Hunger Strikes At 'Unsafe' Nukes Reactor

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The Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) in Tamil Nadu, India, will be operational in less than a month, despite a 23-year long protest from nearby villages, including rolling hunger strikes.

The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) claims there has been little transparency or public consultation in the building of the plant.

They say they requested an open discussion between the government-appointed Expert Committee and an independent expert panel. When the government refused, they asked for some 50 documents relating to the "safety, environmental impacts, emergency preparations and costs of the reactor to enable the people to have an informed debate," but the government also declined this request.

The protesters say that the population living around the nuclear reactor is too large to safely evacuate should an accident occur.

A newly unearthed government document supports their claim that the KNPP is flouting Atomic Energy Regulatory Board rules. The document, published by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, which functions under the direct control of the Department of Atomic Energy, stipulates that according to the Indian siting code, there is an exclusion zone of 1.6km around the plant, where "no public habitation is allowed".

Also prohibited is the construction of a plant within 16km of a population centre greater than 10,000. The village of CASA-Nagar, where 2000 live, is less than 1km from the nuclear reactor. 12,000 live in Idinthakarai, and 20,000 in Kudunkulam, both less than 4km from the site.

Three million people living within 30km of the plant also defies international siting stipulations, according to PMANE.

People from nearby villages have had fears about the project’s safety since its inception in 1988. The majority are fishermen, who are worried about potential water pollution, which could harm the fish, and their livelihoods. As most live below the poverty line, they rely on fishing for subsistence as well as income.

PMANE is also concerned about a Fukishima-like nuclear disaster — but government officials vouch for the plant’s safety. Kasinath Balaji, Site Director of KNPP, insists there is no possibility of a disaster or radiation leaks from the plant.

Former Indian President and scientist, APJ Abdul Kalam, has also thrown his endorsement behind the plant, saying that he is absolutely confident about its safety.

But locals are not convinced. Speaking to the press after APJ Abdul Kalam’s visit, one villager said, "We are not accepting his claims. We have been protesting for so long and have raised a few concerns which have to be addressed".

One of those concerns is the KNPP’s total reliance on a desalination plant for water. According to the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, the plant is situated in a region with a precarious water shortage.

During operation each reactor will require 3500 cubic meters of fresh water and 7.2 million cubic meters of sea water daily. The PMANE expert committee says there is not enough reserve water for cooling the reactor cores and the spent fuel pools if the desalination plant fails.

PMANE yesterday began their fourth indefinite hunger strike over the issue. Twenty five villagers are striking because the government reneged on an agreement to share documents that outline agreements reached during negotiations in March.

"We have listed our demands and now it’s the duty of government to react. We also want the government to share a copy of the secret inter-governmental agreement between India and Russia in 2008 on nuclear liability," said Dr SP Udayakumar, a convenor of PMANE.

Previous hunger strikes have been motivated by similar broken promises.

"When we concluded our earlier hunger strike on March 27 this year, the state government had agreed to release our comrades from prisons unconditionally and withdraw all false cases," M. Pushparayan, PMANE’s leader, told reporters.

"It also agreed to institute an independent national committee to study the hydrology, geology and oceanography issues, conduct of disaster management and evacuation exercises to all the people in the 30 km radius from KNPP."

In the lead-up to the decision to go ahead with the KNPP, non-violent protests have been met with a heavy handed response by police. Power and water supplies were cut to the villages involved and access roads blockaded. Protesters were harassed by the police and hundreds were arrested and falsely charged, PMANE claims.

But is there an alternative to the KNPP? Tamil Nadu suffers power outages regularly due to inadequate supply on the grid. The government sees the KNPP as a solution to the state’s beleaguered energy suppliers.

The villagers are aware of this need for more power, but the message is clear: they don’t want the nuclear plant. PMANE believes there are many alternative energy supplies in the area. Nearby districts have the highest wind-potential in India; their wind farms could be updated for increased efficiency. There are also vast areas of barren land suitable for "solar parks", they say.

PMANE’s agitation successfully delayed the commissioning of the first unit — but the plant is now likely to go ahead, despite widespread local opposition.

New Matilda

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