It is the flagship project of Nuclear Power Corporation of Indian Limited (NPCIL). Six—and eventually eight—1000 MWe Russian-made VVER-412 nuclear reactors have been envisaged at a thousand-acre plot in Koodankulam, 18 km northeast of the tourist town Kanyakumari. VVER is the acronym for Voda-Vodyanoi Energetichesky Reaktor, Russian for a pressurized light water reactor which is water-cooled and water-moderated. Self-evidently, water is a key resource for the running of the reactors and condensers, a resource that has led to serious local opposition. The Koodankulam project was born when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev signed an agreement in 1988, was delayed owing to the collapse of USSR, revived in 1998, and the construction of the first two light-water reactors for Rs 13,000 crores finally began in March 2002. The first two units, built in collaboration with Russia's Atomstroyexport (where the design, equipment, construction and fuel requirements are to be met by Russia), are expected to attain criticality in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
Spurred by the Indo-US nuclear deal, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is banking on the proposed six VVERs in Koodankulam to improve its capacity from the current lowly figure of 3,577 MWe generated from 16 reactors, accounting for just about 3 percent of India's energy needs, to 40,000 MWe by 2030 and 275,000 MWe by 2052 (hopefully capping 10 percent of the nation's energy needs). The VVER reactors are the biggest in scope in India. They are also of a kind that India has not constructed so far—and hence the questions about the DAE's ability to manage them safely.
Crucially, there has been fierce local opposition to the project in Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts, led primarily by farmers and environmentalists, since 1988. The tsunami of 2005 that battered the neighbouring Kanyakumari town fortunately left the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs) untouched. The tsunami threat has added a new dimension to the concerns of geologists and environmentalists. To compound matters, one of the many lacunae in the Environment Impact Assessment report prepared by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) for the four new proposed NPPs, is that it ignores the possible impact a tsunami could have on the reactors. Submitted in March 2004, the outdated EIA obviously could not factor in tsunamis. Though India's coastline is dotted with nuclear reactors, the DAE's Reactor Safety Analysis Group's report had declared in 1986: "For coastal sites, flooding may be due to tropical cyclones, tsunamis, seiches and wind waves. In India, tsunamis and seiches do not occur. Hence cyclones alone have been singled out for detailed study."
When the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) conducted a public hearing on 6 October in Tirunelveli on the four additional proposed NPPs in Koodankulam, the primary concern of the locals who unanimously opposed the introduction of Units 3 to 6 was not a theoretical tsunami, but the practical and immediate threat to the primary source of freshwater for two districts from the Pehciaparai dam in the Kodayar river basin. Water is an essential component for the daily operation of the VVER reactors. Since 1988, NPCIL has maintained that this freshwater would be drawn through an embedded pipeline from the Pechiaparai dam in Kanyakumari district, 65 km northwest of the NPPs. According to the EIA, the total demand of fresh water from the Pechiparai dam for the six reactors would be 30,891 m3/day (m3 = cubic metres).
The Pechiparai dam, built across the Kodayar river in 1906, has never had full capacity since 1963. On an average, it has received 16 percent less than full capacity (currently 139.5 million m3). Official data indicates that the annual rainfall is deficient almost in half the number of years between 88 years spanning 1901 to 1989 in the Kodayar basin. In the same period, Kanyakumari district has witnessed droughts for 11 years and 41 years of drought-like situation. Hydro-meteorological studies thus prove that the Kodayar basin is already under severe stress.
In such a context, the proposed Koodankulam NPPs are demanding a major share in the total freshwater available in river basin. The projected demand for six reactors is a conservative of 8% to 9% on the total annual capacity of Pechiparai dam. According to the EIA, a reservoir is proposed to be built at the Koodankulam site to store the Pechiparai dam water for up to only seven days for four units (at 65,000 m3/ day). Drought or no drought, the NPPs cannot afford to forgo freshwater from the basin. Without assured everyday freshwater, the Reactor Cooling Systems simply cannot function. In case of a severe water crisis, the six NPPs might draw 50 percent or perhaps the entire capacity of the little water that would remain in the dam. Such a scenario is very real. In 2004, the Pechiparai dam, whose height is 46.32 metres, had only three feet of water. The outdated EIA, which formed the basis for the public hearing, does not visualise such scenarios. But the irate farmers who attended the public hearing do. "If KKNPP gets first priority for Pechiparai water, clearly the interests of farmers and other end-users of Pechiparai dam would suffer," says Nagercoil-based environmental activist S.P. Udayakumar. He also pointed out that since Kanyakumari district was also affected by the project, the TNPCB should hold a public hearing in that district as well.
However, the public hearing in Tirunelveli turned out to be a farce. Scheduled for two hours starting 3 p.m., there was hardly any time for the NPCIL presentation or an exhaustive interaction. NGOs, environmental groups, farmers and activists insisted that the public hearing was a sham and since the notification was issued only in Economic Times (which hardly sells in Tirunelveli) and Dinakaran, a Tamil daily. All the same, they unanimously opposed the project in one voice and district collector G. Prakash decided to hold another public hearing after a fresh notification to be issued in November.
With the collapse of the public hearing, when Outlook approached the NPCIL officials led by K.S. Rao, Associate Director of the Koodankulam plant, with queries on the use of Pechiparai dam water, they refused to answer. Later, interacting informally at the collector's office with Ravikumar, Dalit Panthers MLA who had made a written submission against the project, and other activists, Rao claimed they would not use a single drop of Pechiparai water. This was borne out neither by NEERI's outdated EIA nor by a recent article on the Koodankulam plants in a refereed international journal, Nuclear Engineering and Design (March 2006) authored by S.K. Agrawal, Project Director of Koodankulam NPPs, where Pechiparai is listed as the sole source of freshwater. When questioned, Rao simply said NPCIL had decided to use water from desalination plants that had been commissioned in December 2004. He refused to provide the details.
An internet search revealed that on 7 December 2004 NPCIL has discreetly awarded Tata Projects Limited (responsible for constructing the 2.4 mld Sea Water Reverse Osmosis plant for the residential township in Koodankulam), a project to erect a desalination plant of 7680 m3/day capacity (using multi-vapour compression technology) for supplying water to the first two VVER reactors. According to the Tata website, "the contract value is over Rs 1000 million". According to the Ministry of Environment and Forests' June 2002 amendment to the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, for any project worth Rs 100 crore or more, an EIA must be conducted. TPL's desalination project, to be executed in 20 months from the date of awarding of the contract, should have therefore had an EIA and the mandatory public hearing, none of which seems to have been undertaken. In Tirunelveli, without mentioning the TPL's desalination project, NPCIL's Rao insisted that 7,560 m3/day was the fresh water requirement of the two current VVER plants and "this was being catered to by RO plants".
Says R. Ramesh, Coimbatore-based environmental activist who has authored a critique of the flawed EIA conducted by NEERI: "The DAE thinks it would be able to push through all its projects and demands just by obtaining a legal clearance. It continues to believe in secretive actions, even when these actions involve every individual who lives in the vicinity of the project sites." Ramesh points out that even if NPCIL's claim that no Pechiparai water would be used were to be granted, the TPL's desalination project is designated only for the VVER units 1 and 2. "What about the freshwater needs of the additional units 3 to 6 for which was the basic concern of the locals at the public hearing?"
Moreover, according to the guidebook on nuclear desalination issued in 2000 by International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), "The safety issues related to the mutual interactions between the nuclear power plant and the desalination plant must be assessed as a part of the design of the integrated nuclear desalination system." However, for NPCIL, desalination seems to have occurred as a belated afterthought owing to popular opposition to the use of the Pechiparai water.
For a long time, India's lack or uranium resources, the primary fuel for reactors, has tempered its nuclear ambitions. Now with Russia assuring uranium supply to the Koodankulam reactors and the Indo-US deal round the corner, NPCIL has to reckon with a very basic resource—water—the backbone of the VVERs and of the farmers of Kanyakumari and Tirunelveli.