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Kudankulam Remains on Hold Despite India’s Energy Crisis

By Miriam Mazer, Insight Reporter

February 04 2013

India can’t seem to ever actually commission the Kudankulam nuclear plant. While the first of two planned Russian-design reactors was scheduled for start up Jan. 1, the utility operator has pushed the schedule back twice, with no firm official date in sight. Meanwhile, Indian officials are pulling the usual “ignore it and it will go away” strategy with respect to growing anti-nuclear sentiment around the plant. Insight Report Miriam Mazer has the story.

Every time the two-unit Kudankulam nuclear plant in India’s Tamil Nadu state seems to take a step forward, another barrier springs up in its path.

The plant, a joint project of the Russian and Indian governments, is all but ready to put its first unit to work. But Indian officials have again pushed back the date for commissioning, this time to February, they say, in order to recalibrate the reactor’s components.  Commercial operations were originally planned at the turn of the year. But on Jan. 3 the Atomic Energy Commission of India (AEC), the nuclear planning agency, announced it would commission Unit 1 by the end of the month.

R.K. Sinha, the AEC’s chairman, told reporters that it would take two weeks to make the reactor operational.  But on Jan. 12 India’s state-owned utility, Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd. (NCPIL), announced it had postponed commissioning Unit 1 to February, with Unit 2 to connect to the grid in September.

Sinha again stepped up to the plate on Jan. 18 to assure the public that there were no major problems with the reactor, but that officials wanted the systems to work “exactly textbook-like.”

Pre-commissioning tests showed small deviations from operational parameters, so plant engineers adjusted various reactor systems to bring them within set norms. Minor deviations often appear when a reactor first starts up, and technical tweaks usually occur during initial routine maintenance.

In order to perform the modifications Unit 1 was cooled and drained. Sinha said engineers would reheat and retest the reactor until they were satisfied with the results. He admitted that such measures went above and beyond normal safety procedures, but justified them by explaining that the reactor was the first of its kind in India.

Second Verse, Same as the First
The delay has become a familiar story. Kudankulam 1 went through a second heat-up test in early December, with criticality predicted around Dec. 24, but then NCPIL decided to put off commissioning the unit until the New Year. In fact, the plant had been originally scheduled for commissioning a year earlier, in December 2011. 

The main stumbling block has been the ongoing massive protests directed at the plant by local residents, mostly denizens of surrounding rural fishing villages, who were alarmed in September 2011 when the plant’s managers, in a colossal public-relations blunder, had tested the plant alarm system without notifying their neighbors. 

With the Fukushima disaster fresh in people’s minds, the alarms plunged the villages into panic and chaos, giving rise to a protest movement that has now delayed the plant startup some 500 days. It shows no signs of abating. 

Indian Leaders Not Making Case  
Indian officials insist the project will move forward. India is facing an energy crisis and its government considers nuclear energy a solution. But even the massive brown-outs in 2012 failed to sway local sentiment towards nuclear energy. Rather than advocating for Kudankulam, the government is trying to wait out the protests. 

During a high-profile visit over the Christmas holidays, Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the plant, a Russian-Indian collaboration, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, during his visit to New Delhi over Christmas. Both agreed to expedite the negotiations for construction of Units 3 and 4.


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