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Fukushima Two Years Later: Lessons For India

By Nityanand Jayaraman

12 March, 2013

Two years ago, an earthquake and tsunami devastated a fair section of Fukushima prefecture. If they were the only disasters, life could have been rebuilt after the waters receded and the debris cleared. The nuclear meltdown that followed may keep this region uninhabitable for decades, if not longer.

The Independent Commission appointed by the Japanese parliament to investigate the accident observed that while natural disasters may have triggered the nuclear events, the meltdown itself was “profoundly manmade.” The Commission concluded that “The. . .accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties.”

In India, as in Japan, the lack of governance and independent regulatory oversight was identified by the Comptroller Auditor General as crippling factors in the nuclear safety regime.

Take the case of Koodankulam. The only issue that seems to preoccupy our parliamentarians in this regard is the proposed date of its commissioning – as if this 1000 MW more than any other 1000 MW will bring this country out of the dark ages. Legislators periodically raise questions about this. And the PMO Minister Mr. Narayanasamy unembarassedly trots out a standard-format answer. Progress at the plant is reported as a precise percentage point to the fourth decimal; a prophesy is made that the reactor will go critical in 15 days, after the inevitable final nod by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). If AERB is indeed independent, how is Mr. Narayanasamy able to predict -- not once, but 16 times in the last 18 months – that AERB will give its nod before this date or that?

But the PMO's statements ignore a crucial fact. Koodankulam plants 1 and 2 do not have valid Coastal Regulation Zone clearances. Last November, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) grudgingly admitted to the Supreme Court that the desalination plant was an afterthought, and that it was constructed without the mandatory prior environmental clearance. No clearance was obtained for the already constructed dyke and seawall either.

The missing references in the PMO's statements to the absent CRZ clearance exposes the scant regard that the nation's highest office has for our environmental laws.

Unmindful of the supercession of the 1991 CRZ Notification by the 2011 Notification, NPCIL has applied post-facto for a prior clearance under the defunct 1991 rules. The application is legally untenable on many counts. The application for Plants 1 & 2 only contains an EIA report prepared by Engineers India Ltd for Plants 3 to 6. No studies for 1 and 2 were done. There's more. Rules require EIAs to be carried out only by accredited consultants. Engineers India is not accredited to carry out EIAs for nuclear plants. Finally, there is the issue of invoking a dead law to issue a clearance.

The Tamil Nadu Coastal Zone Management Authority (TNCZMA), which is considering the application, has quietly tied itself into a legal pretzel. Echoing a Kafkaesque despondency, the Director of Environment has placed this application for consideration by the authority with the following note and a straw to clutch on: “The applicant has already completed constructions and no provision is available in the CRZ Notification 2011 for the ratification. However, the unit has established the installations for the above proposals based on exemptions obtained. . .during the year 1989. . .The Authority may consider.” The authority, it appears, is still “considering.”

The absence of CRZ clearance is not merely a technical formality. The Notification is supposed to protect the sensitive coastal region by prohibiting some activities and permitting others subject to conditions derived from a scientific scrutiny of the impacts of the proposed works. India's east coast is characterised by massive movement of sediment up and down the shoreline. A September 2005 study for the proponents estimates that there is a net transport of 420,000 cubic metres of sediment towards east at the project site. This littoral drift is what nourishes beaches and maintains the coastline in equilibrium. Hard engineering structures – like the dyke and seawall already constructed by NPCIL – can cause severe erosion.

Idinthakarai's shrinking coastline is proof of this. On Idinthakarai's scant eastern beach, boats are parked cheek-by-jowl. Where the row of boats end, a small spit of land remains where fishermen crowd around sorting fish and mending nets. The houses are at spitting distance from here. At the eastern end of the village, the land reaches out into sea before turning towards Thomaiyarpuram. Just a few years ago, families would walk along the beach towards Thomaiyarpuram to picnic on the Arivikarai beach. Here a stream empties into the sea. That access is now gone. A hungry sea has consumed the beach and carved a cavern into the dune.

“It had to happen. The bridge [dyke] and seawall have eaten into our beach. Soon our houses will also be swallowed by the sea,” says Idinthakarai fisherman U.P. Rayappan. “During storms, there will be even more damage, because the walls will deflect the waves towards the village.”

Such common sense is scarce in licensing bodies and regulatory agencies. Generally speaking, regulators exhibit invertebrate tendencies when it comes to big projects.

Exceptions exist. In 2001, Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) chairperson
Sheela Rani Chunkath warned NPCIL against commencing construction without obtaining a proper license. Despite the warning, NPCIL began construction and obtained a Consent two years later in 2004. By that time, Ms. Chunkath was gone.

The Pollution Control Board's Consent to Operate is to environmental due diligence what AERB's final nod is to radiological aspects. Legally speaking, a company can get this consent only after obtaining all other clearances. But the lack of CRZ clearance has not stopped the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) from issuing consents for units 1 and 2.

Legally speaking, the TNPCB should have revoked the Consent to Operate, and the PMO should have stated that the plant will be commissioned only after all clearances, including CRZ, are obtained.

But nobody is keen to make any pronouncements on Koodankulam's legality. Perhaps, they are praying that AERB will give its final nod, and the plant commissioned. After that, all those who are “legally speaking” can deal with the fait accompli of a radioactive reactor.

Nityanand is a Chennai-based writer and volunteer with the Chennai Solidarity Group for Koodankulam Struggle.




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