A farce of connecting the reactors to the grid was played out in Koodankulam this week to make the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh‘s meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Russia less embarrassing. But the reactor tripped within hours, highlighting the dangers of such hasty exercises which undermine procedures and concerns
P K Sundaram

October 23, 2013

At the unearthly hour of 2:45 am, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) decided to connect Koodankulam reactor-I to the grid. Was the timing decided by some vaastu experts, as happens often in supposedly high-tech projects in this country, or to coincide with Manmohan Singh’s visit to Russia? While one can keep guessing, the whole exercise has exposed the nuclear establishment’s lies, inefficiency and dangerous misadventures.

Even before the jubilation in the media could settle, we learnt that that the Koodankulam reactor tripped and had to be stopped. The NPCIL claimed that it was ‘routine’ and that the process would be restarted after tests, following which electricity production in Koodankulam would be gradually increased to the full capacity of 1000 MW. However, the Southern Regional Load Despatch Centre (SRLDC), in its official report, said that there was a secondary system failure after the plant was synchronised for the first time at 2:45 am and that the power plant “tripped due to reverse power.”

Evidently, there is something more to the story than the normal start-up troubles. As recently as on 16 October, the NPCIL said that two condensers got stuck as they had valve problems and that the KKNPP-I would be synchronised in November after attaining 400 MW production capacity. On 22 October, they synchronised the reactor to the electricity grid after attaining just 160 MW production capacity. Some media sources have even reported the output to be just 75 MW. What made the NPCIL hurriedly sync the reactor then?

The Indian PM was on a trip to Russia and the government possibly felt that announcing the synchronisation of KKNPP-I would help finalise the agreement on Koodankulam 3 and 5. Like the US and French nuclear corporations, the Russian firm Atomsroyexport is not ready to abide by India’s Nuclear Liability Act of 2010 which mandates the operator’s “right of recourse” against the supplier. The liability issue and the high cost of Russian reactors seems to have prevented any final agreement between the two countries.

On 22 October, the Russian President announced with fanfare that Koodankulam would be connected to the grid “within a few hours”. He was reported saying that the reactor would start producing 300 MW of electricity – double the amount announced by the NPCIL at home. The Indian PM heaved a sigh of relief as he had promised Putin, way back on his December 2012 trip to India, that Koodankulam-I would be started “within 2 weeks.” The starting of operations at Koodankulam has been an unending saga of such 15 days’ promises by the NPCIL, Narayansamy and the PM himself.

However, the tripping of Koodankulam-I suggests much more more than just a hurried attempt to provide a symbolic moment for the PM’s visit. It exposes the hollowness of the claims of NPCIL experts that the repeated delays were a result of their “quest for perfection” regarding safety. Components like valves have been repeatedly found defective and trouble-prone in Koodankulam and have delayed the commissioning of the plant. The Russian nuclear supplier Zio-Podolsk‘s Director, Sergei Shutov is in jail for a huge scam involving the supply of sub-standard equipment in the batches that were supplied to India, ChinaIran and other countries over several years. This gives credence to the fears that have been brushed aside in India’s anachronistic nuclear pursuit.

The petitioners in the Koodankulam case in the Supreme Court did raise this issue, but the court reposed faith in the NPCIL to judge on such technical issues. The NPCIL and the secretive nature of the nuclear industry have not allowed much of independent nuclclear expertise to flourish in India. As a result, the NPCIL misled the court even on basic issues: it has no expertise on Pressurised Water Reactors (PWR) inKoodankulam and it passed off the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) safety manuals related to a totally different design – Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) – as a proof of its diligence and sincerity. Similarly, several other very crucial questions were overlooked: the non-adherence of recommendations of the post-Fukushima safety review, the non-availability of adequate water supply in Koodankulam, the exemption of nuclear liability for Koodankulam-I, and the non-adherence to Environment Impact Assessments and Coastal Regulatory Zone stipulations on the flimsy ground that these stipulations came into existence after the reactor project was started!

Far from being the product of a holistic policy for the country’s energy needs, India’s nuclear pursuit is based on international agreements animated by the pursuit of legitimacy for its nuclear weapons and ensuring a seat on the high table in exchange for nuclear deals. There is an unmissable pattern –  environmental clearance for Jaitapur was given in 2010 when the then French President Nicholas Sarkozy was visiting India, Nuclear Liability Act was hastily finalised during Hilary Clinton’s visit, liability exemption for Mithi Virdi project in Gujarat was given during Manmohan Singh’s visit to US last month and a shoddily done synchronisation of Koodankulam-I was done during the PM’s visit to Kremlin.

The livelihoods and lives of its own people have become international bargaining chips for the government. Much like the country’s other resources – mines, rivers, forests, food, health and education – that the Indian ruling elite is happily offering at the altar of its own brand of ‘development’.

We must not forget that the Fukushima nuclear accident has taken a much worse turn in Japan in the last few months. It has been forced to shut again two of the 54 reactors that were restarted after a complete shutdown following the accident in March 2011. The lesson we can draw is that nuclear plants simply cannot be run in a transparent and safe manner. The stress-tests following Fukushima have forced full or partial reversal of nuclear projects in many countries and international surveys have reported widespread popular disapproval of the nuclear industry.

Despite the backlash against the Koodankulam plant, India sent psychologists to ‘counsel’ the protesters and slapped sedition charges of colonial vintage when that didn’t work. Thousands of activists and villagers in Tamil Nadu continue to face fictitious criminal charges, which the Supreme Court ordered to be removed. Meanwhile, India’s democracy and safety are threatened by an ill-conceived, unsafe, expensive, non-transparent and unaccountable nuclear expansion plan.

The author is Research Consultant with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) and can be contacted at[email protected]


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