The response of the State and central governments to the snowballing protest against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) has been marked by a sober realisation that popular fears over the safety of the nuclear plant cannot be ignored in the post-Fukushima era. Thanks to this attitude, the hundred-odd protesters who have been on an indefinite fast since September 11 are set to call off their agitation. The Tamil Nadu government has given them an assurance that its Cabinet would call for halting the project until the people's fears are allayed to their satisfaction. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's letter drawing the Prime Minister's attention to the urgent need to allay apprehensions voiced by the people evoked an instant response. Dr. Manmohan Singh deputed Minister of State in his office, V. Narayanasamy, to meet the protesters at the venue of their fast in Tirunelveli district, and assure them that safety, rather than power generation, was the government's priority. Here is yet another opportunity for the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd., which is implementing the project, to bring on board the public at large, especially the local communities whose apprehensions have been compounded by fears stoked by traditional opponents of nuclear power, and assure the country of the safety and reliability of the two Russian-made reactors. At the expert level, there has not been any doubt that the design of the two VVER-1000 state-of-the-art reactors installed at Kudankulam is safe but the message has to be taken to the masses.
There is no reason, however, to believe that the AIADMK government is against the implementation of this long-delayed project that is expected to boost power generation in Tamil Nadu, which has been suffering from a serious power deficit. Post-Fukushima, it is unlikely that nuclear power projects anywhere in the world are going to enjoy unqualified support from local communities, unless all their concerns and fears are sincerely and transparently addressed. The nuclear establishment need not be dismayed by the obstacle thrown in its path just a few months before the KKNPP first unit was set to be commissioned. Instead, it should address the issue in a democratic manner and not let its traditional culture of non-transparency prevail. The bill introduced in Parliament to set up a Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority has drawn sharp criticism on the ground that the new body will be captive to the government. Kudankulam offers India a new opportunity to meet the challenge of achieving the highest safety standards in the nuclear power sector — under the watch of a truly independent authority.