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Anti-Nuclear Struggle Has Large Fallout

Peter Custers*

LEIDEN, the Netherlands, Oct 5 2011 (IPS) - The anti-nuclear struggle in India did not gain the same national prominence as the hunger strike waged by Anna Hazare against rampant corruption among India’s top politicians. Yet a landmark it surely was in the history of India’s nuclear programme.

On Aug. 17, a group of activists started a hunger strike near Koodankulam at the southern tip of Tamil Nadu state. The action was directed against Indian government plans to commission a 1000 MW Russian- built nuclear plant.

From the very start it was apparent that this was not a struggle waged by a small disgruntled minority. The hunger strike was preceded and accompanied by mass demonstrations where thousands of fisher folk from surrounding villages took part.

The Gandhian style protests were temporarily suspended in late August, but they were resumed after the Department of Energy (DAE) indicated it would ignore the protestors’ demands.

Then, in the second phase starting Sep. 11, the movement peaked once more. This time, more than 100 people, including priests and nuns, went on indefinite hunger strike in the village Idinthakarai.

Every day 10,000 people or more would gather from the surrounding area to demonstrate their support. And every day support kept expanding, as students boycotted schools, merchants closed their shops, and gruel kitchens were set up in adjacent villages where fisher folk refused to go out to catch fish.

This time Tamil Nadu’s politicians just had to respond. On Sep. 19, Jayalalitha, Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, insisting the protestors be heard.

Jayalalitha’s move capped an initial success for the protests, which arguably are the most widespread and sustained local protest ever to have occurred against nuclear energy in India. They closely follow the open discontent registered earlier this year against nuclear construction plans in Jaitapur along the Maharashtra coast.

Both Jaitapur and Koodankulam are crucial links in India’s plans to expand its reliance on nuclear energy. But whereas the technology for the new nuclear plants in Jaitapur is to be supplied by the French company Areva, the reactors being installed at the plants in Koodankulam are Russian in origin.

They are known as the VVER-1000/392 design. Though based on light-water reactors in use for long, the design is a new variant. Indian scientists have long questioned whether Russia’s VVER-1000 technology is safe. Doubts have further been fuelled by last March’s Fukushima disaster in Japan, and by the new assessments on nuclear safety made since then.

In a report leaked to environmental organisations in June, an amalgam of Russian state agencies admitted that Russia’s nuclear industry is extremely vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters. Some 31 security flaws were listed.

The document among others questions the capacity of Russian reactors to continue to function safely if cooling systems fail. It also pinpoints the risks of hydrogen explosions. Sergei Kiriyenko, the chief of Russia’s nuclear coordinating body Rosatom, has said the deficiencies can be overcome if only enough money would be forthcoming.

This is hardly reassuring to Indian critics. Fishers in Tamil Nadu are also concerned that dependence of the light-water reactors on sea water for cooling, and the flushing of effluents into the sea will seriously disrupt the ecology along their coast.

Furthermore, Koodankulam protesters have pointed their finger at experiences gathered at Kalpakkam, the nuclear complex located close to Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai along the eastern coast.

Here the wider significance of their movement becomes quickly evident. The Kalpakkam complex does not just harbour a nuclear power plant, but also a reprocessing facility- a plant where nuclear fuel rods, after they have outlived their use in reactors, are chemically treated so as to extract raw materials for re-use as energy source.

The method of reprocessing nuclear fuel rods has always been defended as an appropriate method to dispose of dangerous nuclear waste, as a method of ‘recycling’. Yet nuclear reprocessing results in new waste, and that is the most damaging industrial waste in the entire nuclear production chain. It has to be stored and put aside in nuclear waste tanks for an indefinite period of time.

Storage of such high-level waste in tanks has resulted in catastrophic accidents, notably in Cheliabinsk (former Soviet Union). The nuclear fuel rods from the reactors at Koodankulam, once depreciated, will most likely be reprocessed at Kalpakkam.

Yet Kalpakkam has already proven to be a dangerous hotspot. Here, in January 2003, a valve connecting a high-level radioactive liquid waste tank and a low level waste tank leaked, leading to radiation exposure for at least six employees, an unknown number of deaths, and temporary closure of Kalpakkam’s main plant. The Kalpakkam nuclear complex also holds the dubious distinction of having been flooded when the devastating tsunami of 2004 struck.

Kalpakkam hence is an additional reason for worries. Not least because the nuclear complex harbours a test reactor constructed towards enabling India build a plutonium economy. Indian peace activists have expressed suspicions that the plutonium separated at Indian civilian reprocessing facilities will be diverted and used to increase the country’s stock of atomic weapons.

These suspicions have not been allayed by recent developments. Since the beginning of this year, India boasts three reprocessing plants. Further, the U.S. government has in principle granted the Indian government permission to domestically reprocess fuel elements from reactors to be supplied under the 2008 U.S.-India deal. Hence, diversion of plutonium towards India’s weapons’ programme is well possible.

Again, the use of plutonium separated at Kalpakkam for civilian purposes is no less questionable. Plutonium is the most toxic substance humanity has ever created. Even microgram quantities of plutonium, if inhaled or ingested by humans, are known to result in fatal cancers.

In Europe, fast breeder reactors – so termed since they create additional plutonium even as they burn plutonium – have long been considered unfeasible. The fast-breeder reactor at Kalkar in Germany, built in the 1970s and 1980s against fierce international opposition, could not be put into operation.

France’s fast breeder, the Superphoenix, had to be closed in the late 1990s after a poor record of 12 years of operation. Yet these negative experiences are apparently being ignored by India. Technological preparations towards the building of a full-scale fast breeder reactor at Kalpakkam are reportedly in an advanced stage.

In short, the significance of the struggle waged by villagers in the south of Tamil Nadu stretches well beyond the Koodankulam nuclear project itself. Resistance was called off after the union government in Delhi sent minister of state V. Narayanasamy to Tamil Nadu to talk to the Koodankulam protestors.

Still, it would be wrong to believe that the demand of the protestors – that no nuclear production in Koodankulam be started – will easily be accepted. The stakes are very large, since India’s nuclear lobby has set its mind on turning India into a plutonium power. Yet because the Koodankulam project is closely intertwined with plans for expansion of the Kalpakkam complex, the struggle is bound to reverberate throughout the state of Tamil Nadu and beyond.

*Dr. Peter Custers is author of ‘Questioning Globalized Militarism’ (Tulika/Merlin, 2007)

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