While the prime minister (PM) accuses NGOs funded from abroad of trying to sabotage the ‘state-of-the-art’ Kudankulam nuclear power plant (KKNPP), various studies carried out by government agencies as well as experts suggest that the site is unsafe for a nuclear project.
The studies reveal potential threats to the nuclear reactor campus from near-shore tsunami, volcanic eruptions, and Karst (vulnerable landscape). DNA has a copy of the reports submitted by the agencies and experts.
A 15-member expert group set up by the Centre cleared the project. “The Kudankulam site is located far off (about 1,500km) from the tsunamigenic fault [where tsunamis originate]. Thus a tsunami would take time and lose some of its energy by the time it strikes Kudankulam,” according to the group’s official document.
However, a 1982 study reported in a noted journal documents the presence of two slumps — the East Comorin and Colombo — in the vicinity of the site. A ‘slump’ is a massive agglomeration of loosely-bound sediment on the sea bed that may suffer large submarine landslides, causing mega-tsunamis.
The expert group’s first report failed to identify the presence of a slump that is about 100km from the plant. After activists brought it to the group’s notice, its second report noted the presence of the slumps and the possibility of a near-field tsunami.
“This is against their earlier position and to that of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) which said near-field tsunamis are not possible at the KNPP site,” People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) functionary M Pushparayan said.
“It is suggested that large submarine landslides can generate a tsunami and may cause coastal hazard. An attempt has been made to quantify the amount of possible water displacement from the above slump belts in the Gulf of Mannar that may occur during a worst case scenario,” the expert group’s second report said. However, it added that the amount of water displacement will be too small to produce a serious tsunami.
A tsunami hazard study for all reactors on the coast was conducted across the world after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in March 2011. One such study has been attempted for the Kalpakkam nuclear plant site in Tamil Nadu. “However, no such study has been undertaken for KNPP,” Pushparayan said.
The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, too, in an official response to DNA, said it was aware of both slumps and had factored them in. “After ONGC discovered these slumps, scientists from AERB and NPCIL held discussions with ONGC for understanding their implications,” it said.
NPCIL officials said the KNPP site has hard rock at reasonable depth providing good foundation. However, PMANE’s experts say a ground magnetic survey conducted in the area in 2010 showed that the thickness of the rock beneath the reactor was about 4,000 metres, as against the usual 40,000 metres. The crust is the layer of earth between the surface and the mantle.
Another report by A Bhoominathan, professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, said studies done to verify the suitability of the site had failed to identify weak zones. “Confirmatory geological and geotechnical investigations carried out after excavation of strata to the founding level at various sites for nuclear facilities show the presence of weaker zones which have not (been) identified in the original investigation,” his report said.
“The establishment had to spend a lot of time and money when they found these weak spots in 2001,” said PMANE member VT Padmanabhan. “They excavated these spots and tried to strengthen them by cement grouting. Yet it is not safe to have a nuclear power plant on a rock mass that has been cement-grouted.”
With regard to the possibility of volcanic eruptions in the area, the government’s expert group said no active volcanism had been identified. Samples of rocks collected from Abhishekapati, 50km away, after a minor volcanic eruption in 1998, however, raise questions about the region’s stability.
“The seismic tremors and tectonics in this region also raise a question of stability for the area,” said a report submitted in 2002 by the Tamil University’s department of earth sciences. Lava rock samples were sent for analysis to the department. “Before going for any major structure in Kudankulam, one has to ensure the tectonics of this block,” the report said. “It is lying on a lineament plane. So, it is a must to take up micro-level studies for confirming the tectonic stability of this landmass before launching a major plant in Kudankulam.”
However, the Centre’s expert panel denied this, saying the lava rock was “related to an electrical phenomenon which is seen even today as visible burnt and melt marks on the two electrical poles in Pondicherry based on samples collected 14 years after the event”. Hence, the reported rock melts are no indicators of underground volcanic activity, it felt.
Lastly, the formation of a sill hole at Punnayurkulam after the rain on November 26, 2011, and the occurrence of a similar incident three years ago at Radhapuram, both barely 10km from the plant, suggest that this area might be a Karst region. Karst is a special landscape that is formed by the dissolution of soluble rocks. It is among landscape most vulnerable to natural hazards.
“Extensive studies to understand these events should have been undertaken by NPCIL, but it remains unaware of these events,” said Dr R Ramesh, who has been working to identify the geology of the KNPP site since 2000. According to AERB guidelines, “in case, the potential of such geological hazards exists and no practical engineering solutions are available to mitigate their effects, the site is deemed unsuitable”.
“The Preliminary Safety Analysis Report (PSAR) for the KNPP prepared by the Russians and submitted to the AERB had no idea about all this. This is because the PSAR was completed in the last months of 1998 and submitted to the AERB in early 1999. Since 1998, a series of geological events have occurred in places near the Kudankulam site, and a thorough study should have been done,” he said.
Mining near N-site didn’t cease till '05The Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) is mired in controversy now, but even work on the project began by violating Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) guidelines prohibiting mining activity within 5km of a nuclear power plant. India Cements was mining limestone 3km from the KKNPP site when excavation work for the plant began in 2001.
Though AERB stipulated that mining must end by 1994, the activity continued till November 2005 in an area comprising 219.975 hectares in Kudankulam village, according to documents with DNA.
Clearance for excavation work for the power plant was given in October 2001 "subject to compliance of stipulations like restriction on surface mining of limestone within exclusion and sterilised zone". However, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) claims there was no violation of AERB guidelines as the board allowed surface scraping in March 2002 after construction work on the KKNPP began. "Since then, periodic inspection has been carried out to ensure the safety of the plant," the NPCIL said in its official response.
Though mining activities were going on in the region for over a decade before work on KKNPP began, they found no mention in the environment impact assessment carried out by the National Environmental Engineering and Research Institute for units 1 & 2 and in the expert committee's report later. The committee was formed last year to address safety issues related to KKNPP. "No mining activity is carried out by KKNPP," the panel’s report said.
"Since when did KKNPP become a mining company?" wondered activist Ravi Kumar, a resident of Kudankulam. "Despite AERB's inspections twice a year of the KKNPP site to verify compliance with regulatory requirements, none of the government reports mentions the mining activity."
It was only when the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) raised the issue that the government admitted that mining by India Cements continued even after work on KKNPP began.
The latest report by the expert committee said India Cements was allowed to carry out mining activities considering the advanced technology adopted by it. However, when KKNPP was cleared in 1989, the AERB stipulated that mining must end by 1994. "Arrangements must be made to terminate the lease of the limestone quarry in 1994," said a clearance letter, which is in DNA's possession.
India Cements said the latest technology of surface scraping using a surface miner would be deployed to ensure that the topography remained intact and the atmosphere remained free of pollution. "With the use of these machines, limestone quarrying could be carried out without drilling and blasting," the expert committee's report said. The permission was granted in violation of AERB stipulations while sanctioning KKNPP.
Independent experts said mining should not have been allowed in the region as the KKNPP site is a possible Karst region - a vulnerable landscape. Geographical events that took place after 1998 and other reports prove that the place can turn into a Karst region. Karst is a special landscape formed by the dissolution of soluble rocks and is most vulnerable to natural hazards.
"Had the NPCIL known that the crust over which KKNPP is located has thinned out, it would not have allowed mining activity in the region at all," said Dr R Ramesh, who has written a book on the geology of Kudankulam. However, the NPCIL was adamant. "Since it is just a surface-scraping activity instead of mining involving blasting or drilling, it is not a matter of concern," it said.
Land for the Kudankulam project was acquired by the Tamil Nadu government. A government order (GO) issued to this effect in 1991 laid down conditions to be followed within 5km of the proposed plant. The GO granted permission to India Cements to continue with its mining operations till the lease expired in 1994 or when work on the project began, whichever was earlier.
When infrastructure work related to KKNPP began in 1993-94, India Cements sought permission to continue quarrying limestone. The department of atomic energy (DAE) issued a "no-objection certificate" to the state government in 1996, stipulating that only surface mining should be carried out in the areas identified within the plant boundary.
The mining lease was extended for five years by the state government in 1999 with conditions that collection of limestone must be done by surface scraping only and that India Cements must vacate the area when required by the DAE.
After the five-year period ended, India Cements made another request to continue its mining operations. It got an extension for a year following NPCIL's request to the AERB. The mining operations ceased in November 2005.
450 families live 1km from KudankulamIf one were to believe the government, no one lives within 2km of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP).
However, when DNA visited the site, it found that a thriving township with 450 housing units had come up 1km from the plant boundary, in violation of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) guidelines.
A 15-member expert committee set up by the government last November said in its report that there is no habitation within 2km of the plant boundary. But CASA Nagar, a project to rehabilitate survivors of the 2004 tsunami, is a kilometre from the boundary.
The township was planned and built in 2006 and about 2,000 people are already living there. These people lived in Idinthakarai and other nearby villages earlier.
As per AERB guidelines, only natural growth of population is permitted in the sterilised zone (a 5km radius around the plant). Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) officials say no rules were violated for setting up CASA Nagar. “Natural growth of population in the sterilised zone is not a mandatory condition, but a desirable condition,” they said. The NPCIL also said the township was not a result of mass migration or industrial activity and that studies have proved that there is no effect of radiation from a nuclear plant on people living around it.
But Ravi Kumar, an activist from Kudankulam village, pointed out that the township could just as well have been built elsewhere outside the sterilisation zone. This would have prevented the needless exposure of women and children to stack emission. In case of a radiological emergency, they will have to be evacuated immediately.
“The expert committee ignored the 2,000 people of CASA Nagar and presented a wrong picture, based on the 2001 census, saying there is no population within 2km of the plant,” he said.
Land for the township was allotted by the Tamil Nadu government and “there was no objection or instruction from NPCIL regarding the location of the township”, said an official with CASA, a non-governmental organisation.
The central government, however, defends itself citing a 1991 Tamil Nadu government order (GO). The GO says only industrial growth in the sterilisation zone is prohibited and there is no restriction on the growth of population. Since CASA Nagar was only to resettle people from Idinthakarai village, the GO does not prevent it, the expert committee’s latest report argued.
The GO, however, appears to violate conditions laid down by the AERB while clearing KKNPP. “Suitable legislative and administrative control measures should be taken through state authorities to prevent increase in population within the sterilised zone beyond natural growth,” the AERB had said. DNA has a copy of the document.
“It is the responsibility of NPCIL to forbid any such unnatural settlement so close to the plant... AERB should have objected to the construction of the township, which was built five years after excavation for KKNPP began,” said Dr Pugazhendhi, a member of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy.
Kudankulam plant fails to meet safety regulations
(Water supply compromised)The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) had placed several conditions for fresh water requirements of the Kudankulam Power Nuclear Plant (KKNPP) but many of these conditions have not been met raising questions over the plant’s safety in case of a disaster.
As per AERB guidelines, there should be an alternative source of water all the time and storage of 60,000 cubic metres of water in the island should be built before KKNPP starts functioning. None of those conditions has been met. Fresh water is the primary coolant for nuclear reactors. Reactors cannot operate without it.
In Kudankulam there is no alternative source of water, which was one of the pre-requisites laid down by AERB in 1989 while sanctioning the project, as per documents in the possession of DNA. When the issue was raised by activists, government said that another source of water is not required as desalination plants are sufficient to meet requirements.
“Regarding other water sources desalination plants have been designed for sufficient capacity... Hence, the question of water utilisation from other sources, such as Pechiparai dam and Tamirabharani river, does not arise,” the expert committee report states.
“The dependence on a single source — desalination plant — would be fatal in case of any natural calamity like a tsunami. This was the exact case with Fukishima in Japan,” said EAS Sarma, former power secretary, Government of India. Moreover, desalination plants run on electricity which could be disrupted.
Further, dependence on a single source of water also raises concern on water requirement during seawater recession. During the 2004 tsunami, the maximum extent of ocean withdrawal was less than 5km, usually about 3km in the Indian Ocean, said Tad Murty, an Indian-Canadian oceanographer and expert on tsunamis.
He conducted a field survey on tsunami in Kanyakumari in 2008. “Every year, coastal Tamil Nadu has faced the issue of seawater withdrawal at least thrice a year,” said VT Padmanabhan, member of Peoples Movement Against Nuclear Energy expert panel. Though these events have been reported, no scientific study has been conducted by NPCIL so far, he said.
However, Arun Bapat, a Pune-based seismologist consultant, who accompanied Murty during the 2008 survey, said seawater recession is a precursor to a tsunami and not a permanent phenomenon.
Tsunami hazard manual released by United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March 2009 states that if seawater withdrawal is an issue at the site, then chances of the reactor going in for a dry intake should be studied thoroughly. But dry intake can cause damage to the turbines and reactors. Every minute a reactor needs thousands of cubic metres of seawater.“During such episodes, the seawater intake for the reactors will be disrupted as instead of drawing water, the intake pipes would be drawing just air, and thus causing damage to the reactor,” said Padmanabhan.
Besides, the Environment Impact Assessment by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute prepared in 2003 for KKNPP 1&2 states that there will be a reservoir with a capacity of 60,000 cubic metres of water. However, currently, only 11,000 cubic metres is available in different storage tanks inside the plant, which is enough to meet the water requirement, according to the expert committee. DNA has a copy of the report.
“The provision of water storage and inventory available in various tanks is adequate for cooling requirements of reactor plant for at least 10 days, in case of power failure from the grid (even though the regulatory requirement is only seven days),” says the report. NPCIL did not respond to an e-mail sent to its official id.