is in an earthquake zone of the same magnitude as Fukushima. Nor does the Indian Ocean generate tsunami waves of the same order as its Pacific counterparts. Then again, both Kudankulam (also sometimes Koodankulam) and Jaitapur are sited at a height of 15-20 metres above MSL, unlike the Fukushima plant that was far lower, and will be well above the crest of even a worst-case tsunami wave that might hit the Indian coast.

Some of those who attack Kudankulam and Jaitapur are ideologically motivated. They consider nuclear energy to be dangerous, expensive and, though clean, not environmentally friendly on account of decommissioning hazards. These are old chestnuts and unrelated to Fukushima and to bring them up now adds little to the debate.

Some scorned Dr Kalam’s proposed welfare package of better housing and connectivity, a fine hospital, motorised fishing boats, improved jetties and cold storage facilities, and measures to create 10,000 new jobs in the area. They wondered what it had to do with plant safety. Nothing. These were intended to enhance the compensation and livelihood package to make this a model region and to counter suggestions that warm coolant discharge into the sea would affect fishing and affect employment.

Those who argue in favour of renewable sources of energy must know that India is well launched on developing wind energy – especially Tamil Nadu – and that the National Solar Mission aims to install 20,000 MW of solar power by 2020, a target far more ambitious than anything set for nuclear power. Further, development of “conventional” uranium-based nuclear power will provide the wherewithal to move on to the next stage of thorium-based power through fast breeder reactors which will bring costs down substantially.

The country is desperately short of energy and needs to move away from dirty fuels like high ash coal and imported fuels like oil and gas to clean, low carbon energy sources like nuclear and hydro as it develops economical renewable energy substitutes. That certain other countries like Germany are backing away from nuclear energy is not particularly relevant as their resource and demand patterns are different. India must hew its own course.

India has only tapped a small fraction of its considerable hydro potential and is surrounded by neighbours with large hydro resources for which India would be a natural market. Yet there has been opposition to hydel generation on grounds of environmental and displacement costs. The arguments have been pushed to excess in several cases projects have been long delayed or aborted despite positive cost-benefit ratios. Populations are indeed displaced by submergence but can be suitably and generously compensated for losses suffered and made stakeholders in the stream of future benefits. Losses, whether immediate and/or local, must be set off against longer term gains and spatial benefits. Dams submerge land; but ancillary development projects confer benefits to large communities hitherto isolated and neglected and beyond market reach.

The 40 MW Renuka dam on the Giri river, a tributary of the Yamuna in Himachal, from which Delhi has sourced future water supplies to the extent of 275 million gallons a day, has been held up for years on various environmental and R&R counts. There is here, as elsewhere a high opportunity cost of delay. Delhi’s water security is threatened. The answer in all cases is balance: balance between contending factors, short and long term, local and regional. Development does cause displacement, but non-development displaces far larger numbers as loss of opportunity, incomes and employment leads to distress migration which now totals some 20-40 million per annum. These “nowhere people” are virtually stateless, deprived of citizenship rights and benefits and are nobody’s responsibility.

New and better development and technological equations must be found. The Kudankulam-Jaitapur nuclear power “pause” is not painless. There is a very high cost for doing nothing.

Meanwhile, Mamata Bannerjee’s disgraceful conduct in condoning hooliganism by her party members who invaded a police thana, marks a new low in populist politics. However, the SIT court judgement in Mehsana on the brutal Sardarpura killings of innocent Muslims by a Hindutva mob offers the first whiff of justice in regard to the horrific state–sponsored Gujarat carnage of 2002. The net is closing in on Narendra Modi who masterminded the pogrom. A cheer is also due to Dr Manmohan Singh for restarting the Indo-Pakistan peace process on the basis of “trust but verify”. Like the Sharam-el Sheikh communiqué, this signals mature diplomacy and not a sell out as traditional critics would have us believe.

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