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(Terrible) Business as Usual at Kudankulam

By Miriam Mazer, Insight Writer

April 26 2013

Once again, commercial startup of India’s Kudankulam-1 plant has been delayed. Once again, Indian nuclear officials botched the related public communications effort. When will that reactor ever be operational? FCW’s Miriam Mazer reports on the latest developments.

At the start of April, Kudankulam-1 seemed ready to reach criticality—again. Plant engineers were wrapping up the final tests. Government officials were bickering over the start-up date. Fishermen were besieging the plant’s employee and contractor housing facility. In other words, business-as-usual for the troubled project.

The first signs of trouble started on April 7, when a top nuclear scientist issued a thundering condemnation against Kudankulam.

A. Gopalakrishnan, a former chairman of the Indian regulatory agency, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), claimed that the plant’s Russian makers had used inferior components to build the reactor. He castigated the AERB and the Department of Atomic Energy for the lack of transparency surrounding the project.

Anti-nuclear activists latched onto Dr. Gopalakrishnan immediately, who is the first major Indian nuclear scientist to attack Kudankulam.

But beyond a few articles in the Indian media, Dr. Gopalakrishnan’s remarks provoked little response from either the government or the public.

During the same speech, the former AERB chairman, who strongly opposes all foreign involvement in the Indian nuclear program, attacked the government for abandoning nuclear independence from Western countries and the earlier goal of developing a thorium fuel cycle. This was another instance of his long-running anti-foreign agenda.

In the end, Dr. Gopalakrishnan was right. On April 19, the Secretary of AERB, R. Bhattacharya, told the press that pre-commissioning tests revealed four defective valves in the emergency core cooling system. Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) replaced the valves on April 24 and has continued the pre-commissioning tests.

Springtime Start-up Unlikely
AERB refused to elaborate on the valves’ deficiency, but Nalinish Nagaich, the executive director of NPCIL, explained that the commissioning team discovered the defects when testing the valves in situ in an integrated manner. AERB is now reviewing the performance of the valves’ replacements.

Since March, the office of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and NPCIL have bickered over the plant’s start-up date. Singh told Russian President Vladimir Putin during the BRICS summit on March 27 that Kudankulam-1 would begin commercial operations in April, even though NPCIL had changed the date to May.

Most likely Singh hoped to reassure an increasingly impatient Russia that India remained committed to its many nuclear deals with Rosatom. However, the faulty valves have delayed Kudankulam’s operation yet again. NPCIL may yet meet the May commission date, given its rapid replacement of the valves.

Ironically, Russia may be responsible for the latest lag. Last year Russia’s Federal Security Service busted a prominent official of a Rosatom subsidiary for corruption.

Starting in 2007 Sergei Shutov, the procurement director of ZiO-Podolsk, had purchased cheap, low-quality raw materials for building reactor components intended for foreign customers and pocketed the difference.

Kudankulam used ZiO-Podolsk parts in its reactors, though it remains unconfirmed if these valves came from the company.

Despite these recent troubles, the Russian-Indian nuclear relationship remains strong. Atomstroyexport will construct Kudankulam-3 and -4, a project green-lighted by Singh’s cabinet in March.

Agreements for the two units date back to 2008, but India’s notorious nuclear liability law, which forces companies to take responsibility for any plant disasters, held up the final contract.

However, the two countries have finally reached a compromise. India will pay more for the reactors, while Rosatom will take responsibility for the plant’s safety.

Neither country has released details about the new payment plan. A Russian technical team is now tying up loose ends in Mumbai before finalizing the deal.

Transparency Issues Continue
AERB and NPCIL’s decision to publicize the faulty valves is laudable, especially in the context of Kudankulam’s troubled history. The plant’s officials have repeatedly failed to communicate with locals on the most basic issues. Such blunders have energized anti-nuclear activists, time and again.

The latest flub started on March 29, when steam relief valve tests released plumes of foul-smelling smoke and loud noises over the course of three days. Incredibly, the plant officials failed to inform locals about the tests.

Villagers were alarmed, fearing the plant had gone online. To make matters worse, a copper plant in nearby Tuticorin had shut down several days before after emitting poison fumes.

Sound familiar? Kudankulam’s directors repeated the mistake that started the current protests. In August 2011 plant officials tested Kudankulam’s alarm system but did not alert the nearby villages.

Locals panicked, fearing a Fukushima in their backyards. Furious in the face of government indifference, they organized the antinuclear movement that is responsible for the delay in operations that stretches to this day.

In a clumsy attempt at damage control, Kudankulam site director R.S. Sundar evoked the industrial accident at Bhopal in 1984, when thousands of local residents died in their sleep after the release of fumes from a pesticide plant. That tragedy was seared into the collective memory of the Indian public and underpins the anxiety of the locals.

“These tests are conducted only during day time and only steam is released as part of the [steam valve] test. No tests are being conducted at the plant which are harmful to the environment and public.” The local anti-nuclear still surrounded the plant’s housing facility several days later in protest.

AERB and NPCIL’s willingness to discuss the faulty valves openly is a step in the right direction, but India’s nuclear establishment still has a long way to go. India must demonstrate its commitment to greater transparency before it can complete its nuclear roadmap.


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