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Nuclear India: The World’s Largest Paper Demockery

By Raminder Kaur

11 June, 2012

In another attempt to paper over irregularities, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) conducted its first nuclear disaster preparedness drill in south India on June 9, 2012. The small village of Nakkaneri located 7 kilometres inland from the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant was the selected site for this token exercise. As has become routine practice amongst nuclear authorities, no public announcements for the disaster management exercise were made, nor was independent media invited to the drill.

In a subsequent press release from the Tirunelveli District Officer, Dr R. Selvaraj, it was stated that ‘Koodankulam Nuclear Power project of NPCIL along with district administration has carried out “OFF-SITE EMERGENCY EXERCISE”…as per regulatory requirement and a biennial programme’. The regulations are as prescribed by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) - a supposedly independent body but one peopled by those approved by the state’s Department of Atomic Energy.

Selvaraj’s statement continued: ‘Today, early morning, the shift charge engineer declared a Plant Emergency and subsequently the Site Director reached the plant, declared start of Site Emergency Exercise. Alert messages were sent to all the relevant officials including NPCIL, DAE, AERB, and District Collector, and other District Officials. Based on inputs from Environmental Survey Lab Team, District Collector, and exercise of counter measures were carried out in three stages, as prescribed in the Emergency Plan.’

This statement is virtually a copy of the one issued on June 11, 2011 for the new unit at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station. The mock exercise makes a mockery of the reasons for why rules for emergency preparedness were set up in the first place. Regulatory requirement implies that all the people likely to be affected by a disaster be primed, not just a select few who have little idea of the reasons for what is going on. It also comes with the expectation that the Emergency Preparedness Plan Manual for the reactors be shared with the local populace, a request made by Dr S.P. Udayakumar under the Right to Information Act (2005) in April. Preparedness implies that people in at least the 30 kilometre radius of the plant should be engaged in disaster management training and evacuation exercise. This is not forgetting the fact that Japanese authorities have admitted that those in specific areas within 50 kilometres of the Fukushima-Daiichi plant should also evacuate. Disaster management assumes that people be treated as intelligent human beings and not as infants who have to be disciplined into obedience, no questions permitted. Nor, incidentally, should they be treated as insane and/or irrational creatures as testified by the Indian state's initiative to send out psychiatrists from National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Studies to the local populace in May.

Purposefully, the small village chosen for the disaster preparedness drill was inland, away from fishing communities who are well aware of how the daily operations of coastal nuclear reactors would affect their lives and livelihoods, let alone emergency situations. Most of the Nakkaneri residents had gone to work as daily wage labourers. Less than only a hundred largely illiterate women and children were left for officials to manage. Other people were prevented from coming in as about 150 police blocked all entry points.

Terming it a ‘disaster management drama’, co-ordinators from the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) described the drill as a farce involving onstage ‘actors’ Cheranmahadevi Sub-Collector Rohini Ramdas, the Radhapuram Tahsildar (Revenue Administrative Officer) Subramanian, and an assortment of health and NPCIL officials along with paid laymen. Behind the screens in the NPCIL township sat those who directed the whole drama including Dr. R. Selvaraj, the Superintendent of Police, Vijayendra Bidari and other NPCIL officials.

In this theatre of the absurd, potassium iodide tablets were distributed to confused women and children, and some people were carried out of the village on stretchers. PMANE elaborated:

‘Some officer gave an intro speech that it was a medical camp and people could come and participate. Then some NPCIL officials asked the residents what they wanted such as roads etc. The baffled people could not make anything out of this absurd drama. The officials collected some signature, took a lot of photos and left the scene in a hurry and then announced to the media that the Koodankulam nuclear power project disaster training was conducted satisfactorily.’

With all justification, PMANE stated that they ‘condemn this secretive, illegal and fake disaster management training session conducted at Nakkaneri village just to create false records that they had satisfied the AERB requirement before they could load the nuclear fuel rods. This is a dangerous and inhuman thing to do that jeopardizes the safety and wellbeing of hundreds of millions of people in the southern tip of India.’

India’s National Disaster Management Plan points out that for an effective incident response system to a natural or man-made disaster, there should be ‘a multi-disciplinary, and systematic approach to guide administrative mechanisms at all levels of the government with scope for participation of private sector, NGOs, PRIs and communities to work together seamlessly in the response activities’ (http://ndmindia.nic.in/UNDP-020811.pdf, p. 75). On the basis of the actions of the NPCIL, such a response system is clearly a pipe dream.

It is on issues of evacuation and disaster management that plans for nuclear power plants have fallen through in countries like the USA since the Three Mile disaster of 1979, even though recently evacuation drills have been pared down as per changes in US regulations in December 2011. The revamped rules received hardly any media attention.

It beggars belief how one of the most powerful institutions in India bulwarked by copious amounts of taxpayers’ contributions and the arms of the state, should act in such a spineless fashion in their disaster drill – away from independent media, away from fishing communities, and away from the men in the village. It was to be expected that the NPCIL would bring their own photographers to report on this drama for their plush outlets and to fulfil their delusions about corporate social responsibility. This was not about managing people in the eventuality of a national disaster; it was about manipulating them – a National Disaster Manipulation Plan.

The previous week, anti-nuclear activists, Sathish Kumar and Mughilan, were granted bail by the Madras High Court after three months in prison for alleged ‘war against the state’ and sedition charges. Yet despite the fact that sureties valued at Rs. 10,000 each as per the court's orders were handed over to the Village Administrative Officer, the release of the two young men has been delayed by the Tirunelveli district administration. Even whilst journalists and concerned citizens tried to contact the District Collector - whether it be with questions about the bail or the disaster preparedness exercise - he was unavailable for comment. Denial, deceit and delays have now become the signature tune of anyone partial to the NPCIL.

Legal proceduralism is pursued in an illegal fashion. The nuclear authorities do not listen to justice, nor do they believe in it. They think transparency is a photographic slide, and spell democracy as if it was a mockery. India has now become one of the great nuclear waste baskets of the world. Foreign as well as Indian corporates know full well that they can conduct evacuation and disaster preparedness operations behind closed doors at minimal expense and get away with their ambitions and profits at the cost of ordinary citizens. This is highly irresponsible short-termism as even fools know that nuclear disasters do not stay behind closed doors. Bearing in mind all the ecological problems that plague the Koodankulum Nuclear Power Plant ranging from tsunami and the lack of emergency water supplies to earthquake and geo-thermal issues, it is all the more urgent that an effective and efficient disaster preparedness system be put in place.

Recently, environmental scientist VT Padmanabhan has shown that beltline welds in the VVER nuclear reactors are one of main causes of the accelerated ageing of reactor pressure vessel, known as neutron embrittlement, which may damage the vessel and lead to a major accident. Another known cause of accelerated vessel ageing is the impurities and alloying elements in the base metal and weld metal, all of which requires a full assessment and an independent expert study of pressurised thermal shock before the hot commissioning of the reactor. Perhaps this is another reason why the NPCIL refuse to part with the Safety Analysis Report despite orders from the Central Information Commission in April.

So now that about a hundred women and children are supposedly prepared for nuclear disaster in south India, what about the rest of the 1.5 million in the 30 kilometre radius zone around the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant? Would they also be secretly descended upon in another mock(ery) exercise and asked to attend ‘medical camps’? Or seeing as there is no real regard for the lives and livelihoods of those to be affected by the plant, do the NPCIL even care?

A paper democracy only makes for a house of cards. If the issue is nuclear safety and disaster preparedness, it will one day come tumbling down like there is no tomorrow. Unless international safety standards are applied and appraised by independent experts, the Koodankulaum Nuclear Power Plant is little better than a legitimised crime against humanity.

Raminder Kaur is the author of Atomic Bombay: Living with the Radiance of a Thousand Suns (2012), Performative Politics and the Cultures of Hinduism (2003), and co-author with Virinder Kalra and John Hutnyk of Diaspora and Hybridity (2005).


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