Fukushima slams ashore, bringing wave of fear

Separated by over 7,000 kilometres, Fukushima is a household name in Kudankulam. For mothers, young seamen and schoolgoing children, the Japanese prefecture has come to embody the fears swirling around the nuclear power plant in the coastal sliver in southern Tamil Nadu.

Fukushima suffered the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl when, two years ago, an earthquake-triggered tsunami slammed ashore.

Fukushima has become a buzzword for the anti-nuclear protesters across age groups in the fishing villages around the Kudankulam plant. Its ripple effect has coursed through coastal communities in other areas of Tamil Nadu as well as other states where nuclear plants are coming up.

"We never listened to Udayakumar Sir when he told us about the radiation dangers, till Fukusima happened. I saw it on TV and later on videos shown by our leaders. I realised that the fears were not far-fetched. It can happen to us also," said S.R. Milred, a 40-year-old woman at the fishing village of Idinthakarai, near Kudankulam.

Udayakumar is the leader of the People's Movement against Nuclear Energy, which is spearheading the protest.

As the crow flies, the plant site is hardly a kilometre away and its two domes are visible from the village. The 2004 tsunami had devastated vast stretches of coastal Tamil Nadu, including villages such as Idinthakarai and Kuthankulli, while Kudankulam was partly damaged.

Fukushima is playing on the collective memory of that devastation and has amplified fears of a nuclear mishap in Kudankulam if a tsunami strikes again.

"I am not educated. But I have learnt that radiation affects pregnant mothers and unborn babies. As a mother, I am worried about the health of my children," Milred said.

If she was visibly emotional, Francis Vino was not. He is one of the village youths who have landed a job in commercial shipping after completing technical courses. The 23-year-old seaman said he had learnt of the Fukushima mishap on his way to Japan from Singapore aboard a Japanese liner.

"The company told our ship not to venture towards the Japanese shore in the wake of Fukushima mishap. We drifted for three days before the clearance came. Now my community is facing the same dangers. I must stand by them," Vino said.

The seaman said he had read up on the dangers of nuclear power, independent of the campaign by the activists.

"I read books about radioactivity-induced deformities, life-threatening ailments of generations after the US nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War. I also studied the impact of accidents in nuclear power plants in several parts of the world in peacetime," he said.

K.T. Ganeshan, a coconut seller from Kudankulam, said he had joined the protest after reading a post-Fukushima public alert notice, purportedly issued by an atomic energy agency in Dinakaran, a Tamil daily.

"It told people what to do in case of a nuclear accident and how to ask the administration for evacuation. With our harrowing experience with government officials, how can I expect them to come in time and take my family away to safety, particularly when we breathe the plant air?" he asked.

Children at a tsunami colony, the home to cyclone-displaced people from Idinthakarai and adjoining villages, also spoke of Fukushima.

"We can't go to Russia. But the Russians came to sell their machines. They do not bother if another Fukushima happens here. What will Manmohan Singh and Jayalalithaa do to save us by sitting in far-off Delhi and Chennai?" school-going Arasu brothers, Agarkar and Ignius, asked, referring to the Russian-built reactors at Kudankulam.

The sea-facing double-dome plant site is located almost a stone's throw away from the double-storied shelter for the tsunami evacuees. Some of the children drew attention to the charcoal and chalk caricatures of the Prime Minister and the Tamil Nadu chief minister that the youngsters had scrawled on the walls of the now-abandoned building.

The residents are also aware of the complex Indo-Russian stalemate liability in case of an accident in the reactors. "If something happens to us, who will compensate?" asked Francis Shanti, a colony resident.

Although the residents could not produce any tangible proof of immediate adverse effects of the plant, which is yet to be operational, they complained of "respiratory troubles when smoke from the plant began billowing during the test run and mock drills". They also spoke of "deafening noise and terrifying vibrations", possibly because of the controlled explosions and rock-drilling during construction.

Union minister V. Narayanasamy and other Congress leaders as well as the country's nuclear establishment have said the fears were the fallout of ignorance and a deliberate attempt by some foreign-funded NGOs to spread panic.

But the leaders of the protest said that a post-earthquake tsunami warning in April 2012 by the National Centre for Ocean Information Services had underlined threats to the Indian southeast coast where Kudankulam and other nuclear power plants are located.

Environment groups supporting the movement had petitioned the Supreme Court with an appeal to stop the loading of the fuel rods into the plant till 17 safety steps recommended by an expert committee were implemented.

In September last year, the court declined such an order after the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and other agencies said all recommendations would be implemented. The court said the "safety of those living in its vicinity is of prime concern". Both sides are now waiting for the final verdict of the apex court.

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