by Kath Noble
As university teachers were marching from Galle to Colombo to press their now well known case for the education sector, an equally impressive mobilisation was taking place just a few hundred miles away in Tamil Nadu.
The villagers of Kudankulam were burying themselves up to their necks in sand in a last ditch attempt to prevent a nuclear reactor from being commissioned, having spent a couple of days standing in the ocean and several weeks picketing on the beaches.
The sheer numbers involved brought the protests a lot of publicity, including in Sri Lanka, to the extent that the Indian High Commission felt obliged to issue a ‘reassuring’ statement.
Fishermen opposing nuclear power have a tough job. They are automatically dismissed as backward and determined to remain that way.
But ‘progress’ sometimes takes us into blind alleys.
A simple calculation by an Indian researcher demonstrates that nuclear power is not unavoidable for Tamil Nadu (‘No more empty promises’ by Nityanand Jayaraman in Tehelka, September 22nd). The argument goes as follows.
The first phase of the Kudankulam project will add just 1,000 MW to the grid, of which some 48% is due to Tamil Nadu. Since nuclear reactors in India generally operate with a plant load factor of 60%, the additional power generated works out at a measly 280 MW. Compare this to what is lost in transmission – 18% of Tamil Nadu’s total installed capacity of roughly 10,400 MW, or a massive 1,900 MW. Reducing losses by half, which can be done at a tiny fraction of the cost and which must be possible since the Chinese manage 7%, would supply 900 MW extra. Even including another 280 MW from the second phase at Kudankulam doesn’t come close to wiping out the deficit for nuclear power.
Meanwhile, people inclined to think that Tamil Nadu needs to do both to meet its demand for electricity should note that in the immediate vicinity of the Kudankulam project are windmills generating more than 3,000 MW. They do so at only INR 3.50 per unit, compared with a cost of INR 4.00 per unit for nuclear power.
There are plenty of alternatives. And they are cheaper.
It is indeed vaguely worrying to think that the wind might not blow enough to support all the gadgets in the shiny new air-conditioned buildings in Tamil Nadu’s ‘IT corridor’ for every minute of every day, but this would probably not be quite so much of a headache as a nuclear meltdown that released into the environment materials with the capacity to maim and kill for many thousands of years to come.
In any case, why should the Kudankulam villagers care about the ‘IT corridor’? Why should Sri Lanka?
Why should the Indian government, for that matter? The corporate sector in India sucks up all the country’s resources while providing almost no employment. It is the reason the vast majority of its people continue to live in poverty.
The golden rule of ‘development’ as it is commonly practised these days is that the poor masses have to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the stellar growth of the elite.
This must also be the answer to another rather perplexing question. Why on earth is India stepping up investment in reactors in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, while so many other countries are thinking again?
One of Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde’s vital contributions when he was in charge of the power sector, other than the biggest blackout in history, was to confirm plans to boost India’s nuclear installed capacity to 63,000 MW by 2030, from under 5,000 MW today. The French, Russians and Americans were delighted, since their companies are for some mysterious reason having considerable trouble flogging their reactors at home.
The Indian government claims that there is absolutely no chance of anything going wrong, but the Kudankulam villagers aren’t stupid. For a start, that’s exactly what the Japanese said even after they were hit by the tsunami!
Natural disasters cannot be ruled out, as we know from the bitter experience of 2004, and there are plenty of man-made disasters to worry about too. The Japanese are known for their technological sophistication and concern about standards. Yet their nuclear meltdown demonstrated that they are not immune to failure. Their investigators found that they had not done all they could to avoid it.
The company in charge of Fukushima hadn’t paid enough attention to safety, even to specific warnings about the kind of catastrophic event that actually happened. India has the handicap of its Nuclear Liability Act. And its record is hardly reassuring. Its reactors have suffered hundreds of accidents over the years, of varying degrees of seriousness, as documented in some detail by Indian academics such as MV Ramana, despite the ‘radioactive curtain’ of secrecy that has shrouded its nuclear agencies for much of their lives.
After the Fukushima disaster, India’s nuclear regulator set up a committee to look into safety issues. It recommended 17 improvements to be made at Kudankulam before commissioning the reactor, but only six have been completed to date.
No wonder Sri Lanka needed ‘reassurance’.
But the information that a Sri Lankan delegation will be visiting India later in the year to talk about it doesn’t really qualify as such. These discussions should have been completed long ago.
Still, it could be worse. The villagers of Kudankulam have faced even less useful responses to their concerns.
Imagine this. A nuclear reactor is being constructed a couple of miles from your home, and researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences turn up on your doorstep offering ‘counselling’ to try to find out what you’re so upset about!
The Indian government has now dropped the idea of brainwashing its people and is focusing instead on harassment. The Prime Minister declared earlier in the year that opposition to the Kudankulam project was a foreign conspiracy (sound familiar?), and deported an unfortunate German backpacker who happened to be enjoying a spot of winter sun in Kanyakumari, on the pretext that he was the brains behind the campaign – officials later had to admit that there was absolutely no evidence to demonstrate that money from abroad had played any part whatsoever in the protests.
Then having exhausted the NGO option, they moved onto treason (heard this one before too?). According to the convener of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, SP Udayakumar, who is currently being sought by the Tamil Nadu Police, hundreds of cases have been filed against an extraordinary 200,000 people, either for sedition or for waging war against the State.
You’d have thought India had enough real wars not to want to start imagining them!
The scale of the crackdown in Kudankulam is almost as extraordinary as the scale of the protests.
This reminds me of the opening of a widely-circulated piece from the Indian media supporting Jayalalithaa’s decision to send home a visiting sports team (‘Boycott Sri Lanka until Tamils get justice’ by Meena Kandasamy in Tehelka, September 5th). The author argued that the sight of Sri Lankan schoolboys kicking a ball around might lead Indians to believe that all is well in Sri Lanka, which is certainly a possibility. However, she went on to illustrate just how bad the situation is with reference to the fact that 4,000 university teachers had been on strike for two months. This ‘evidence’ even took precedence over the usual claims of genocide. Well, if that’s how we’re going to decide on a boycott, even small babies are going to have to be repatriated to India, in ‘solidarity’ with the villagers of Kudankulam.
As we approach the Universal Periodic Review of Sri Lanka at the United Nations, at which the country’s performance in terms of human rights will be assessed by India as one of the three appointed rapporteurs, Indians must try to look at Sri Lanka’s problems against the background of their own.
As for FUTA, of course Mahinda Rajapaksa should have resolved the matter amicably long ago.