The benefits of the India-Russia deal on Kudankulam falling through

There couldn’t have been a more appropriate time for the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNP) to connect to the southern grid than the occasion of India signing a new agreement with Russia for two more reactors at the same site.

The first was reportedly successful while the second, fell through.

For the nuclear establishment, generation of power and synchronisation with the grid is good news for a plant that has been mired in controversies and in the making for 20 years while the non-signing of the new agreement perhaps is bad news. But for the local population who have been fighting against the plant on safety and environmental grounds, the latter offers more room for pursuing their cause.

Connecting power to the grid, and non-signing of the agreement on the question of liabilities in case of an accident, are both an occasion to make decisions and processes more transparent. The biggest charge against the nuclear establishment and the union government has been that there have been cover-ups despite local residents and others raising serious questions.

In fact, despite the euphoria this morning, there is no final word yet if all is well with the plant.

Other than the inordinate delays, what has prompted serious fears among people were the technical questions raised by former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board Chairman (AERB) A Gopalakrishnan. He had alleged that the instrumentation and Control system (I&C) of the KKNP, that is crucial for the safety of any nuclear power reactor, was faulty and materials of inferior quality might have been used in building the plant.

 The benefits of the India-Russia deal on Kudankulam falling through


Gopalakrishan said certain critical valves, and perhaps the reactor vessel itself, were faulty because the procurement director of the company in Russia that supplied materials to the plant was arrested on charges of corruption. The apprehension that inferior quality parts and materials might have gone into the construction of the plant was justifiable because the arrested man was a senior  procurement official of the Russian government company, ZiO-Podolsk.

Following the charges by Gopalakrishnan, officials admitted there were some problems with the valves and that they were being addressed.

According to Gopalakrishnan, the I&C systems at KKNP, because of their faulty design and installation, were apparently picking up erroneous signals that could mislead the safety systems of the plant and lead to accidents.

In an article in New Indian Express, Gopalakrishnan had said: “There could be a large number of equipment, components and materials of substandard quality from ZiO-Podolsk  already installed in various parts of KKNP- 1 & 2  whose deficiencies and  defects are dormant today, but these very same shortcomings may cause such parts to catastrophically fail when the reactor is operated for some time.”

The continued silence of DAE, NPCIL and repeated postponement of dates of commissioning the plant did give some credence to the charges. Despite that there has been no credible response to the charges.

Nobody still knows what happened to the bad valves, if there was any problem with the reactor vessel , any other parts, and the I&C system. The repeated failures in sticking to schedules pointed to trouble in starting up as planned, but there was absolutely no explanation offered to the public, particularly to the people living in nearby areas.

Now that the Russians do not want to take any liabilities of a potential mishap it only makes matters worse, particularly in the backdrop of possible corruption in procurement and supply of materials. The technology and scale of the plant is new to the NPCIL. One can only wait and see what happens to the plant after today’s reported synchronisation with the grid.

How long will it take for the tests and other procedures to be completed before the plant reconnects to the grid, and how long will it take to progressively step up production are simple questions that are unanswered.

When will it finally produce the promised 1000 MW that not only Tamil Nadu, but also the other southern states are counting on? Nobody knows.

When completed, the Kudankulam site, will be the biggest nuclear energy installation in the region generating 4000 MW of power. Going by earlier official claims, the first unit should have been running by now at full capacity, with the second one on the verge of commissioning.

Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that the agreement for the third and fourth units fell through. The reasons why Russians backed out gives ample credence to the concerns expressed by both pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear voices.

When a government plans to generate nuclear energy (4000 MW), that is almost equal to the cumulative capacity of all the nuclear plants in the country (less than 5000 MW), at a single site, it has a responsibility to address the genuine safety concerns of people. Lack of transparency and unexplained delays will only alienate people more, that too after spending Rs 17,000 crore.

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Updated Date: Oct 22, 2013 17:02:12 IST