A bad example for nuclear power promotion

Located in southern India, the 2X1,000 GW Kudankulam power plant has set a rather poor precedent for policy makers trying to sell the importance of putting up new commercial nuclear plants to the people of a power-starved country. In any case, Kudankulam – planned during the Soviet era before Chernobyl – was going to be a tough sell. The project was mothballed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2002, some recent features of VVER technology – for instance, the core catcher that came out of Chernobyl – were added and work started in earnest.

By offering to build the reactors, Russia was stepping in to help its Soviet-era friend that had been effectively kept out of the commercial nuclear business since it had refused to sign the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. The reactors were to be under IAEA surveillance, however.

Things seemed to be going smooth until 2011 when Fukashima struck. Local fishermen who had for long protested against the plant in small numbers suddenly woke up to the worst-case scenario of a nuclear plant accident. Coupled with that was the general attitude of Indian officials and the Russian method of not being transparent. Live television images of Fukashima were being beamed into the dwellings of the fishermen who thought they would soon have to live next door to a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Just then, the nuclear plant officials told the villagers that they were going to test the equipment that included the lifting of a relief valve and the public alarm system. Officials told the barely literate villagers that as soon as the alarm sounded they would have to run as part of a safety drill.

Full-scale protest movement

Activists, led by S P Udayakumar, a charismatic former professor of a university in New Jersey, brought the fishermen to the streets. Priests from the Catholic church joined in and a full-scale protest movement was born.

Thousands of villagers sealed off the entire area, not allowing the police or district officials to enter – it was a takeover of sorts of an entire village. The plant’s tsunami-safety features such as the height of the emergency generator – located 9m above sea level – core catcher and reactor safety cool down features didn’t quite reach the fishermen who saw the plant as a direct threat to not just their livelihood but also their lives.

The protests hit national and even global headlines, affecting work in the plant. Yet, in July 2013, the first reactor unit became critical and power generation started. Officials have kept a tight lid on information but what has come out is that in all these months power generation has been sporadic at best – happened for less than a total of 15 days in 15 months.

Meanwhile, an independent study has shown that in a one-year period from Oct. 2013, there have been 21 power outages in the plant out of which 14 were trips caused by faulty equipment or poor oversight or both. This works out to a trip rate of 20.8 whereas the world average is 0.37. In the US, a plant with 25 scrams or trips during a 7,000 hour period is issued a red citation and will be forced to shut down.

Kudankulam's turbine generator system imported from Russian firm Silmash was involved in eight of the 14 trips reported. Three other trips and a pipe burst accident on May 14 this year (officially known as "warm water incident") were related to the feed water system. Both the feed water system and the turbine are located in the same auxiliary building.

In October, plant staff opened up the turbine after a shut down and decided that major repairs were needed. Officials are not forthcoming about what really went wrong with the HP turbine but keep saying that the repairs would be completed in a few months.

Second unit coming up

Meanwhile, the second unit of the 2X1,000 MW plant is coming up. And India has signed an agreement with Russia for the supply of two more units of the most recent VVER design to Kudankulam. Russia agreed in principle to a law passed recently that holds suppliers liable in the case of accidents. But the nation is seeking reinsurance to cover this and has said that all this will push up costs.

India’s civil nuclear program has stalled because of the liability law with suppliers like GE pointing out that it is incompatible with international regulations.

Meanwhile, protesters have once again ramped up the temperature and are seeking to rekindle the agitation.