The coast isn’t clear for India’s nuclear power quest

A cluster of plants promises to turn coastal Andhra Pradesh into the country’s nuclear energy hub, but at what cost? At Kovvada, first off the blocks, K. Venkateshwarlu discovers some uneasy answers

Updated - December 31, 2016 12:06 pm IST

Published - July 30, 2016 12:03 am IST

The fisherfolk weaving hammocks, swings, and other products at a community centre on the beach in Kovvada village of Srikakulam district. Photo: K.R. Deepak

The fisherfolk weaving hammocks, swings, and other products at a community centre on the beach in Kovvada village of Srikakulam district. Photo: K.R. Deepak

Four years ago, the picturesque two-km shoreline that is the Kovvada beach in Andhra Pradesh was the site of a small resistance movement. A ragtag bunch of protesters, including local fisherfolk, raised slogans against the location of a “nuclear power park” that would rob them of their livelihood and expose them to high doses of radiation. They wondered why they should be sacrificed for a project whose script was written in faraway United States during the inking of the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008.

Their ire was specifically directed at a government notification dated November 1, 2012, that had demarcated land for acquisition. The protest moved from the beach to the half-built gram panchayat office, where a relay hunger strike went on for several days. Prominent among the protesters were the cadre of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which was then in the Opposition. But with the passage of time and no strong political backing, the movement fell silent.

With allies Bharatiya Janata Party and TDP sweeping to power at the Centre and in Andhra Pradesh, respectively, and making their intentions clear of carrying on with the Congress legacy of setting up a string of nuclear power plants in the country under the 2008 agreement, there are again signs of protests in Kovvada and abutting villages. This time, >the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is playing a key role in mobilising public opinion against the proposed plant at Kovvada as the State government shot off a circular dated June 9, 2016, to conduct Social Impact Assessment, triggering the unrest.

Nuclear power hub in the making As the sun rises on the shoreline, the fisherfolk huddle into small groups at the same gram panchayat office to knit long nylon and plastic threads into hammocks. They have stopped making fishing nets. The big fish catch is a fairy tale as effluents from nearby pharma industries keep consuming them. Today, the 2,000-strong community makes hammocks which go to far-off places such as Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Kerala. “It is a hard decision but we had to make the switch to survive,” says 45-year-old Mylipilli Appanna.

The fisherfolk of Kovvada may have to make another switch to survive as the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) looks determined to carry out its grand plan to install six nuclear reactors, each generating 1,594 megawatts (MW), or 9,564 MW of power overall. It will be the first one to take shape under the 2008 agreement.

Coastal Andhra Pradesh has become the most favoured destination for the nuclear dream, with plans to transform the cyclone-buffeted zone into a hub of nuclear energy. A cluster of nuclear power plants — both U.S. and Russian — that will generate 30,000 MW by 2031, have been proposed along the coastline. Activists opposing the plan surmise four reasons for Destination Andhra Pradesh — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu’s warm rapport, the State’s huge requirement of power as it shifts gear from agriculture to industrialisation, the ready availability of government land, and virtually no resistance from the people. They fear Andhra Pradesh may become a nuclear dumpyard as it willingly plays host to power projects opposed by people in other States such as Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Maharashtra and even Gujarat.

Acquisition plans in the offing At the moment, resistance from people is low. “They want us to move out. Yes, we will leave not only because we lost the fish to pollution but also because we are denied all government schemes. We don’t have drinking water here. There is no MGNREGA [employment guarantee scheme] here. Not many get old-age pension either. If we get a good package of, say, Rs.25 lakh for each family, we will leave,” says Appanna.

Not everyone subscribes to his view. “ Vaddu, nuclear plant vaddu, Kovvada maku muddu (No, we don’t want nuclear plant, we love our Kovvada)” is a slogan one hears on the beach.

The official machinery here is planning to acquire around 2,000 acres (some of it fallow and partly fertile) initially in Pedda and Chinna Kovvada, Tekkali, Ramachandrapuram and Kotapalem, affecting and displacing about 3,000 families. In its eagerness to get the project started, the Andhra Pradesh government has declared a ban on land registration. It simply means nobody can buy or sell land, or use it as collateral to raise loans either for health emergencies or marriages. The strategy, evidently, is to test the people’s patience and force them to leave.

While the State government plays bad cop, the NPCIL is trying the good cop act by luring people with what it calls “the best package ever”. Even as the specifics of the compensation package are being worked out, it has deposited the first tranche of Rs.359 crore of the Rs.1,000 crore it has earmarked as relief and rehabilitation (R&R) package with the Srikakulam District Collector. Whether the money will reach the intended beneficiaries is moot.

The NPCIL has completed the survey of government land after the project was proposed four years ago and it is to the extent of 1,200 acres. It is this chunk of land, a part of which some big landlords and the landless poor are squatting on, that appears to be giving strength to the government and NPCIL to go ahead. In contrast, there are many gaping holes in the as-yet partial survey of private land by the Revenue Department officials, with many farmers alleging under-measurement to reduce compensation amounts.

The State government is washing its hands of the matter. Its adviser (communications) Parkala Prabhakar says the entire process of new nuclear plants is at a very preliminary stage. The State government has no role in deciding anything relating to these projects which come under the aegis of the Central government and NPCIL, he says. “The Government of India has asked the State government to look for sites for new nuclear plants in Nellore and Prakasam districts. We have asked the District Collectors of these two districts to identify sites. While the U.S. will build the nuclear plant at Kovvada, where land acquisition is in progress, Russia may perhaps do it at the site in Nellore/ Prakasam,” he adds.

G.V. Ramesh, NPCIL’s Kovvada project director, exudes confidence about the acquisition process. “We don’t foresee any problems. Local people are co-operating. The delay was over the land acquisition notification and fears in the aftermath of the Fukushima [nuclear accident in 2011]. We promise to give the best R&R package. People are convinced now after we took them to atomic power project at Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu. They were surprised to see fish in the outlet of the plant,” he says.

The farmers of Kotapalem, however, don’t share Ramesh’s confidence. Around 560 acres of coconut plantations will be lost. Says Sunkara Papa Rao, a coconut farmer: “I have four acres full of coconut trees and I get an income of Rs.10,000 every month. The coconut pickers I employ are also happy. What more do I want? Why should the nuclear plant people pick on our land and destroy our lives and livelihood? I am told radiation affects not only us but many more villages in the vicinity. We will oppose the project tooth and nail.”

The government’s promise of jobs for locals is also met with scepticism. Farmer Komara Laxman Rao of Kovvada says, “What job? At best, most of us would end up as coolies during construction and after the plant comes up they will dump us. When the village itself is wiped out, where is development and for whom is this prosperity?” Adds S. Ramudu, a medical practititioner: “In Kovvada we have 80 youth who have completed intermediate [Class XII], 12 are BA and BCom graduates and three BTech graduates. NPCIL could not guarantee jobs even to these three BTech graduates.”

Safety concerns on the coast Former Union Energy Secretary E.A.S. Sarma points out the dangers posed by nuclear plants in general and the location of the proposed site in particular. “What is the need to rush the project? It entails an enormous cost. No scientific criteria were adopted in site selection. Intense seismic activity was recorded by the Department of Atomic Energy’s own agencies. Four fault lines run through the region. Yet they want to set up the nuclear plant in Kovvada. A Fukushima-like disaster cannot be ruled out. The suffering is for generations. Exposure to radioactivity could lead to genetic disorders and cancer. People were not educated on this count at all.”

A World Health Organisation report mapping the impact of exposure to high radiation doses two decades on after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster mentions increased incidence of thyroid cancer, doubling of leukaemia, radiation opacity (cataract) and mental health issues as some of the ramifications. Kovvada and its surrounding villages have a good number of people within the “exclusion” zone, the immediate vicinity of the nuclear plant up to 1.5 km from the project site, where no one is expected to live; in the next “sterilised” zone up to 5 km where no development should take place, there are 42 villages; and in the “emergency” zone up to 16 km, there are 66 villages.

“Safety from nuclear radiation is debatable as India neither has experience in handling new-generation reactors — whether it is GE-Hitachi’s Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor or Westinghouse’s AP1000 — nor an independent, strong regulatory mechanism. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board works like an arm of the Department of Atomic Energy. Another important issue is the Indian Civil Nuclear Liability law having a low liability cap. The liability for Kovvada is put at Rs.1,300 crore for a plant which is expected to cost around Rs.4 lakh crore. Is it not pittance?” says Sarma.

Ramesh dismisses these as exaggerated concerns. New-age reactors are compact requiring less land; the AP1000 technology of the six reactors is the latest Generation III-plus pressurised water type with improved safety, he asserts. “They are absolutely safe and automatically shut down in case of accident or an earthquake of over 7.2 magnitude. All the systems are passive. Once it is shut down, the reactor’s cooling takes place on its own for a fortnight and only then would human intervention be required.”

The National Geophysical Research Institute has conducted the study and classified it as low vulnerability of Zone 2, says Ramesh. “NPCIL had signed the MoU [memorandum of understanding] with Westinghouse for supply of reactors in 2015. It is win-win situation for both the country and Andhra Pradesh as both will share equally the power generated here,” he adds.

While Social Impact Assessment notification has been issued, interviews with multiple officials revealed that the environmental clearance for the project is yet to be sought. “A public hearing will be held once the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change clears the new set of terms of reference. NPCIL would take into account feedback from people after placing the Environment Impact Assessment report before them,” says Ramesh.

The question of viability A study by the U.S.-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, that was released recently by the A.P.-Telangana-based voluntary organisation Human Rights Forum, warns India that GE-Hitachi and Westinghouse nuclear reactors are neither cost-effective nor power-efficient and that they have a huge risk factor. The first units of the six nuclear reactors in Kovvada will not produce electricity for the grid before 2031, the report states.

Quoting another study, K. Babu Rao, former deputy director of the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, Hyderabad, estimates that the tariffs for electricity from Kovvada will be very high, with first-year tariffs in the range of Rs.19.80 to Rs.32.77 per kilowatt hour. “Is it worth spending crores of rupees on nuclear power whose share is just 0.58 per cent in the total primary energy demand of India?” he wonders.

For all the concerns Kovvada has not become a political issue in the State as parties across the spectrum have had a hand in okaying the project. While the Congress gave the clearance to the project, the ruling TDP is now honouring it, though as Leader of the Opposition then, Naidu had addressed a protest meeting in Kovvada.

With no political backing forthcoming, the relay hunger strike in Kovvada last time came a cropper. This time round, the CPI(M) has decided to take up the cause in a big way. Senior party leader Prakash Karat visited Kovvada and other villages to interact with fishermen and farmers and addressed a public meeting there on July 16. The CPI(M) has given a call for a broad-based struggle against the nuclear plant at Kovvada, which Karat said would be a white elephant considering its steep projected cost. “This project is a bonanza for American business after the Manmohan Singh government pledged to buy 50,000 MW nuclear reactors as part of the ten-year defence framework agreement and Civil Nuclear Cooperation agreement in 2008. The entire Opposition, including the BJP, had opposed them in Parliament. The government at that time had claimed that 40,000 MW of nuclear power would be added by 2020 but after eight years not even a megawatt has been added.”

Will the Kovvada fisherfolk take the bait of money being dangled, or wage a struggle?

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