Although the global nuclear power industry is loath to admit it, the 11 March incident at Japan’s Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant complex has proven a global game changer, leading some nations to cancel nuclear projects altogether, and others to reevaluate their interest.
Nuclear power production still remains an attractive option to developing, energy-poor nations, but the rising protests over a nuclear power plant in southern India sharply underlines the growing divergence between government politicians and a citizenry increasingly concerned about the potential consequences of having such a facility nearby.
India, which currently operates 20 nuclear power plants, plans to quadruple its 4,780 megawatts of nuclear power to 20,000 megawatts within a decade to meet rising energy demands of a booming economy.
Now a protest by a group of poor Christian fisherman in southern India threatens to derail one of New Delhi’s pet nuclear projects, a multi-reactor site at Koodankulam.
The Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) has had a long gestation. In November 1988 Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement on constructing Koodankulam but the project fell into abeyance for more than a decade due to political and economic upheaval in Russia after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. A further impediment were the objections of the United States about the plant on the grounds that the agreement does not meet the 1992 terms of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) on civilian nuclear energy. If plans for the KKNPP are ever fully realized, then the facility eventually will contain six 1,200 megawatt and two 1,000 megawatt reactors.
Protests about KKNPP increased last month among local Christian fishermen communities after the authorities announced that one of the two 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactors would come online by the end of the year.
On 13 October Tamil Nadu state’s Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa said that she shared the sentiments of the local people and was with them in their protests, telling constituents, “The Tamil Nadu government will certainly act respecting the local peoples’ sentiments. I will be one among you in this issue.”
Jayalalithaa open support for the protestors came the day after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote to her seeking her support in implementation the project, writing that halting work on the KKNPP would hinder Tamil Nadu’s progress.
Suitably heartened, on 14 October about 2,000 protesters, a majority of them women, blocked the main road leading to the nuclear power plant on the Kanyakumari-Tuticorin highway, where about 500 policemen were deployed near the nuclear plant under the direct supervision of Tirunelveli Superintendent of Police Vijayendra S Bidari. A policeman noted, “No one was allowed to go inside or come out from the nuclear plant site. The angry agitators were also seen chasing away the contract laborers when they came for construction activities. The situation was ‘highly volatile, but under control.’” More than 700 engineers and scientists, as well as several thousand construction workers involved in building the KKNPP, were unable to reach the site. Other protests have been able to draw as many as 7,000 participants.
More ominously for the authorities in New Delhi, 106 villagers, including senior citizens, physically handicapped individuals, women and three priests have begun an indefinite hunger strike in front of Saintt Lourdes Church at Idinthakarai coastal hamlet to protest the construction of KKNPP. The hunger strike follows an earlier three-day fast by individuals, but M Pushparayan of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), which is leading the protests, noted, "Most people protesting want the second fast to be indefinite. The State government should pressurize the Center to accept the resolution the Tamil Nadu cabinet adopted on halting all work at the site."
Needless to say, the hunger strike as a political weapon has a powerful resonance in the land of Mahatma Gandhi. Clearly rattled, Prime Minister Singh, himself a Sikh, on 12 October privately met the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India chief and Mumbai Archbishop, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, seeking his help in placating the Christian fishermen communities in Koodankulam.
It is worth recalling here that much of Tamil Nadu’s coastline was pummeled by the 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which followed an earthquake estimated at 9.1-9.3 on the Richter scale that occurred off Sumatra’s western coast, the largest in the Indian Ocean in more than 700 years.
Accordingly, the KKNPP could become a hostage to the forces of nature. While mothballing the NPP would involve a financial loss, it would also possibly prevent Tamil Nadu from undergoing the radiological consequences embodied in Fukushima being built on a coastline subject to tsunamis. The final outcome, pitting central authorities in New Delhi against poor fisherman in one of India’s more impoverished states will be interesting to watch, but its clear that the fishermen have won the initial round in the all-important court of public opinion.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com