On 20th of November, 1989, a deal was signed between the Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, for the construction of two nuclear power plants at Koodamkulam. It is notable, that the deal was signed within just two years of Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Kudankulam Nuclear power Plant (KKPP) turned into a site of massive public protest especially in the wake of 2011 Fukushima disaster.
The public dissent almost achieved the decommissioning of the Phase I of the KKPP and caught public imagination nationwide in no time. The very concept of a nuclear plant agitated public opinion. Also, the proposal of drawing water for nuclear plants from Pechiparia dam, instigated locals and thus there was mass agitation.
In 1989, more than 10,000 people gathered under the banner of the National Fishers workers union to register their anger against the proposed nuclear plant. However another version is that protest started in December 19 , 1989, under the leadership of Y. David, who used to head an organization ‘samathuva samudaya lyakkam’ (i.e. Social equality movement). Due to severe economic and social crises the project was put on hold soon after that.
The USA also raised certain concerns on the grounds that the agreement does not meet the 1992 terms of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). The project was in limbo for almost a decade, the death of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 was yet another jolt in the revival of the project.
In March 1997, the then Indian Prime Minister, H D Deve Gowda and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a supplement to the 1989 agreement and commissioned a detailed project report on Kudankulam. According to the revisited agreement, two Russian high standard pressure VVER -1000 (PWR) water cooled and water moderated reactors that would produce 1,000 MW per unit were to be delivered to India.
In year 2001, when the government of India, planned to further extent the plant by adding four more nuclear reactors, within the premises of Kudamkulam nuclear power plant, the public was tremendously distressed by the decision and thus there was huge public congregation. It was in 2001 only that people resorted to a huge demonstration against the denial of comprehensive environment impact assessment and staged public hearing under the banner of Peoples Movement Against nuclear energy (PMANE), headed by Dr. S.P. Udaykumar. Between 2001-2011 various protests and demonstrations were organized by PMANE to make people aware and mobilize masses against the risky and hazardous nuclear technology. Later, after Fukushima disaster in 2011 the protests were intensified because people were deeply frightened with nuclear disaster of such a great magnitude.
As discussed in social movement theory, diagnosing a problem (such as nuclear energy) turns out to be a very contentious process, where the different actors try to affirm and impose their interpretative frame to the detriment of representations proposed by the others. The construction of reality is inextricably linked to asymmetries of power. In this case, the dominant frame by the public authorities had claimed that nuclear energy was cheap and safe. After Fukushima, the opponents managed to gather support around the idea that nuclear energy is very risky. As a response, public authorities accused the protesters of being anti-national, foreign funded, maoists guerillas (so called Naxalites), “Church-orchestrated” and even mentally disturbed. Later on, the opponents would resort to the claim that fraud and corruption was very much part of this project.
Parallel to this framing struggle in the media, villagers went on a hunger strike in mid 2011. At the time of the local body election, for which the strike had been suspended, the police entered into the villages at the forefront of the protests. They started a blockade that would last almost a year, stopping the in-flow of milk, water and food. This led to a reaction at the national level, with solidarity groups emerging all over India. The villagers, mainly fisherfolk, resisted. Simplifying, the men would keep on fishing while the women would be the protagonists of the struggle. However, ultimately, in 2012, the protests would diminish in intensity.
At least one fishermen got killed by police firing in September 2012, as reported by Times of India.
The 'Chennai Solidarity Group for Koodankulam Struggle' has been among the most active. It published a pamphlet in November 2011 titled “Koodankulam and Nuclear Power” authored by Nityanand Jayaraman and G. Sundar Rajan. The pamphlet presents “Some myths, realities and answers to frequently asked questions” about this case, answering common doubts about the protesters and their claims. They claim that “India's chest-thumping 'nucleocracy' wants to play the death game with peasants and fisherfolk as the pawns in the gamble”.
A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in 2011 with the Supreme Court asking for nuclear power development to be delayed until safety concerns were independently assessed. In May 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the plant, stating that the nuclear power plant was in the larger public interest.
In June 2013 the first reactor went critical, and production supposedly started in late 2013. However, this unit shut down in June 2015 for maintenance. It should restart functioning in early 2016, when the the second unit is supposed to become operational. The construction of units 3 and 4 are being prepared to start in 2016. Negotiations are on with Russia for fifth and sixth units.
Both the protests and technical problems have seriously delayed the all project, and its future remains uncertain.
Environmental justice activist Nityanand Jayaraman, undoubtedly one of the leaders of this struggle, expressed serious doubts about the operativity of Unit 1 and 2: “Uneasy questions about the damaged and poor quality of components, including the steam generators, in Koodankulam’s Units 1 and 2, have resurfaced. It is not just the safety, but the very viability of Units 1 and 2 to produce electricity consistently and sustainably that is being questioned.”
(Updated on 15th January 2016 after a meeting with Nityanand Jayaraman in Chennai, as well as a review of the press.)