On May 6, 2013, the Supreme Court of India cleared the way for operations to begin at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP). It did so while specifying that certain additional safety precautions be taken, and while insisting that the plant not be made operational without a go-ahead from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. Unit I attained criticality in July 2013. It should not be long now before the plant's two reactors begin to produce 2000 MW of electrical power sorely needed in the region.
The protest movement of villagers from around Kudankulam, ongoing for twenty-five years with varying degrees of intensity, will presumably have to wind down now with no legal recourse left. But the government and the public sector Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) that runs the KKNPP still needs to get locals on board, treating the SC ruling as a platform to reach out to people.
In terms of communication and outreach, NPCIL has been ineffective. People in the vicinity, who have seen the devastation of a tsunami in 2004, are concerned about their safety, and especially so after the Fukushima incident. Experts consider the KKNPP far safer than the reactors at Fukushima, but this has not been convincingly conveyed to locals. Reports that four valves had to be replaced in the reactors after being found sub-standard only gave rise to alarm. In 2012 a hot-run was conducted without warning the people in villages nearby, and caused panic in the middle of the night when steam began emanating from the plant with a noise audible for kilometers. At another time, a routine evacuation drill was mistaken for an attempt to relocate entire villages. These misunderstandings seem inevitable given the attitude of the government in the past. Lathi charges on peaceful protesters and arrests on charges of sedition haven't inspired trust in the people.
The concerns of the locals are not naïve. They are worried about the effects of radiation on their health. Being fishermen, they are worried about how marine ecology may be affected by the release of hot water from the reactors into the sea. If the various regulatory bodies are indeed right in saying that these effects are negligible, then NPCIL should have no objection to setting up an independent panel to monitor changes in the area as the plant goes operational. Further, they should have no trouble involving local representatives so that fears are allayed. Indeed, NPCIL has promised to set up an Environmental Survey Laboratory 30 km from the plant to monitor water and fish for radioactivity. But transparency and credibility are key. A thorough study in Kudankulam could prove useful across the world in evaluating the effect of nuclear power plants on health and the environment.
The SC ruling sympathised with the concerns of the locals around Kudankulam, but was ultimately swayed by the fact that the project was in the national interest and so the concerns of a few had to be overruled in favour of the project's overall importance. In general, this noble principle about the greater good has seen rampant abuse in India. Public good projects – roads, dams, canals – have displaced millions and caused severe inconvenience to locals, and often without these people receiving any directs benefit from the projects. When word emerges, as it so often does these days, that such projects have served the interests of corporations or factories owned by politicians, citizens naturally grow wary of making sacrifices for the greater good. The Tamil Nadu government and NPCIL could take their victory as an opportunity to prove that this project is different. At an absolute minimum, many hope that a year or two from now there will not be reports highlighting that villages around the KKNPP are suffering from power outages.
More than half the power generated in India today comes from burning coal, which is dangerous to mine and bad for the environment. Those who speak of safe, clean, renewable energy are not all overly idealistic: as of Jan 31, 2013, Ministry of Power figures show that 12.2 percent of India's installed power capacity comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar, small hydel, and biogas. In comparison, nuclear power has been around much longer but accounts for a mere 2.25 percent. India's three-stage nuclear power program was envisaged in the 1950s, and is due to take off in earnest only in the next few decades.
It is not too late to reconfigure the energy mix keeping in mind technological changes since then, the potential long-term risks as nuclear installations grow in number, the environment, and, of course, the national interest.