Issue: Apr 15, 2012, DowntoEarth
A sure way of riling the people around the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) is to ask why they launched their opposition to the plant just months before the first of its two reactors was set to go critical. Surely they had seen the twin domes of the country’s largest nuclear plant rise slowly from the scrubland close to the sea? The reply can range from a passionate cascade of protest to a more polite but scathing “where were you sister, all these years?”
These years have been long, stretching to a quarter century of protest. There have been periods of quiet and quite a few explosions (see ‘A 25-year campaign’) in a movement that started as anti-war, anti-nuclear weapons protest in 1987 because the trade unionists, left wing activists and intellectuals leading it were convinced that the power plant was merely a conduit for piling up plutonium to make weapons. That belief has taken root among some of the fisherfolk who have been the backbone of the protest for two decades. “Don’t ask us what we were doing all these years,” says Xavierammal of picturesque Idinthakarai village, a couple of kilometres down the coast from the bright yellow domes of KKNPP. She is a strapping woman of 48 whose fisherman husband died a long while ago, leaving her to bring up her two children on her own by rolling beedis.
“From Day One we were against the plant. When I was young I took part in the 1989 rally in Kanyakumari to protect the future of my children. Our elders had warned us about the dangers of nuclear energy. The Chernobyl accident had just taken place and the same people (the Soviet Union) were going to set up a similar project in our midst. We were scared and angry,” says Xavierammal who is now on a fast unto death, seeking the scrapping of KKNPP. It would seem a doomed undertaking with the state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), which is setting up KKNPP with Russian expertise and funding, resuming work under heavy police protection.
Contract workers, employees and scientific reinforcements from its other nuclear stations have been bused into the plant for the first time since September last year when the protest by the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) caused high fission and forced most staff to leave, leaving a skeleton force to oversee maintenance. At the time, KKNPP had about 150 Russians, 800 of its own staff and around 4,000 contract workers. All of them will be back soon.