Tsunamis and a Nuclear Threat in the South of India By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Report
Sunday 02 January 2005
Chennai, India - This coastal city in south India has just survived a double peril - the tsunami disaster and a nuclear threat.
The waves of tidal height, which hit Chennai last Sunday, did not stop with destroying fishermen’s hamlets and flooding out thousands of other homes and lives. The tsunamis also inundated a part of the nuclear plant located in the city outskirts and close to the sea.
We have to wait for a full report on the damage. And, we may only wait in vain for an official report of this description. It needs no further investigation, however, to see that the Kalpakkam nuclear complex and the tsunami made a deadly combination indeed.
The nuclear part of the combination ruled out a full report for now, for two reasons. No one, in the first place, can easily dent the disaster-proof secrecy that surrounds any nuclear plant. The second and more important reason lies in the threat of radioactive leaks. Camera crews cannot capture these as easily as carcasses and debris floating in furious waters.
There can be slower nuclear horrors than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Environmentalists have, for about two decades, talked of Kalpakkam as a disaster of this less dramatic kind. The tsunamis may well have made the situation worse.
The incompletely and almost instantaneously post-tsunami official report peremptorily ruled out any damage to the complex. Even more emphatically, it denied any radioactive leak. Even the official report, however, acknowledged the havoc in the entire Kalpakkam area, habitat of a sizeable fishing community, housing the employees of the nuclear complex as well. On the morrow of the disaster, at least 60 lives were reported lost in the employees’ township and some 250 in the rest of the area. The toll, unofficially much higher, has kept mounting since then.
No official concern was voiced over the complex at all. The complex comprises: two pressurized heavy water reactors and a test reactor, a reprocessing plant and an under-construction prototype fast breeder reactor or PFBR (”dedicated to the nation” by the Prime Minister in late October). The authorities claimed that, while one of the heavy water reactors had been closed for “re-tubing” before the tsunamis, the other was shut down the moment the an inordinate amount of water from the sea was detected entering the pump-house for the coolant unit. (The second reactor was re-started seven days later, this Sunday.)
Not a word, significantly, has been said in this connection about the reprocessing plant and its central waste management facility, in particular, besides the test reactor. No reassurance, in other words, has been forthcoming about the most crucially radioactivity-linked components of the complex. India’s nuclear establishment is not known for innocent or accidental omissions in statements of this kind.
The authorities could not have concealed the deaths of employees in the Sunday disaster. The complex has lost scores of scientific and technical personnel, ranging from a design engineer of the test reactor washed away while praying in a church mass, to others carried away by monster waves from within the about 500 houses destroyed in the sprawling township. What, however, of the humble woman worker who, many say, met her watery end inside the complex? What of the two male workers, posted at the waste discharge point at the seafront jetty, who are reported missing?
The Doctors for Safe Environment, a forum of physicians that is asking these questions, has been raising larger posers about Kalpakkam and its location for years. V. Pugazhendhi of the forum, who has carried out painstaking health research in Kalpakkam and around, explains why radioactive leaks here do not belong to the realm of fantasy.
According to a survey under his guidance, the incidence of multiple cancers of blood and bone worked out to three per population of 25,000 in the age group of 15 to 50 for seven months from May to October 2003 in the Kalpakkam area. Set this against the normal figure of 1.7 per population of 100,000 in the same age group for a year, he suggests, and you see the result of radioactive pollution.
R. Ramesh of the same forum points to yet another peril in the making. He says that “land subsidence” in coastal areas should be expected as an inevitable consequence of tsunamis – and underscores the fact that the fast breeder reactor’s site is just three to 5.6 meters above the sea level. You don’t fantasize, if you fear the flattening of the entire reaction by tsunamis of five to 12 meters, with nuclear consequences of a nightmarish kind.
Objections to the construction of the fast breeder reactor have been raised before. The opponents of the plan, originally, argued that the plan violated the law of 1991 against such environment-unfriendly constructions in the terrain defined as the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ). The official reaction was an outrage. It consisted in amending the law to exempt nuclear plants from its purview. Kalpakkam is only one of the many nuclear installations to endanger India’s coastal environment.
King Canute of England and Denmark, says the legend, could not stop the waves. The rulers of India can at least stop tsunamis from wreaking nuclear havoc.
A freelance journalist and a peace activist of India, J. Sri Raman is the author of Flashpoint (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to t r u t h o u t.