Kudankulam, Nov. 13: The contrast could not have been starker. On one side is an English teacher leading fishermen and villagers, using his unbridled oratory to spew propaganda against Kudankulams ready-to-start nuclear plant that will produce 1,000MW.
Arraigned against him is a group of engineers who have devoted their lives to building nuclear power plants. Affable, soft-spoken and hurt that the worlds safest nuclear plant that they have built has not been allowed to operate, they are pondering how to win this battle of minds.
The protesters are assembled under a sprawling thatched shed at the Lourdes Church in Idinthakarai, a fishing village 8km from the twin domes of the nuclear plant, hearing and cheering speaker after speaker warning that their food, fish and fertility will be destroyed if the plant starts producing electricity.
S.P. Udayakumar, a former English teacher with a doctorate in political science from an American University, has emerged as the rock star of the protesters, drumming into their heads that India has become the dumping yard of outdated and dangerous nuclear technology from Russia and the West that will endanger their lives forever.
On Saturday, the nuclear engineers set out to counter the unfounded fears by taking a team of journalists where no outsider has been before — the reactor building to show how disaster-proof it was. The giant dome, lined with four-inch-thick steel and housing the reactor vessel, is packed with safety systems apparently not found elsewhere, just in case the nuclear reaction gets out of control and the uranium core gets overheated.
Other than cooling done by sea water, which never comes into direct contact with the actual reactor, four huge tanks above the reactor filled with boron-activated water are programmed to open up once the pressure drops when the reactor trips.
While water cools the system, the boron will absorb radioactivity. If there is a build-up of hydrogen, like in Japans Fukushima which led to explosion of the reactor building, we have 152 palladium-filled catalytic converters inside the reactor that would convert hydrogen to water. Other than this, we have got the Russians to provide air vents around the dome that would let air to enter the dome and passively cool the inside while steam is vented from the top, said site director Kasinath Balaji, a genteel chemical engineer with over three decades of nuclear plant experience behind him.
Mind you, all this happens only in the case of a meltdown which in turn can happen only if power supply gets cut off like Fukushima and cooling sea water cannot be pumped, he said.
At Fukushima, which was built in the 1960s, the diesel generator to provide back-up power was located below the sea level and hence proved useless when the March tsunami struck. But at Kudankulam, four diesel generators, each capable of producing 6.3MW and located at 10 metres above the sea level, are expected to provide back-up in case the regular power supply through the grid and another back-up line is cut off.
Although one generator is enough, we did not want to take chances. We have ensured 400 per cent redundancy by providing four, one of which will kick in within seconds if the grid power fails, explained R.S. Sundar, the station director.
To counter the radiation propaganda, Sundar, 52, had personally presented himself as a living example to reassure villagers that he was healthy with two normal children, though he had been working in a radiation-prone environment for over three decades.
I had to since they had been brainwashed to believe that babies in the nearby villages will be born deformed and cancer will strike if the plant gets commissioned, Sundar said.
Although the villagers have visited the plant to learn about its safety features, the shrill rhetoric of the anti-nuclear campaigners appears to have shaped their present mindset. Hoping to dilute this hardened mindset, the plant engineers have now produced leaflets in simple Tamil, answering each and every misgiving of the protesters.
We are also making short videos showing how Fukushima or Chernobyl cannot happen here because of superior technology. Even something as technical as a core catcher that will safely catch and neutralise the nuclear fuel in case of a meltdown has been explained in laymans language to combat the fear psychosis among the people in the vicinity, pointed out S.V. Jinnah, the chief engineer. This is the way all modern nuclear reactors will be built, he said.
Overcoming the fears of the residents is proving to be all the more difficult as the campaign against the plant has been sustained by various factors and forces.
The church has thrown its weight behind the protesters as 90 per cent of the fishermen along the coast are Catholics and it apprehends loss of following if it goes against the popular mood.
A powerful sand mining lobby is suspected of providing financial muscle as its profitable exports of mineral-rich sand from the beaches in this area could be curtailed because of security restrictions in a 7km radius from the plants outermost limits once they become operational.
But Udayakumar denies the backing of any lobby. It is entirely a people-driven movement. Even if I am not around or the church backs out tomorrow, the residents will continue these protests because what is at stake is their livelihood and they are funding this battle through small contributions. The government must address their genuine fears instead of looking for non-existent foreign hands or backers, he said.
Added to this is the non-co-operation of the Jayalalithaa government to the plant management that has seen work come to a standstill in the last two months. Critics say chief minister Jayalalithaa has viewed the controversy as a state-versus-Centre issue rather than as a project beneficial to the states power-starved economy.