Tsunamis and a Nuclear Threat

Chennai, India  – This coastal city in south India has just survived a double peril; the tsunami disaster and a nuclear threat.

The enormous waves, which hit Chennai last Sunday, did not only destroy fishermen's hamlets and flood out thousands of other homes and lives. The tsunamis also inundated a part of the nuclear plant located in the outskirts of the city and close to the sea.

We will have to wait for a full report on the damage. No further investigation is required, however, to see that the Kalpakkam nuclear complex and the tsunami make for a deadly combination.

The nuclear part of the combination ruled out a full report for for two reasons. No one can easily dent the disaster-proof secrecy that surrounds any nuclear plant. The second reason lies in the threat of radioactive leaks. Camera crews cannot capture these as easily as images of corpses and debris floating in turbulent waters.

There can be slower nuclear horrors than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For about two decades environmentalists have talked of Kalpakkam as a disaster of this less dramatic kind. The tsunamis may well have made the situation worse.

The incomplete and almost instantaneous post-tsunami official report peremptorily ruled out any damage to the complex. Even more emphatically, it denied any radioactive leak. The report, however, acknowledged the havoc in the entire Kalpakkam area, which is home to a sizeable fishing community that also houses employees of the nuclear complex. The day after the disaster, at least 60 lives were reported lost in the employees' township and some 250 in the rest of the area. The toll, unofficially much higher, has continuted to mount.

No official concern was voiced over the complex, which comprises two pressurized heavy water reactors and a test reactor, a reprocessing plant and an under-construction prototype fast breeder reactor or PFBR. The authorities claimed that, while one of the heavy water reactors had been closed for "re-tubing" before the tsunamis, the other was shut down the moment an inordinate amount of seawater was detected entering the pump-house for the coolant unit. (The second reactor was re-started seven days later.)

Not a word has been said about the reprocessing plant and its central waste management facility. No reassurance has been forthcoming about the most crucially radioactivity-linked components of the complex. India's nuclear establishment is not known for innocent or accidental omissions in statements of this kind.

The authorities could not have concealed the deaths of employees in the Sunday disaster. The complex has lost scores of scientific and technical personnel, ranging from a design engineer of the test reactor washed away while praying in a church mass, to others carried away by monster waves from within the about 500 houses destroyed in the sprawling township. What of the humble woman worker who many say met her death inside the complex? What of the two male workers, posted at the waste discharge point at the seafront jetty, who are reported missing?

Doctors for Safe Environment, a forum of physicians asking these questions, has been raising larger questions about Kalpakkam for years. V. Pugazhendhi of the forum, who has carried out painstaking health research in the Kalpakkam region, explains why radioactive leaks here do not belong to the realm of fantasy.

According to a survey under his guidance, the incidence of multiple cancers of blood and bone worked out to three per population of 25,000 in the age group of 15 to 50 for seven months from May to October 2003 in the Kalpakkam area. Set this against the normal figure of 1.7 per population of 100,000 in the same age group for a year, he suggests, and you see the result of radioactive pollution.

R. Ramesh of the same forum points to yet another peril in the making. He says that "land subsidence" in coastal areas should be expected as an inevitable consequence of tsunamis – and underscores the fact that the fast breeder reactor's site is just three to 5.6 meters above the sea level.

Objections to the construction of the fast breeder reactor have been raised before. The opponents of the plan originally argued that the plan violated the 1991 law against such environment-unfriendly constructions in the terrain defined as the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ). The official reaction was to amend the law to exempt nuclear plants from its purview. Kalpakkam is only one of the many nuclear installations that endangers India's coastal environment.

King Canute of England and Denmark, the legend says, could not stop the waves. But the rulers of India can prevent tsunamis from wreaking nuclear havoc.

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