Kudankulam fishermen were taken to China, where a plant is coming up on seashore

Jolted by the agitations targeting the Kudankulam project in Tamil Nadu, and brewing protests in Lithuania and Turkey, Russia's power industry has begun reaching out to communities living around new nuclear power plants to dispel misapprehensions.

“Our project at Kudankulam was going on very successfully. Unfortunately protests started towards the end of last year when we were ready to start the first unit,” says Kirill Komarov, Russian nuclear giant Rusatom's main person for promoting business overseas.

“The response was slow in coming due to a poorly organised public relations system. Our experience has been that it pays to tell them the truth. That is the best way to win trust.” So when protests by fishermen around Kudankulam continued for months, the Russians decided to take the initiative although “it was not our responsibility because we were not the general contractors for the project.”

Kudankulam fishermen were taken to China, where a nuclear power plant is coming up on the seashore. They met Chinese fishermen who told them that with the arrival of workers and scientists, prices for their catch improved and a one-degree increase in water temperature in the vicinity of the plant made the shrimps fatter.

Parallel example

Referring to Rusatom building a nuclear plant near one of the most frequented beaches in Vietnam, company officials point out a parallel example in Russia. “This year the fifth championship in fishing took place near a nuclear plant. Anglers caught fish and ate it. This demonstrates how safe the [civil nuclear] technology is,” they said allaying apprehensions at the ongoing “Atomexpo 2012.” But such explanations do not reach the local population around the sites where the plants are being built.

In another experiment, the Russians have begun reaching out to non-specialists at home under the “Tomorrow comes” initiative of setting up nuclear energy information centres. “We have simple language and comparisons backed by bright and clear images that influence interactivity. We have had 4.5 lakh visitors so far out of whom 80 per cent are schoolchildren,” says Alex Baybakov, deputy director-general of the project.

And now there are plans to open similar centres in Vietnam, Turkey and a host of other countries.

At another level, Rusatom is planning to open about 20 offices across the world in the next two years.

“It is widely known that if the mountain won't come to Mohammed, he comes to the mountain. If we want to establish a sound contact with the customers we certainly need to communicate. We will open the offices in places where we are most active,” says Dr. Komarov.

But some impressions will be hard to dispel such as in Lithuania, which had a testy relationship with Russia even when it was part of the Soviet Union. Before the Soviet Union disintegrated, locals in its capital Vilnius would rarely answer queries in Russian to show their disdain for their “forced integration” into the Soviet Union.

When a reference was made to opposition to the Baltic nuclear power plant in Lithuania, Dr. Komarov hit back: “Lithuania is surrounded by 10 countries, of which nine are in the European Union. None of them have any objections after we explained the situation to them. It is really strange for the Lithuanians to accuse us of hiding information when we even translated technical documents for them, something we didn't do for any other country. What is so unsafe that is not seen by any other country but Lithuania?”