A cluster of plants promises to turn coastal Andhra Pradesh into the country’s nuclear energy hub, but at what cost? At Kovvada, first off the blocks, K. Venkateshwarlu discovers some uneasy answers
Four years ago, the picturesque two-km shoreline that is the Kovvada beach in Andhra Pradesh was the site of a small resistance movement. A ragtag bunch of protesters, including local fisherfolk, raised slogans against the location of a “nuclear power park” that would rob them of their livelihood and expose them to high doses of radiation. They wondered why they should be sacrificed for a project whose script was written in faraway United States during the inking of the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008.
Their ire was specifically directed at a government notification dated November 1, 2012, that had demarcated land for acquisition. The protest moved from the beach to the half-built gram panchayat office, where a relay hunger strike went on for several days. Prominent among the protesters were the cadre of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which was then in the Opposition. But with the passage of time and no strong political backing, the movement fell silent.
The farmers of Kotapalem, however, don’t share Ramesh’s confidence. Around 560 acres of coconut plantations will be lost. Says Sunkara Papa Rao, a coconut farmer: “I have four acres full of coconut trees and I get an income of Rs.10,000 every month. The coconut pickers I employ are also happy. What more do I want? Why should the nuclear plant people pick on our land and destroy our lives and livelihood? I am told radiation affects not only us but many more villages in the vicinity. We will oppose the project tooth and nail.”
The government’s promise of jobs for locals is also met with scepticism. Farmer Komara Laxman Rao of Kovvada says, “What job? At best, most of us would end up as coolies during construction and after the plant comes up they will dump us. When the village itself is wiped out, where is development and for whom is this prosperity?” Adds S. Ramudu, a medical practititioner: “In Kovvada we have 80 youth who have completed intermediate [Class XII], 12 are BA and BCom graduates and three BTech graduates. NPCIL could not guarantee jobs even to these three BTech graduates.”
Safety concerns on the coast
Former Union Energy Secretary E.A.S. Sarma points out the dangers posed by nuclear plants in general and the location of the proposed site in particular. “What is the need to rush the project? It entails an enormous cost. No scientific criteria were adopted in site selection. Intense seismic activity was recorded by the Department of Atomic Energy’s own agencies. Four fault lines run through the region. Yet they want to set up the nuclear plant in Kovvada. A Fukushima-like disaster cannot be ruled out. The suffering is for generations. Exposure to radioactivity could lead to genetic disorders and cancer. People were not educated on this count at all.”
A World Health Organisation report mapping the impact of exposure to high radiation doses two decades on after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster mentions increased incidence of thyroid cancer, doubling of leukaemia, radiation opacity (cataract) and mental health issues as some of the ramifications. Kovvada and its surrounding villages have a good number of people within the “exclusion” zone, the immediate vicinity of the nuclear plant up to 1.5 km from the project site, where no one is expected to live; in the next “sterilised” zone up to 5 km where no development should take place, there are 42 villages; and in the “emergency” zone up to 16 km, there are 66 villages.
“Safety from nuclear radiation is debatable as India neither has experience in handling new-generation reactors — whether it is GE-Hitachi’s Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor or Westinghouse’s AP1000 — nor an independent, strong regulatory mechanism. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board works like an arm of the Department of Atomic Energy. Another important issue is the Indian Civil Nuclear Liability law having a low liability cap. The liability for Kovvada is put at Rs.1,300 crore for a plant which is expected to cost around Rs.4 lakh crore. Is it not pittance?” says Sarma.
The question of viability
A study by the U.S.-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, that was released recently by the A.P.-Telangana-based voluntary organisation Human Rights Forum, warns India that GE-Hitachi and Westinghouse nuclear reactors are neither cost-effective nor power-efficient and that they have a huge risk factor. The first units of the six nuclear reactors in Kovvada will not produce electricity for the grid before 2031, the report states.
Read more at The coast isn’t clear for India’s nuclear power quest