Personnel unable to enter plant: AEC chairman

Work at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) in Tamil Nadu has “halted” because the plant personnel are “unable to go inside” and this situation has arisen “when we need several thousands of people to work inside during the last phase of work” of commissioning of the first reactor there, said Srikumar Banerjee, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission.

“We are unable to even enter the place. This is the situation today,” he said in a recent interview with The Hindu in his Mumbai office.

The KKNPP comprises two Russian VVER-1000 reactors, each with a capacity of 1,000 MWe. The first reactor was on course for commissioning in November/December and the second was to be started up in June 2012.

(Several hundreds of people led by the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) and belonging to the coastal villages around the KKNPP are on a relay fast at Idinthakarai village from September 11, demanding the project's closure. The KKNPP engineers and other staff are unable to enter the plant from October 13 because of the restrictions placed on them and threats from the villagers. About 3,000 contract-labourers from Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa have left for their home-States after they received threats).

‘Not advisable’

On the core demand of the PMANE leaders that work at the KKNPP should halt first before the 15-member experts' group announced by the Centre could talk to the villagers and allay their fears about the safety of the Kudankulam reactors, Dr. Banerjee said, “Physically, work has been halted. But it is not advisable to do that.” If the agitators meant that “not a single person should enter the Kudankulam plant” when they demanded that work on the project should halt, “we are allowing a major asset of the country to degrade and that is not something acceptable,” he said.

He said the first unit had high temperature systems, flowing coolant and high voltage systems. Dr. Banerjee said: “So it is not a matter of switching off the whole system and bringing it to a standstill. Whenever you have a coolant in a circuit and you make it stagnant, then there is the possibility of some undue corrosion effect on some of the components. Obviously, this is not normally done. You always run the coolant and this process requires the attention of the technicians as well as the supporting people.”

Clearance awaited

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited was waiting for clearance to load the fuel into the reactor and there were expectations that the reactor might reach criticality in October. “So essentially this has been halted…There is no big dispute on this…But you must run the essential facilities for the safety and long-term service of the equipment,” the AEC Chairman said.

India was an impoverished country in terms of power supply. Tamil Nadu even today had a serious power shortage, he said.

“Tamil Nadu is also a State which is aspiring for major industrial growth. This industrial growth will happen only when you have power,” he added. Two thousand MWe was ready for delivery from the two Kudankulam units with Tamil Nadu getting 925 MWe as its share but this agitation was not allowing this to happen.

“Basically, this is a step towards decelerating the economic growth process, the growth of livelihood of people or their quality of life,” said Dr. Banerjee, who is also Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy.

Stir unexpected

The agitation at Idinthakarai was “a little unexpected” because “a cordial relationship existed all along” between the KKNPP employees and the villagers around, he said.

The KKNPP engineers regularly took part in the education and social programmes of the villages around.

“We were actually looking forward to enriching our relationship with the people around” because nuclear power reactors nowadays had a life-span of 40 years to 60 years. “So it is a big surprise for me” that the agitation had broken out, he said.