Bhaskar Balakrishnan

We’ve only just begun

BHASKAR BALAKRISHNAN | Updated on July 15, 2013 Published on July 15, 2013

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The first Kudankulam reactor has gone critical. But this is only one among many milestones to be crossed.

The first 1000 MWe reactor at Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP-1) has gone critical.

While this marks a major milestone for the project, and a significant advance for nuclear power in India, it should not breed a sense of complacency. Rather, it should spur all stakeholders to introspect and cooperate in a responsible manner, for the future of nuclear power in India.

KKNPP-1 has faced numerous problems and delays. The Fukushima accident cast a shadow over nuclear power all over the world, including KKNPP. Anti-nuclear activists, taking advantage of the climate post-Fukushima, organised protests.

The matter was raised through a PIL in the Supreme Court which gave the green light to proceed with the project, observing that nuclear energy was important for India. Recently, there were concerns over some defective valves which were replaced.

Now, finally KKNPP-1 has attained criticality, and after a series of tests will ease the problems of power shortage in Tamil Nadu.

KKNPP-1 has set some important landmarks. It is the first 1000 MWe pressurised water reactor built with foreign collaboration, using imported technology and enriched Uranium fuel. It took 12 long years to build, at a cost of around Rs 14,000 crore.

Many active and passive safety systems have been incorporated to enhance multi-layered safety.

The second reactor at KKNPP is likely to come on stream in 2014, with both units massively increasing nuclear power capacity in the country.

Tamil Nadu will get 46 per cent of the power at Rs 3 per unit, a competitive price. Two more reactors of the same type are to be set up at KKNPP.

SAFETY monitoring

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) as the operator has met the requirements of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, regarding safety and security.

But safety and security of nuclear plants ought to be a continuing exercise, and utmost vigilance and diligence is necessary in the future. It should not to be seen as a one-time compliance, but a perpetual striving for excellence. The opposition to the project will continue and any small lapse will be highlighted and even misperceived.

This calls for sensitivity in responding to public concerns, high levels of transparency and interaction with stakeholders. In the past, NPCIL has not been known to excel in its public relations, as shown, for example, in the mock drill of August 2011 which triggered an unexpected reaction.

The entire future of the nuclear energy programme in India could be jeopardised by an incident or perceived lapse at KKNPP. So the stakes are very high.

A key ingredient in the success of any large project like KKNPP is the attitude of the local population. They see the project in terms of the concrete benefits they derive from it.

Local concerns

In this light, the KKNPP will succeed in winning the hearts and minds of the population if the latter can get assured power supply, schools for their children, healthcare from hospitals, skill development and development activity that leads to job and income creation.

In all these areas, NPCIL would do well to continue to use funds under CSR, but with more focus on projects developed in consultation with the local community.

These benefits should accrue not in the distant future but in a reasonable time. Only then will local suspicion and hostility turn into partnership and support. Strong interaction with the local community representatives is a must.

This could be done through consultative bodies, which include representatives of NPCIL and the local community. In these areas, NPCIL management needs to be more sensitive and proactive and take more initiatives.

Meeting the AERB requirements should not be regarded as sufficient. NPCIL should regard these requirements as the minimum required for the plant and pursue highest possible global standards of safety and security in plant operations, maintenance, and handling of radioactive materials, even if this means some costs.

Safety and security standards are constantly evolving, and keeping up with global best practices is important.

WATCHDOG ROLE

There are proposals on the table for strengthening the AERB and making it more independent, functionally and financially. The decisions regarding this have been delayed far too long. It is hoped that these measures will be approved quickly so that AERB gains adequate credibility in the eyes of all stakeholders.

As for the opposition, they should not regard KKNPP-1 as a defeat. They have already contributed to increased awareness of safety and security issues and their role is important in the future.

They can contribute constructively by acting as an alert watchdog, bringing to light any deficiencies in safety measures. However, their contribution will be positive if it is based on scientific data and rational arguments.

In particular, the independent monitoring of the environmental and health impact of discharges from the KKNPP such as warm water into the sea, radioactivity levels in air and water, etc., is an area where much effort and vigilance will be needed.

While KKNPP-1 is an important milestone for the nation’s nuclear power, it is also a reminder that much more needs to be done to win public support for the nuclear power industry in India.

What happens at KKNPP over the next few years will be keenly watched and the price for lapses could be very high. There should be no room for complacency.

(The author is a former Ambassador of India. He has participated in the FIPB, FIIA, and has worked for UNIDO.)

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Published on July 15, 2013
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