Nuclear day dreaming

INDIA's nuclear power dream on the proposed Kudangularn project is floating again in the corridors of the Nuclear Power Corporation, as was recently disclosed by R Chidambaram, chairperson, Atomic Energy Commission, in the founder's day address at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Bombay, that negotiations with the Russian government to set up two sectors of 1,000 mw each at Kudangulam, had progressed well.

Interestingly, while Chidambaram was giving wings to Indian nuclear power dreams in October last week, European countries were pleading with Bulgaria to shut down the oldest of its nuclear reactors on the Danube.

In return for this shut-down, the European Community offered Bulgaria three months supply of free coal or electricity, plus further safety checks at its reactor.

Although the peaceful application of nuclear energy is no more peaceful in developed nations, resurfacing of the project at Kudangulam near Nagarcoil in Thirunelvely district of southern Tamil Nadu, bordering Kerala, manifests that our leaders and nuclear scientists are still myopic. The Kudangulam project was proposed in 1987 as the first nuclear power plant to be obtained from the former Soviet Union, based on the VVER-440 Light Water Reactor technology which had been cold-storaged for various reasons. The construction was planned jointly by Kerala and Tamil Nadu - prime beneficiaries of the project.

However, when it was first proposed, the Kudangulam project received flak because of its proximity to the environmentally sensitive Western Ghats region. As its location is planned on the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, there were fears of its possible adverse impacts on thousands of fisherpeople in the coastal area of Kanniyakumari district of Tamil Nadu. Considering the fact that the region lay in the path of the southwest monsoon, a nuclear power plant at Kudangulam was seen as a destabilising factor.

But the real reason behind the freezing of Kudangulam project was not environmental hazards or safety concerns. "It was economic concerns," observes R V G Menon, a renowned expert on nuclear issues and principal of Engineering College, Kannur. Rightly, mid-70s onwards, many developed nations have realised that nuclear power is no longer economically viable. The nuclear power industry suffered heavy setbacks due to this reality. But still, they pin their hopes on the Third World countries. The revival of Kudangulam project is clearly an indication of this. Menon questions if there has been any changes in favour of the economic viability and safety measures of setting up a nuclear power plant like Kudangulam. Whether Indian experts can distinguish a dream from doom is of prime importance.

The Kudangulam project is proposed to be an answer to the acute power shortage of the southern states - Tamil Nadu and Kerala. But this currently proposed VVER Russian technology for the project has displayed serious problems in eastern Europe, according to Surendra Gadekkar, nuclear scientist and editor of Anumukthi. "As the proposed technology itself is unsafe, how can our nuclear power authorities confidently go ahead with this project?" he asks. Also, as the project is importing an exotic technology, he observed that technicians from other Indian nuclear power plants - most of which are CANDU-type reactors - would not be competent to operate the Kudangulam plant. Apart form this, he added that as a location in the southern portion of the subcontinent, "the power from Kudangulam project will have heavy transmission losses".