IDINTHAKARAI, India—For some villagers on India’s most southern tip, a major earthquake that shook the Indian Ocean last month was a good thing. Despite tsunami alarms going off—bringing back frightening memories of the devastating tsunami in 2004—it proved a point they have long been making: The construction of India’s largest nuclear power plant on the coastline is a hazard.
Despite the scorching heat, thousands of villagers in Idinthakarai and surrounding area have been protesting over the past months against the construction of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant.
The protesters have been witnesses to the twin domes of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant rising slowly from the scrubland close to their village. The plant is a sign of the expanding hunger for energy in a nation propelled by a fast growing economy and rapidly increasing population.
Following last year’s nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, people in Tamil Nadu State became anxious once again about the Kudankulam plant.
The protests date back as far as 1988, when the Indian government signed an agreement with what was then the Soviet Union for the construction of Kudankulam Atomic Power Project. This resulted in large-scale protests, peaking when 50,000 people took to the streets in 1989 in the city of Kanyakumari.
“After the Soviet Union collapsed, the project was shelved and we also did not do anything. When they restarted the project, we started our struggle also and have been fighting against the power plant ever since,” says Uday Kumar, leader of People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, the group spearheading the protest movement.
During the decade of post-communist turmoil in Russia, the project lay dormant. In 1997, construction was revived.
“When they tried to reopen the project and tried to do the mock drill, it created lots of disturbance for people, and they took to streets nine months ago,” said Kumar.
The plant conducted what they call a hot run, which entails heating the coolant water to high temperatures, injecting huge amounts of steam into the system, then releasing the steam when the pressure increases. A report in Indian magazine DowntoEarth mentions Swapnesh Kumar Malhotra, head of the public awareness division of Department of Atomic Energy, admitting months later that they had goofed. “When these valves are opened there is a loud, shrieking sound. Imagine a thousand pressure cookers blowing their whistles at the same time. Anybody would be petrified. We did not communicate this to the locals …”
According to the protesters, there are more than 1 million people living within a 19-mile radius of the plant, making evacuation an impossible task in the event of a nuclear disaster.
“After the 1989 protest, for a short while I worked with my father as a fisherman and then I joined merchant navy. … Now when I have earned money and I’m able to provide everything to my family, I feel their lives are not safe. This nuclear plant is so dangerous,” said Peter Milton, who had joined the nuclear protests in Kanyakumari in 1989, when he was 18 years old.
Fears about the nuclear plant are not limited to the potential of a disaster alone. Many people in the village fear that they will also lose their livelihood. The fishing grounds they have been living off for generations, they fear, will be lost once the nuclear plant starts up.
“When the plant starts to work, radiation will fall into [the] water and nobody will buy our fish. My family is surviving on a loan we took from a bank with my wife’s gold jewelry as security,” said Joseph, a fisherman from Idinthakarai.
“Our fishing ground lies within two km of the nuclear power plant and they will soon erect a fence 1.5 km around the plant, into the sea and on land. Our fishing grounds come within that boundary,” a local fisherman said.
Earlier this month, on May 6 when The Epoch Times visited the protest site, 300 women from surrounding villages were on their third day of a hunger strike. An estimated 7,000 other people had also gathered to protest. In a symbolic gesture of defiance, 23,000 people have handed in their voter identity cards.