Inside A Community’s Fierce Fight To Prevent A Nuclear Tragedy

Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, INDIA — Commercial operations for a multibillion-dollar, Russian-built nuclear reactor starting up nearby in December would ordinarily have been a cause for celebration in a town riven by blackouts every summer.

It was more than a $1 billion over its budget and six years late. But its full operation in Kudankulam, a remote fishing village in the southern tip of India about 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 57 reactors on line to power the subcontinent’s economic surge.

But S.P. Udayakumar, a bespectacled 56-year-old schoolteacher and protest leader in the region, isn’t rejoicing. 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 has drawn in hundreds of thousands of residents.

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 currently 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 14 years of construction and testing. It’s supposed to be followed by two more reactors next year.

Udayakumar worries that the massive new Russian pressurized-water reactors, of a size and type never before seen on the subcontinent, have been constructed of shoddy material; that their design and location leave them vulnerable to a flooding disaster like the —> Read More