What’s holding up the commissioning? Is it a problem with the valves and cables? Or something more?

The Site Director at the Kudankulam nuclear power project, R.S. Sundar, is a man apparently wizened by experience.

When Business Line asked him if the project would really start producing power in July (the latest revised deadline), his response was as honest as it was terse: “We hope.”

One cannot fault Sundar for his lack of conviction. A man no less than the Prime Minister of the country assured his Russian counterpart in December 2011 that the project would be commissioned in “two weeks” and said exactly the same thing again to the same individual three months ago.

The project was originally scheduled to be commissioned in December 2007. We Indians have learned to live with such timeline misses; frustration over project delays does not manifest itself in much more than puckered lips. Given the issues, such as faulty valves and cabling, it looks like there is no way the plant will be commissioned any time soon.

What’s happening?

But more frustrating than the five-and-half-year delay in the Kudankulam project is the lack of transparency in matters around the project.

Technical people in responsible positions engaged in the construction of the project have been telling this correspondent for well over a year that everything is ready for commissioning and they did not know what was causing the delay.

Their conjecture — which could be erroneous — has been that the entire establishment is awaiting word from the Prime Minister’s office to yank the lever.

It is well over a month since the Supreme Court gave its clearance for the project. Ask Sundar, he will tell you that “preparations and review process are going on”.

The project has already suffered a cost overrun of Rs 4,000 crore. In December 2011, when protestors had stopped work at the project, his predecessor, Kasinath Balaji, famously lamented that each day of delay cost a revenue loss of Rs 3 crore. But now there is a resounding silence.

Valves and cables

Something is happening inside that black box called Kudankulam. Nobody says what.

In this information vacuum, the most contextually credible perspective provided by down-the-line engineering staff and technically knowledgeable observers is that the delay is due to the valves scare.

It goes like this: some valves supplied by the Russian company Zio Podolsk have been found to be sub-standard and who knows how many other valves are defective?

Some of these other valves are inside the sealed reactor and cannot be easily removed. They are probably safe enough, but the shrillness of the anti-nuclear, anti-Kudankulam protests has reached such a crescendo that even a minor safety incident would inevitably result in a flare-up.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) would not want to end up with egg on its face by giving clearance for the commissioning.

So, they are going into the manufacturing log books of the Russians, component by component, to make sure things are alright. But the problem with this approach is, it is still not fool-proof. And everybody knows that.

What is not helping matters is the manner in which information was withheld when news about the faulty valves broke out.

When it was a matter of public record that a Special Secretary in the Department of Atomic Energy, A.P. Joshi, visited Zio Podolsk in July 2012, five months after the arrest of Sergei Shutov, the Procurement Director of the company, for fraud and corruption and supply of shoddy products to reactors, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India came up with the claim in February 2013 that “no information regarding any investigation against Zio Podolsk is available to NPCIL.”

And now there is talk of faulty cabling. In an article, A. Gopalakrishnan, a former Chairman of AERB, has said that large tracts of cabling would need to be re-done and this could take several months.

Could these faulty valves and cables (and God knows what else) set the project commissioning further behind? Nobody knows.

Misinformation thrives in this information-gap. One fails to understand why the nuclear establishment does not come clean and tell people what exactly is happening.

It apparently does not want to. S.P. Udaykumar, who is leading the protests against the nuclear plant, says that despite an order of the Central Information Commissioner, NPCIL has refused to share the ‘safety analysis report’ and the ‘site evaluation report’.

Incidentally, the Commission in its order tellingly noted thus: the Commission repeatedly asked the PIO to identify and explain the specific interest which might be affected….he gave no reasons whatsoever for claiming that the security, strategic and scientific interests of the State would be prejudicially affected if the Reports were disclosed.

Udaykumar has consequently filed a case with the Delhi High Court asking for the reports.

Why the silence?

Elsewhere in the world, reports such as these are freely shared with the public.

In one of his articles, Gopalakrishnan noted that “the contrast between how nuclear regulators in the best of democracies openly interact with their peoples and how the DAE and the AERB shrink from the public is quite apparent to all and this is increasing the disaffection and distrust of the Indian public for all nuclear operations and their safety.”

At a time when the country is suffering from an unprecedented power crisis — worst experienced by Tamil Nadu which is the chief beneficiary of the project — the monstrous delay in the project is going unexplained.

People ought to be told what exactly the issue is, whether there are faulty components and if so, the seriousness of the problem and the remedies available.

Those responsible for the delay, be it individuals or companies of Indian or foreign origin, should be brought to account.

(This article was published on June 23, 2013)
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