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Pros and cons of the Kudankulam Saga

P. Sudhakar and
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There are no short cuts to power, literally and metaphorically.

 There are no short cuts to power, literally and metaphorically. If anything, India’s largest nuclear power reactor, the first unit of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) in Tirunelveli district, attaining its full power generation capacity of 1,000 MWe on June 7 marking a milestone in the civilian use of nuclear power, is also a continuous reminder of safety vigilantism this enterprise entails.

Just survey the ‘bumpy ride’ that the KKNPP project has seen: since it was conceived nearly 26 years ago in 1988 through the Rajiv Gandhi-Gorbachev agreement for the erstwhile USSR (later the Russian Federation) to supply two ‘VVER-type’ light water reactors of 1,000 MWe each by Atomstroyexport, twists and turns till work started in March 2002, an unusually resilient Gandhian-type of struggle against the project by the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, led by SP. Udayakumar, in the coastal hamlet of Idinthakarai, close to the plant site after the Fukushima disaster, state intervention and subsequent clearance on the basis of the report of an expert panel, to the first unit attaining criticality against all odds on July 13 last year, the saga of Kudankulam has been an eye-opener in several ways.

Less than eight months after the first unit was synchronized with the southern electricity grid, its power factor has been raised in stages from 160 MWe, the plant first generated on October 22 last year, to its full capacity now. This, according to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), was progressively raised in accordance with clearances given by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). Various tests were conducted at each step. After a review of those results, clearances were issued by the AERB, say KKNPP officials.

After the first reactor went critical last July, it was expected to attain its ful capacity even earlier. However, the fallout of the anti-KKNPP agitation gaining momentum, ‘fine-tuning’ of the Russian-origin components, and a subsequent range of ‘mandatory tests’ the unit had to pass in the eyes of the AERB, were among the factors that delayed the process. While crossing each milestone, from 200 MWe to 900 MWe, even during the outage, tests as specified by AERB had to be done. The Russian specialists had to ascertain the “flawless functioning of the components,” KKNPP officials say.

“Since we have achieved 1000 MWe now, power generation will be stopped manually within the next two or three days again for mandatory tests, and the results will be submitted to the AERB for approval. Once it is obtained, the reactor’s capacity of 1000 MWe will be sustained as it is not a one-time achievement,” said KKNPP site director R.S. Sundar.  

Even as the first unit is now ready for commercial power generation, the pro-changers-versus-the no-changers debate will continue to grapple with a host of safety and environment issues.

The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the NPCIL and the KKNPP authorities’ reiterations that the reactors have incorporated the “highest level of safety” in line with current international standards may buttress their argument for the nuclear energy option in the context of climate change issues and limiting carbon emissions from conventional coal-fired thermal plants.

However, on the other hand, even as recently in May, the recent ‘hot water spillage incident’ at the first unit injuring six workers, again triggered safety concerns. A high-level AERB committee, which investigated the incident, said it happened “during maintenance of a three-way hot water inlet valve to a heater loop in the turbine building of KKNPP Unit-I.” The unit was under shutdown then for maintenance.

The AERB’s “preliminary investigation” — as it said in its statement on the regulatory body’s website — revealed that the burns caused to the persons when the valve was dismantled was “due to inadequate draining of the hot water before taking up the routine maintenance work on the valve.”  Nonetheless, “there was no design deficiency with respect to the construction of the valve,” the AERB said.   

This may come as a slice of comfort for the KKNPP’s mastery of highly complex technologies that nuclear energy involves. But any further progress in capacity additions at Kudankulam and elsewhere, whether it involves foreign suppliers or domestic vendors, will have to address a number of questions that have been raised about the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, and how to apply its rules to new contracts, said an informed source.

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