The Supreme Court has refused to stop the loading of fuel into a nuclear reactor at the Kudankulam plant in Tamil Nadu, while stressing that safety of the people is of prime importance. In Kudankulam, hundreds of those who live around the plant, including women and children, waded into the sea today as part of their one-day jal satyagraha to demand that the nuclear plant be shut down immediately. They say it threatens their lives and livelihood.
The top court is hearing a petition filed by activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan that underscores that fear. Mr Bhushan has pleaded that fuelling should not begin at the plant as 11 out of 17 key safety measures have not been implemented. The court will take up the case for detailed hearing next week on September 20, but has refused to stall the process of loading fuel, which was to have begun on Monday last, but did not as a fresh wave of protests began.
"Safety standards are prime important. People in the area should be protected. They should have the right to know about their safety," the court observed.
The Centre has told the Supreme Court that the plant is safe and that the 17 measures mentioned in the petition are only enhanced features. Loading of fuel is scheduled to be completed by September 16, and the plant will be commissioned two months after that.
Despite many such assurances from the government, the Kudankulam plant, designed to be India's biggest producer of atomic power, has been fraught with hunger strikes and protest camps of thousands of villagers who say the plant will endanger their safety and their livelihood. This coastal part of Tamil Nadu was hit hard by the tsunami in 2004, and to highlight the dangers of radiation, fishing villages cite last year's disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, which was triggered by an earthquake and tsunami.
The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) has said in Mumbai that there is no fear of a tsunami affecting the plant. SS Bajaj, the chief of the AERB, told media that the safety features in the nuclear plant are "advanced" and said that radioactivity from the reactors was much less than natural radioactivity in the area.
About the 17 safety parameters, Mr Bajaj said these are being "looked into" and would be in place between the next six months and two years. He also said the AERB is trying to reach out to the protesters through the media.
The new protests began after the AERB gave clearance for fuel to be loaded into one of the Kudankulam plant's two reactors, one of the last steps before it can begin producing power.
The villagers in places like Idinthakarai have been galvanised by SP Udhayakumar who heads the People's Movement against Nuclear Energy. He was not present for the jal satyagraha today; after offering to surrender to the police earlier this week, he changed his mind. The protest began at about 11 this morning and ended at 4pm; people waved their fists angrily in the air as they walked into the sea. Many wore life jackets.
Their water protest was inspired by Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh, where farmers spent nearly 17 days in neck-high water demanding that the government reduce water levels in a dam. The Khandwa farmers said their villages were being submerged by water, and they have not been compensated by the state. The BJP government in Madhya Pradesh agreed to their demands after the startling pictures of the protest became a national headline.
The protesters in Kudankulam presented a different picture-the atmosphere was less severe and dramatic, though some protesters held hands for a bit to form a loose human chain.
The agitators have a few demands - they want the government to cancel plans to load fuel in the reactor at Kudankulum; they want the police to drop plans to arrest their leaders; and they want those who have already been arrested to be released.
On Monday, clashes between thousands of protesters and the police led to a fishermen being killed in police firing.
India is struggling to meet surging demand for electricity and suffers from a peak-hour power deficit of about 12 per cent, which has become a significant drag on the economy. A grid failure on two consecutive days this summer caused one of the world's worst blackouts.
First conceived in 1988, Russian-built Kudankulam was supposed to have gone into operation last year.
Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde has accused foreign NGOs (non-governmental organisations) for supporting the anti-nuclear protests in the state.
(With Inputs from Agencies)