We interviewed Dr. S P Udayakumar, leader of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy(PMANE) who is spearheading the anti-nuclear agitation in Koodankulam, about his personal reminiscense of the nuclear accident in Three Miles Island in United states in 1979, its impact on the nuclear debate and the ongoing problems with the Koodankulam nuclear power project.
What is your personal memory about the Three Miles Island ?
To be honest, I did not hear about this accident that took place in Pennsylvania state in the United States in March 1979. I was an undergraduate student then and did not follow the nuclear issues around the world. Only after the Chernobyl accident and the announcement of the Koodankulam nuclear power project did I read about the TMI accident. When I went to the United States for higher studies, I came to know a lot more about the TMI accident. My American grandparents, Grandma Enid Keen and Grandpa Bob Keen used to tell me a lot about this accident as they were living in Harrisburg, PA during that time. Harrisburg was very close to the TMI site. They explained to me how much they suffered during and after the TMI accident. They fled Harrisburg along with their children and settled in some other part of the US.
Like everywhere else in the world, the TMI nuclear power plant owners and the operators assured the governmental authorities and the general public that “everything was under control.” A little later the state government acknowledged that the issue was a lot more complex. They closed down the schools, urged the people to stay indoors and asked the farmers to keep their cattle under cover. Then they decided to evacuate pregnant women and infants who were living in the five-mile radius of the TMI plants. Eventually, the authorities expanded the evacuation zone to a 20-mile radius. Most of the evacuees and the residents around the TMI plants were seriously dissatisfied with the government and the company.
How did the Indian nuclear establishment react after TMI?
I have no idea about this. But we all know that the nuclear departments all over the world have the same abrasive mentality, dismissive attitude, evasive language, selfish behaviour, and total disregard for the safety and security of ‘ordinary citizens.’ For instance, when the Fukushima accident took place, the Indian DAE chief Sreekumar Banerjee claimed that it was just a small chemical explosion and not a nuclear meltdown. The nuclear-wallahs all over the world are overbearing, overconfident and over-protective of their interests.
Did it open any debate on nuclear safety in India, or did that start later only after Chernobyl?
Even after Chernobyl there was hardly any national debate on nuclear safety in India. The Chernobyl accident took place in April 1986 and in about a few months, the Rajiv Gandhi government announced the Koodankulam nuclear power project with Russian collaboration. Would anyone with a modicum of safety concerns and people’s security announce a major nuclear power project right after the Chernobyl disaster? Most of the political parties and leaders in India are afraid of taking a stand on this “national security” issue and many of them are too ignorant to discuss about the nuclear issues. They are all preoccupied with national pride, superpower status, scientific and technological development and so forth. Even after the India-US nuclear deal there was hardly any debate in this country on nuclear issue. It was only after the anti-Koodankulam struggle, did India sit up and took a good look at the nuclear issue.
In Kanyakumari, there were anti-nuclear mobilisations in the late 90s. Did activists and experts make reference to TMI then?
Of course, both TMI and Chernobyl accidents were evoked in those struggles but the references were rather vague and murky for everyone. Only after the Fukushima accident did people everywhere watch all the nuclear devastations on their TV screens. Things became a lot clearer for them.
Nuclear accidents are not rare incidents anymore. What are the key concerns about accidents and safety that must become part of the public discourse?
Radiation leak and radiation exposure are the two major immediate concerns in any nuclear accident. Our people should take disaster preparedness and management into their hands as we cannot rely on corrupt and inefficient officials and politicos. They want to hide things and keep everything under their control but we are for transparency, accountability and popular participation.
Koodankulam has been dysfunctional for the past 2 years, despite the official claims and repeated shut-downs and trips. What do you think are the immediate and continued risks?
The Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) is steeped in corruption, collusion and deception. The DAE has got substandard equipment from Russian companies and done a lot of mistakes in the project’s design, erection and operation. They are in very bad condition. No decent democratic country would run these discredited plants at all. The NPCIL is ill prepared to deal with the spent-fuel and the nuclear wastes from the KKNPP. When the Poovulagin Nanbargal case against the KKNPP came up in the Supreme Court, the NPCIL asked for five years time to construct an ‘Away from Reactor’ (AFR) facility for keeping the spent-fuel and the ‘Deep Geological Repository’ (DGR) for safekeeping the high-level nuclear wastes. Now the same NPCIL has filed another affidavit seeking five more years to construct the above-mentioned facilities as they do not have the expertise.
Next year would be 40 years of Three Miles Island accident. The US itself is forgetting the lessons and Trump has opened up subsidies for new plants. Japan is also re-starting nuclear plants after Fukushima. Are we headed for a nuclear renaissance as the industry claims?
No, there is no nuclear renaissance anywhere, not even in India. The Indian authorities hope to produce 14,600 MW nuclear power by 2024. In the next six years, they will not achieve even one third of this output. You will certainly agree with that prediction if you see their track record. In 2016 alone, the wind power output in India grew by 16%, solar power by 30% but nuclear power output grew only by a meagre 1.4%. The global trend is also very similar to this.