Nuclear radiation threat to Sri Lanka: Lessons from Chernobyl, Fukushima and Kalpakkam in South India
By Bandu de Silva
Dr. Janaka Ratnasiri has brought to the attention of the Sri Lankan public the potential dangers posed to Sri Lanka by India’s proposal to build a nuclear plant at Kudankulam, close to Kanniyakumari town at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula which is only 240 miles away from Sri Lanka’s Western coast and is in direct line with Puttalam. (The Island).
The learned scientist has given details of the Kudankulam cluster India is planning to build. For the present purpose here, it is sufficient to give the capacity of this plant. Once completed, it is expected to have a total of 8 plants comprising two plants of 1,000 MW each and six plants of 1,200 MW each, thus making a total of 9,200 MW of capacity. That is a project of greater magnitude than the Kalpakkam plant which came under pressure from the Tsunami of 2004. Minister of Power and Energy, Champila Ranawaka has also told The Island that “whether or not Sri Lanka goes nuclear, there would always be a threat to the country as India has set up a nuclear plants on its southern tip.” (The Island, March 19).
It is also said that approvals for the last four nuclear sites in India, including Kudankulam are yet to be granted. The damage to Japan’s Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant by the recent earthquake and Tsunami which affected Japan’s east coast has raised international awareness levels and concern over the proliferation of NPPs around the world, and if the Kudankulam project which is so close to Sri Lanka’s shores goes ahead without any information sharing between the two neighbouring countries it cannot be considered a situation which treats the situation of people on both sides of the Palk Straits, not to speak of the prospects of infringing their human rights and the humanitarian issues a fault or mishap could raise as now seen in the case of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
Countries also express concern when neighbouring countries build infrastructure not far away from their borders. The Russian concern over the proposal to build a nuclear defence shield in Poland and Czech Republics is a case in point. So did India show concern over the facilities granted to VOA at Iranwila near Puttalama on the ground that the facility could be used to monitor Indian shipping movements in the area. So was India’s concern over the gift by US scientific community for the Arthur Clarke Centre at Katubedda University. The Foreign Ministry then sent the Counsellor of the Indian High Commission to me to get details of the Satellite tracking disc which was gifted to Sir Arthur Clerke that was installed there as I was in the initial team that facilitated the setting up of that Centre.
The Indian government also showed concern over GOSL trying to lease the oil tanks at China Bay in Trincomalee to US firms and granting facilities for foreign navies in the Trincomalee harbor. Presently, the Indian government is closely watching over the Chinese building a port at Hambantota and sought approval and established a Consulate General there. Even the purchase of a Chinese built boat for anti-smuggling/ illicit immigration purpose in the 1960s was a matter of concern to India and the High Commission then sent Second Secretary, Raj Kumar to me to discuss the matter.
Likewise, a NPP like the one to be built by India at Kudankulam should be a subject for discussion between the two neighbouring countries to ally any fears entertained here, nay, even as a responsibility on the part of a responsible country seeking permanent status in the UN Security Council. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka suffers from an inferiority complex when it comes to dealing with India. That is by virtue of her being a small entity living close to a big neighbor – “the backyard of Tamil Nadu” as E.M.V.Naganathan, once wrote.
When India built the first NPP in Tamil Nadu (Kalpakkam?) on the shore (according to reports, it got “engulfed by the Tsunami” in 2004), I submitted a report to our Foreign Ministry suggesting discussion over the issue with the Indian government. It was tuned down at the level of the then Permanent Secretary who asked me not to raise “unnecessary” issues saying that we had enough problems at hand with India. That is why I say Sri Lanka suffers from an “elephant Vs. mouse” inferiority complex when it comes to dealing with India.
Coming to Kalpakkam, Dr.Ratnasiri tells us that the 500 MW nuclear power plant got affected during the 2004 Tsunami. This power plant withstood the giant waves, which engulfed the surrounding area, but got shut down automatically when the water level rose. The rising water had also damaged the cooling water intake facility. The reactor was shut down safely and there was no release of any radioactivity. The reactor was restarted about a week later. But the incident prompted the IAEA to organize an international workshop on the safety and risks of NPPs built near coasts.
Writing further on that workshop, Dr. Ratnasiri says: “ It is common to build NPPs near coasts enabling the use of seawater to cool the reactor. That specialists from around the world scrutinized the potential impact of natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunami flooding on nuclear reactors at a Workshop which was held from 29 August to 2 September 2005 at Kalpakkam itself, and that participants deliberated over 5 days to share latest knowledge and research developments and take home lessons learned, from this tsunami, and past flood events, should show how Kalpakkam plant caused anxiety to the world scientific community. Ironically, Japan was among the several countries which provided resource persons to the workshop. However, it is not known whether the proceedings of this workshop including any recommendations were made public.
According to material posted in websites, the power plants in Japan were built to withstand earthquakes, but not designed for quakes of such high magnitudes as occurred last Friday. These specialists had obviously not taken into consideration the combined impact of earthquakes and tsunamis taking place simultaneously on coastal nuclear plants.” Dr.Ratnasiri rejects a report published in the Island of March 15th that Kalpakam plant was not affected by the Tsunami of 2004. As quoted earlier, the waves affected the plant’s cooling water supply and subsequently it had to be shut down for a week, which also prompted IAEA o hold a workshop in Kalpakam.
What arises from Dr.Ratnasiri’s exposure is if Sri Lanka should not raise the issue with India over NPP in close neighbourhood of Sri Lanka at a scientific level. I do not know if the present series of discussion levels with India –fisheries is one such – includes a provision for regular official exchanges at scientific level. This is a matter for consideration if the new relationship is to have any meaning.
We are familiar with the way the Sethu Samudra issue, one which concerns both countries, was handled by India. I suggested then through my writing in The Island that former President Chandrika Kumaratunga should take that issue with the India government during her official visit at that time. I expected a permanent official mechanism to be established but that did not happen. The issue was downgraded by the Indian side to one of low priority. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was seen inaugurating the Sethu Samudra Project officially within weeks of meeting President Kumaratunga. So much for India’s concern over Sri Lanka’s concerns.
When the Chernobyl explosion took place I was in Paris. Countries in both Eastern and Western Europe were very concerned over effects on their agriculture and dairy production especially. Later there were reports that nuclear contaminated clouds did not bring rains over Western Europe but I discovered a French scientific magazine which disagreed and reported on contaminated rain over France. I alerted the government and the scientists in the Atomic field here. They detected a French shipment of French milk powder in the harbor indicating high radiation level and banned its unloading. I recall the French Embassy trying to deny it.
The Chernobyl case and now the Fukushima disaster should itself be a warning all around. I can realize the Japanese panicking. I saw the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 25 years after the disaster when I was there. This is not a call for pessimism but alertness. The Fukushima plant is said to have been built to withstand Tsunamis but not earth quakes! That is strange in an earth-quake prone country. If that is true that shows how omissions could be made and a greater need for taking precaution and vigilance.
As pointed out above, it took the Tsunami of 2004 to alert the nuclear scientists of the world to examine the situation of the Kalpakam NPP after having ignored my suggestion for the Sri Lankan government to take it up India at the right time. With the effects of both Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters behind us, shouldn’t issue of the projected Kudankulam NPP be a subject for immediate discussions between India and Sri Lanka in the spirit of growing cooperation between the two countries at least by sharing scientific information in the first instance?
The learned Jurist, Dr.C.G. Weeramantry, former Vice President of the International Court of Justice, an indefatigable advocate against the proliferation of nuclear power plants, has observed that the continuance and proliferation of nuclear reactors violates every principle of humanitarian law, international law, environmental law and international sustainable development law. As such, is there much point in talking about human rights and humanitarian catastrophes resulting from wars as that alleged in Sri Lanka in the recent past, when man-made disasters of a worse magnitude are seen lurching around us with no perception of future threats to mankind. Is there any difference in the two situations?