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Madurai

The N-Power Test series

All through the last many days, a little part of Southern Tamil Nadu is tizzy with frenzied activity. That part is Madurai bus stand, it is from where we take the bus to Koodankulam, which is actually the topic of this week.

There are pluses and minuses about the upcoming nuclear power plant in Koodankulam, and there are many responsible voices from both the camps making pertinent observations. But the problem continues to persist. So what we need is a thoroughly irresponsible and impertinent view on the whole matter. And here it is:

(The whole thing is mighty insensitive (to all concerned) and mostly ill-informed. That is, it is fully keeping in with the established traditions of this column).

The place

Koodankulam is such a nondescript small village in the Tuticorin-Tirunelveli belt of Tamil Nadu that you will have difficulty spotting it on a map. The locals are up in arms over the nuclear power plant, which they believe is so fraught with dangers, that one day it can reduce Koodankulam to such a nondescript small village that you will have difficulty spotting it on a map.

Their grounds of opposition to the nuclear power plant are

1)      Nuclear power is dangerous because it is generated by a nuclear power plant

2)      A nuclear power plant is dangerous because it generates nuclear power.

The project

The Indian government decided to set up the nuclear power plant on the proven logic

1)      Nuclear power is basically cheap, even though the setting up of the nuclear power plant may involve thousands and thousands of crores of rupees.

The Indian government opted for the technology from the erstwhile the USSR, because it had rich experience in setting up nuclear power plants, including the world famous one at Chernobyl, where after an unfortunate explosion, the redoubtable Russians kept the fatalities figures very low by scientifically preventing the radiation of the news of the accident from spreading to other places.

The proposal

The Indian government under the Prime Ministership of Rajiv Gandhi signed a historical agreement with the USSR, led by President Mikhail Gorbachev. The initial projected plan was to generate around 2000 MW (2GW) from the power plant. But that was in 1988. In the near 23 years, the project has notched an impressive growth of increasing its projected power generation around 9 GW. It’s a different matter that the nuclear plant is still to generate actual power that will make an ordinary radio, er, active.

The positives

One of the first things that a nuclear power plant produces, as we have read in our school science text books, is a port.

Thanks to the multi-crores project, Koodankulam now boasts of a throbbing port, which is the focus of international attention as it is from here the locals are making a spirited campaign against the power plant.

The project has also helped in the development of roads to the village, which again comes handy for the locals to block and express their anger conveniently. Before the power project took off, the locals had to trek several kilometres in search of motorable roads to block.

The protests

As we said, the plans for the power project were formally signed in 1988. As if on cue, the protests began in 1987.

YES, it’s a fact the protests pre-date the actual project.

The initial misgiving of the locals was that the nuclear power project will make their land arid. Then in the next decade they were fearful of Chernobyl-like fire accidents.  In the decade that followed, they pointed to the fact that nuclear radiation can poison the air. Now, in this new decade, they are afraid that the nuclear waste dumped into the sea, can pollute the water. Even sky is not the limit for these passionate protestors. It’s elementary to figure that out.

The problems

Immediately after Soviet Union and India signed the historical agreement for the power plant, the US, which is a stickler for international rules and regulations and maintaining world order, pointed out that India (and the USSR) had contravened the 1992 terms of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).  New Delhi, using all its diplomatic skills, tackled the international crisis by pointing out that India is not, and this true even in 2011, not a member of the NSG.

Another problem that arose immediately after acquiring the technology from the USSR was there was a lot of technology but very little of USSR. The entire country had become nuclear, as it were, and hence no longer a super power.

The pitfalls  

Let’s face it. Nuclear physics presents a tough challenge, for it is that branch of physics that is actually chemistry.

Anything nuclear comes attached with the asterisk of apprehension. The dangers are real and well-documented. Why go elsewhere? We cannot hide the fact that Sergei Ryzhov, one of the designers involved in the Koodankulam power plant, perished in a gruesome tragedy early this year. Is it any solace for the uneducated poor villagers that the accident actually occurred between Petrozavodsk and Moscow in a flight?

Also, the government cannot brush aside the scientific truth, as pointed out by the protesters, what can be so great a nuclear power plant, to build even which you need thermal or hydro power.

The plans

Considering the large-scale doubts across the spectrum, the authorities have done well to explain to the people the basics of science. And in Tamil Nadu, science is defined as: What Kalam says.

Kalam, a former atomic-rocket-defence-weather-chemical-biological scientist turned former President, has established the safety of Koodankulam power plant by paying a visit to Koodankulam. But the fear continues, especially the one that he may write a poem and read that to young school boys.

It’s also heartening to see some politicos setting aside parochial considerations for larger interests. The Communists, for instance, seem to be backing the power plant on the scientific theory that it is backed by Russia, which is theoretically a Communist State.

The potential

The protestors have a point. The authorities, too, have a case.

The real problem, in our belief, can be settled only if we manage to address the core issue, which is of course the question: Which is right, Koodankulam or Kudangulam?

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