High-risk developments along the Chennai coast

Will the radiation from Japan travel to India? That question is bothering many minds. Perhaps, we should be as concerned about the dangers closer to home. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan damaged not just nuclear plants. An oil refinery burst into flames, and the Tohoku and Joban Expressways were severely damaged.

Japan is arguably the world’s leader in disaster preparedness. The same cannot be said of India. We have had our fair share of disasters — Bhopal, the 2004 tsunami and several earthquakes that have flattened entire districts. But no lessons have been learnt from any of them.

The 2004 tsunami ought to have warned us against building high-risk infrastructure close to the coastline. But in January, the environment ministry issued a highly permissive Coastal Regulation Zone Notification that allows nuclear installations, elevated expressways, mega petrochemical SEZs and thermal power plants to come up at or near the sea. India has nearly 30 lakh square kilometres of hinterland; but the ministry argues that restricting construction along a 500-metre coastal strip will impede India’s development.

With his head firmly buried in the sand, our prime minister tells us that all is well; that what happened in Japan cannot happen here; that nuclear power is safe and that pigs can fly. But people are sceptical, and rightly so.

A November 1986 Department of Atomic Energy publication notes that “In India, tsunamis . . . do not occur. Hence cyclones alone have been singled out for detailed study.” The study dealt with safety in pressurised heavy water reactors of the kind we have in Kalpakkam, about 70 km south of Chennai. The Kalpakkam reactor survived the 2004 tsunami not by design but by chance.

And even the best designs can fail against the raw fury of nature. But India’s chest-thumping nucleocracy is constructing the first of nine 1,000 MW reactors in Koodangulam, 600 km south of Chennai. Closer to Chennai, in Kalpakkam, a 500 MW reactor is being added to two 220 MW operational units.

The safety record in Kalpakkam is pathetic. In 1987, a refuelling accident ruptured the reactor core. In 1991, workers were exposed to a radioactive heavy water leak. In 1999, another leak exposed 42 workers. In 2002, 100 kg of radioactive sodium leaked. In 2003, high-level radioactive waste was released into a work area, exposing six workers. But on Kalpakkam’s 25th birthday, the Nuclear Power Corporation declared that MAPS had performed ‘excellently’ in terms of safety, and that along with other Indian reactors, it had achieved over 280 reactor years of accident-free operations.

Emergency response is not merely a function of technology. It has to do with sitting, planning, the setting up and maintenance of escape routes, an informed citizenry that is trained to react appropriately, an open and transparent administration that is capable of acknowledging and correcting mistakes, engineers and technologists that respect nature’s power, and builders and contractors that are honest.

Nuclear physicist M V Ramana and Ashwani Kumar recount some sobering realities of the Indian nuclear industry in a 2010 article in the Economic and Political Weekly. In 1991, a contractor employed to whitewash a building in Rajasthan Atomic Power Station used radioactive heavy water to mix the paint, then washed his brush, face and hands in the same water. In May 1994, the inner containment dome of a nuclear reactor under construction in Kaiga, Karnataka, collapsed sending 120 tonnes of concrete crashing down. The dome is meant to contain radiation in the event of an accident. A Gopalakrishnan, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’s former head, writes that “Senior NPC civil engineers and the private firms which provide civil engineering designs. . .to the DAE have had a close relationship. In this atmosphere of comradeship, the NPC engineers did not carry out the necessary quality checks on the designs they received.” If the dome had collapsed when the plant was in operation, we would have had a Level 7 meltdown at our hands.

Good science and technology requires an unwavering commitment to truth, a trait that is in short supply in this country. With scams tainting every aspect of Indian life, Chennaiites would be stupid if they were not worried about the proposed high-risk developments along the coast.

The feasibility reports for the Elevated Beach Expressway and the Cooum River Expressway between Port and Maduravoyal are based on fraudulent claims and cooked up data. A third expressway is planned along the banks of the Adyar River. The Cooum and Adyar river Expressways will drastically reduce the capacity of the two main rivers to carry flood waters to the sea. The Beach Expressway will flatten beaches, run along and inside the water line, and magnify any damage that tsunamis and cyclonic storm surges will cause.

Pushed through fraudulent means, and unmindful of the risks posed by natural disasters and seasonal rainfall, even innocuous sounding projects  like the expressways are cause for concern.

Nityanand Jayaraman (The writer is a independent journalist and Chennai-based environment activist)

Source: ExpressBuzz

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