By Adrian Levy
Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, INDIA — In a town riven by blackouts every summer, the startup in December of commercial operations for a multi-billion-dollar, Russian-built nuclear reactor near here would ordinarily have been a cause for celebration.
It was more than a billion dollars over its budget and six years late. But its full operation in Kudankulam, a remote fishing village in the southern tip of India, 1,700 miles from the capital, was portrayed by operators and builders from the two countries as the latest symbol of their national friendship and technical prowess, as well as a showcase step in India’s ambitious plan to bring a total of 57 reactors on line to power the subcontinent’s economic surge.
S.P. Udayakumar, a bespectacled 56-year-old schoolteacher and protest leader in the region, isn’t rejoicing, however. From his bungalow in Nagercoil, a town 30 miles west of the plant whose wealth rests on making coconut fiber and the spice trade, Udayakumar has organized a long-running protest movement that’s drawn in a large number of residents — hundreds of thousands.
It’s motivated, he says, by research that sympathetic lawyers and nuclear experts have conducted into the reactor’s problematic construction as well as the checkered safety records of the giant Indian and Russian consortiums that erected it. Although the reactor is now shuttered again for maintenance — due to problems with parts supplied by a Russian company that Moscow authorities have accused of wrongdoing — a second reactor at this vast nuclear park, India’s largest, should be completed soon, after fourteen years of construction and testing, to be followed by two more reactors next year.
His complaints — many of which are backed up by documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity from the country’s nuclear regulator, retired government officials, government auditors, and industry analysts — were echoed in an unprecedented letter sent in May 2013 to India’s prime minister by 60 of the country’s most prominent scientists, most of them pro-nuclear and working for elite state-run institutions. Their letter called for a moratorium in Kudankulam, while new inquiries were made into allegations of widespread corruption and a fraud associated with the fabrication of the reactor’s components in Russia.
In the vicinity of the Kundankulum reactor, the wives of some fishermen, political novices all, on October 18, 2011, started a rolling hunger strike that has continued for more than four years. Farmers, herders and shipwrights have several times laid siege to the 2,500-acre park since the reactor plans were announced in 1987. By 2012, the protests had grown so large and spawned so many others in nearby villages that police lines were reinforced with men bused in from all over India. Some of the police fired into crowds with live rounds on Sept. 9 of that year, killing one, while a second victim, 6 years old, died in the stampede that followed.
The central and state governments have responded brutally. They cut electricity to the most restless districts around the plant in 2011 and 2012, and police officers smashed up homes in the village of Idinthakarai while residents were out at sea. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India complained that police officers demolished and urinated on two statues of the Virgin Mary at the village’s church of Our Lady of Lourdes. A school for underprivileged children run by Meera Udayakumar, the activist’s wife, was vandalized and the families who attended it scared away, he says, in an operation he worries was masterminded by local agents for the Intelligence Bureau. His passport was seized by the police, and last September he was blocked from attending a conference in Nepal organized by the United Nation’s special rapporteur on human rights defenders.
The police also engaged in a campaign of mass arrests, having issued 227,000 charges against protestors, including those of sedition and assault. While India’s Supreme Court in May 2013 called for these charges to be set aside, the state government has only partially complied, leaving thousands still facing court appearances for allegedly laying siege to the power station, ringing it with their boats, and of assaulting police officers. Like Udayakumar, who faces more than 380 charges, many have had their passports confiscated, blocking some of them from reaching jobs they held outside the country.