To many in Idinthakarai, the village that sits cheek by jowl with the nuclear plant, the entire idea is a betrayal. Others see brighter prospects. As the reactor prepares to go critical, Meera Srinivasan assesses the mood in the project area.

Seated at the entrance to her tiny home, R. Pramasakthi is busy rolling beedis. “What? Interview? We don’t need the nuclear plant,” she barked.

Asked why, the 35-year-old mother of four replied: “We saw a video at the church showing children with deformities caused by accidents at nuclear reactors. Ask anyone here, they will tell you that we don’t want the plant.”

To prove her point, Pramasakthi flagged down a young girl. “Tell her, do you need the plant,” she commanded the girl. “No, we don’t need the plant. It will cause diseases,” the girl replied flatly. What diseases? “Dengue,” the girl, a student of class IX, replied. “Our teacher told us.”

The girl went her way, and Pramasakthi, who was seated on the steps to get some breeze (Kudankulam, like most of Tamil Nadu, goes without power for 14-17 hours daily), got back to rolling beedis — something that most other women in the village do to supplement their family income. She rolls 44 bundles of 25 beedis each to make Rs. 100 a day. “I don’t go for the protests of late because the Rs.100 I make is crucial to support the family, but there is no change in my opinion. I am totally against it,” declared Pramasakthi.

She is among the hundreds of villagers who seem to be caught in a web of fear, anger and, in some cases, ignorance of the potential benefits and risks associated with the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP), which is likely to be commissioned next month and is expected to produce 1,000 MW to begin with.

Officials of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), which is executing the project, said that though there has been no communication internally on a specific date when unit one will be commissioned, there are clear signs of the pace of work accelerating during this final leg of construction.

Risk vs. Benefit

The plant, coming up at a cost of Rs. 14,000 crore, is expected to produce 2,000 MW through its two reactors, and seeks to help address the ongoing power crisis in the country. Tamil Nadu alone has fallen short of 4,000 MW.

While many sections of people have pinned their hopes on the plant and the promise of power, it is nothing more than an unfair deal to Balammal, a long-time resident of Kudankulam. “The benefit will go to everyone, but the risk will be borne by us alone. Only because we are poor,” the 73-year-old said.

The anxiety has begun creeping into classrooms as well, school teachers in the area said. “Their parents are summoned for the protests and sometimes, their fathers are picked up by the police. The children have very strong and opposing views on the issue, and they often argue among themselves in class,” said a teacher at the government school at Kudankulam. In a few cases, the stress manifests through a drop in performance in examinations, teachers said.

In addition to health hazards and the potential risk, a section of locals is worried about the lack of preparedness to face an emergency. This concern, perhaps, points to a possible meeting point for the government and the locals because even while emphatically voicing her objection to the plant, L. Rosalene Rajam said frequent safety drills ought to be organised. “Not once have I been called to participate in the drill. Since we don’t know what to do in case of an emergency, we panic every time there is a noise from that direction,” she said, pointing at the plant.

NPCIL campaign

The NPCIL has prepared a presentation, highlighting the need for nuclear power and the safety mechanisms put in place. Around 13,000 people have seen it so far, according to NPCIL officials, who said that making the highly technical presentation accessible was challenging. “We explain the concepts in Tamil and try our best to avoid jargon. It is a very safe plant and we want people to know that,” said S. Venkatesh, senior technical engineer.

Kudankulam, a small village in Tirunelveli district, is barely 20 km away from Kanyakumari, the southern most tip of the Indian peninsula. The roads connecting the villages around this coastal stretch are flanked by huge windmills making a tangential attempt at generating power, even as the plant itself readies for the ambitious target of 2,000 MW.

Closer to the date of commissioning, the plant resembles a fortress. Men and women attired in bright blue uniform, attached to the Rapid Action Force, sit at the first entry point. Further down the road, numerous Central Industrial Security Force personnel are posted at the giant gates at two subsequent points on the path to the site, guarding what has now become a storehouse of hope for many.

At the plant located just a few km away from where Rosalene resides, a very different mood prevails. The twin reactors with domes stand tall on the enclosed KKNPP premises that span 1,050 hectares by the Bay of Bengal. “Our technicians are working overtime, and all of us have been asked to focus our energies on completing work immediately,” said a senior official of the Human Resources Department at the site, where nearly 1,000 permanent staffers are currently employed.

Apart from the Russian experts, this contingent includes locals such as C. Vinayaga Perumal, a resident of the nearby Chettikulam village, who works as a technician in the project management system wing of the plant. After obtaining a diploma from an Industrial Training Institute, he was trained for two years and then gave a series of examinations before being made a permanent employee.

Having put in 10 years, he gets paid Rs. 45,000 a month now. “About 50 people from my village work as technicians here. There are about 55 from Kudankulam and one colleague is from Idinthakarai,” he said, clicking pictures of us near the plant with a DSLR. “This is just for our record.”

For youngsters like him, the plant bears much more than the promise of power. It has meant a job opportunity that he values. But ask villagers at the adjoining Idinthakarai— the fishing hamlet that has been the heart of the protests led by S.P. Udayakumar — and they call it betrayal.

“I would rather die. The sea has been our source of livelihood for years and I cannot do anything else,” said Rayappan a fisherman. Squatting by the shore and tweaking his net, he added: “We will continue protesting. Let’s see how they commission the plant.”

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