A few days ago, The Hindu carried an article titled “The real questions from Kudankulam” (editorial page, Sept. 14, 2012). Incidentally, it was published a few days after the brutal crackdown by the Tamil Nadu police on the protesting fisherfolk who have been opposing the siting of a nuclear power plant in their midst for over two decades now. The author of the article, a physicist with a reputed scientific research institution, questioned the agency of the protesting fisherfolk by bracketing them as “victims only of unfounded scaremongering” who were purportedly being misled by “educated purveyors.” The article claimed that the debate around Kudankulam has not been a “genuine” one and has been in abstraction, mostly around the “desirability of nuclear power” rather than “mechanisms” to make it safe. The claim being modern technology, maintenance and safety standards will make it “safe.” Notwithstanding of course the ideal scientifically “controlled” conditions vs ground realities. If one looks at the dubious track record of nuclear power plants across the world and its horrendous reputation of regularly exposing its workers and residents to dangerous levels of ionising radiations, the disconnect is pretty obvious.

In 1957, a fault in the cooling system in Kyshtym nuclear complex in Russia led to a chemical explosion and the release of 70-80 tonnes of radioactive material into the air, exposing thousands of people and leading to the evacuation of thousands more. Major accidents, which have killed, maimed and exposed large populations of worker and local residents, have been reported from various other nuclear facilities — Windscale nuclear reactor, U.K. (1957); Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, U.S. (1961); Three Mile Island power plant, U.S. (1979); Chernobyl power plant, Russia (1986); Seversk, Russia (1993); the Tokai-Mura nuclear fuel processing facility, Japan (1989); Mihama power plant, Japan (2004); Fukushima Daiichi power plant, Japan (2011) and the Marcoule nuclear site, France (2011). All these incidents and many more unreported ones including from India have obviously raised questions about the desirability of nuclear energy and any real possibility of it being “safe.” While environmental and health risks of radiation are now scientifically known, the magnitude of the impact of accidents such as a Fukushima or Chernobyl takes a long time to play out in a real world situation. The fact that in each of these places people have not been able to return to their homes, that their lives have never been normal again, and that they constantly live under the shadow of diseases and death makes nuclear energy patently dangerous.

And on top of it, the obtuseness of governments to disclose information related to nuclear, civilian or military, makes it even worse. Take for instance the confession by the Japanese government in June 2012 that it had withheld from the public important radiation maps provided by the U.S. Energy Department post-Fukushima. The information revealed that residents in an area northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant were being exposed to their annual permissible dose of radiation within eight hours. This meant that these residents were not evacuated by the government to a safer place, an act that can be termed criminal.

In France, over 20,000-30,000 workers dubbed as “nuclear nomads” are subcontracted annually in the 58 nuclear reactors operated by Électricité de France S.A. (EDF) located in 20 sites which contribute 78 per cent of the electricity produced in the country. EDF subcontracts over 1,000 companies, who employ the “nuclear nomads,” sometimes of foreign origin, to do the dangerous maintenance, repair and clean-up work in these plants, exposing them to ionising radiations. In her book “Nuclear Servitude: Subcontracting and Health in the French Civil Nuclear Industry,” French social scientist Annie Thébaud-Mony has highlighted this division of labour and “risk” by subcontracting dangerous work in the French nuclear power industry. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, over 18,000 workers were hired to clean-up the power plant, who were all subcontracted to do dangerous radioactive clean-up work. These men, hailed as “national heroes” by many, were actually local residents rendered unemployed by the disaster or were daily wagers from city slums. Since the 1970s, Japan has had a dubious track record of subcontracting maintenance work of reactors to outside companies which hire workers on a short-term basis who remain employed till they reach their radiation exposure limit (Nuclear Nomads: A look at the Sub-contracted Heroes by Gabrielle Hecht in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 9, 2012).

In the case of Kudankulam, the fisherfolk have been raising similar questions. They have been asking to see the disaster management plan which, till date, remains a secret, even under the Right to Information Act. Given the inherent uncertainties of natural disasters, questions about preparedness to mitigate impact of calamities such as tsunami waves of higher magnitude are being asked. An inadequate reserve of fresh water for cooling as well as a lack of back up electricity are concerns that have been raised by people and their expert committee many times but consistently dodged by the government and officials of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. Secrecy shrouds the fate of the radioactive spent fuel, its reprocessing and transportation. All these questions and more remain unanswered. Are all these issues a debate in abstraction? Is questioning the “desirability” of nuclear power not a valid one given the above track record? If this is not concrete, what is?

(Madhumita Dutta is with the Vettiver Collective in Chennai and a volunteer with the Chennai Solidarity Group for Kudankulam Struggle.)

Rahul Siddharthan responds

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