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On Fukushima anniversary, can we forget the dangers of Kudankulam?

Kumar Sundaram | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:53 IST

The warning

  • This day 5 years ago the world was horror-struck by Fukushima
  • It was a lesson for the global community

More in the story

  • Did we learn anything in India?
  • How is Japan coping now?

On this day in 2011, I was sitting in my office in the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis, when the news of massive tsunami and earthquake came. I was working as a senior research fellow on a project funded by the Department of Atomic Energy (DoAE).

I was new to Facebook, and wished safety to all my Japanese friends. Asked some over FB message and emails if they were fine. And then, the news of the nuclear accident in Fukushima's Dai-Ichi reactors flashed. Within hours, it turned into an unimaginable horror.

Read: Who will be liable for an Indian Fukushima. Nobody it seems

I almost didn't sleep for several days - checking every detail on the Internet - the radiation counts, the design details of the reactors, every single news, the weather reports for understanding the direction and speed of wind, getting glued to the map of Tohoku region.

A number of people tracking Fukushima on the social media from different countries became friends. We kept doing that for months. Some still meticulously gather every single detail.

For me, it was a reckoning of the insurmountable nature of nuclear accidents. The accidents might not happen so frequently, but the fact that every reactor can undergo an accident and there is no human response possible for nuclear accidents even in the most advanced technologically countries, makes nuclear power uniquely and unacceptably dangerous.

Horror story

The accident also revealed decades of complacency in Japan: the nexus between politics and nuclear corporations, the elites and the media was exposed.

We can rely on the Indian system to be far worse than Japan in that respect.

The labour mafia in Japan has been callously using poor, migrant workers as cheap fodder in Fukushima's clean-up.

The clean-up will take decades. They have not been able to get the reactor under control, even after five years. We have no clue about the state of tons of molten fuel in the crippled reactor.

Also read: 2 years on, Kudankulam isn't working. Where are its cheerleaders now?

What the govt means by "under control" is just that they are pouring water daily to keep the temperature in the crumbled building low. Thousands of litres of contaminated water from the reactor is coming out daily, and they have no idea what to do with it except storing in thousands of huge tanks and stealthily letting it go into Pacific Ocean.

About a 20-kilometre area around the reactor remains uninhabitable. More than 2 lakh people evacuated from this area have no hope to return.

Corruption rules

I went to Fukushima twice since the accident. Went inside the evacuation zone, saw the ghost towns like Namie, Futaba and Itate. Houses, offices, shops, schools, playgrounds, railway stations - everything is there, but no human beings. In five years, heavy dust and moss has accumulated everywhere.

There are decontamination workers working in this 20 km zone, mostly scrapping the top-soil and cleaning houses and offices. This highly radioactive dump is shifted to temporary storage sites. Even they know there's no solution, everything is just an eyewash.

The same company which didn't heed to warnings before the accident and played every trick in the book to exclude as many people as possible from getting compensation, is gaining from these decontamination contracts.

The people

Life for the evacuated people is unimaginably hard and shattered. Building a new life is not easy for most of them. There's very little support from the government and there are many attempts to stop even that as the years pass.

There are documented proofs that the community in Fukushima is also facing social ostracism as radiation-bone diseases might appear on their bodies even after several years. People are experiencing psychological breakdowns.

The resilience of the community, and the larger Japanese society, however, is moving. People across the country are providing support in every possible manner.

Read more- Fukushima's deformed flowers: the damning legacy of a nuclear disaster

The political fallout of Fukushima is historic.

Something has changed in the normally apolitical Japanese society. The kind and gentle Japanese people are angry. They understand the connections between corporations, the government, politicians and the media.

They are still grappling with how to make their collective response more effective. Thousands of reluctant activists flock the Japanese Parliament building in Tokyo every Friday after their work, chant slogans, play music, light candles, and share dreams of a better future. This has proliferated and there are weekly protests all over Japan.

The Indian context

In India, we have an additional set of problems:

  • higher population density
  • deeper corruption
  • unaccountability in the system
  • absence of an independent nuclear safety regulator
  • attempts to dilute even the ridiculously low nuclear liability
  • More than anything else, brutal bulldozing of public dissent, environmental and safety concerns

The commitment for setting up new reactors stems primarily from the elite's foreign policy choices rather than some well-thought energy policy.

Fukushima has led to policy changes in several countries. As a BBC survey revealed, popular support for nuclear power is touching bottom, globally.

Question = sedition

But in India, legitimate concerns about nuclear safety are deemed superstition.

The previous government sent psychological counselors to Kudankulam when they raised objections about the project. And when these counsellors couldn't satisfy them, the police came. Thousands of para-military forces surrounded the villages, ransacked houses and fishing boats, killed innocents.

Also read: India will now have to pay for nuclear disasters. Does that help?

Asking questions has become anti-national in India. Thousands of villagers on the southern-most tip of India face sedition charges for peacefully protesting against the project, which has now revealed itself as an expensive and dangerous white elephant.

In almost three years of its commissioning after much fanfare and repression, the Kudankulam nuclear plant has not even operated successfully for 100 consecutive days. The latest news is, the reactor has been shut down again due to a dangerous leak. People around the area have reported a pungent smell coming from the plant for the last few days.

Personal fallout

I left the job and have associated myself with Coalition For Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) since the Fukushima accident. We have been trying to mobilise solidarity for struggling villagers, amplify their voices and connecting the dots by collaborating with civil society groups to ask questions on liability, safety, economic viability and environmental impacts of the proposed and existing nuclear plants in India.

In this country with hugely anachronistic nuclear ambitions, which is one of a handful of countries with expansion plans after Fukushima, we all have been labeled anti-national.

One of the first things the new BJP government did after coming to power was to deliberately 'leak' an intelligence report, calling CNDP and other such organisations anti-national. Some 40 names were mentioned, including mine.

Read- Nuclear power: can India keep its tall promises

The Intelligence Bureau (IB) played economist and axiomatically said we are bringing down India's growth rate by 2-3%. How much more absurd can it get? I survive in Delhi on odd freelance pieces of work and minimum organisational support.

In the fifth year of Fukushima, I have lost track of the details that I started accumulating in March 2011. It's not about facts and figures any more. It's about politics. It's about power structures. It's about our lifestyles.

Everything needs to be questions and transformed if the world has to be kept safe from nuclear horror and climate change.

If challenging the status-quo is anti-national, I am proud to be one.

Edited by Joyjeet Das

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First published: 11 March 2016, 3:25 IST
Kumar Sundaram @pksundaram

The author is a researcher with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.