The People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy in India

Gem Romuld

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013,

Idinthakarai is a beautiful fishing village flanked by coconut and banana trees on one side and ocean on the other. Chooks, goats and cows roam the streets or stand tethered out the front of colourful houses whose front walls proudly proclaim who married who.

Festival music blares across the town of 15,000 people, fish are laid out to dry and women sit in doorways rolling beedis. Among the banana and coconut trees, slender wind turbines catch the breeze while on the flipside, perched on the ocean's edge is the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP). While the Indian Government insists it is a measure of progress and power, viewed from Idinthakarai the KKNPP's distinctive white and orange domes symbolise a long and anguished struggle.

I first heard about the KKNPP in 2012, when news reached Australia of over two thousand fisherfolk taking to the sea in their boats in protest, blocking the access channel to the plant. Situated near the southernmost tip of India in the state of Tamil Nadu, the KKNPP stares down the beach at the heart of the movement, the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy based in their proudly dubbed "Republic of Idinthakarai". The KKNPP was first planned and agreed between the Indian Government and the Soviet Union in 1988. The subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union held up the project for a decade, before its revival in the late 1990s and the beginning of construction in 2002.

Opposition has always existed, flaring up in the aftermath of Fukushima and with the spread of information about radiation contamination and its effect on health. The effects of radiation on health are well documented in India, courtesy of existing nuclear projects and in particular the uranium mine at Jadugoda, in the northern state of Jharkhand. Jadugoda has been mining uranium for over 40 years, enough time for radiation to damage genetic codes and work its way up the food chain via leaking tailings dams and the unlucky river into which they flow.

The people living around the KKNPP are acutely aware of their vulnerability. Ziggy Switkowski's absurdist words ring in my ears, spoken three days after the Fukushima disaster: "the best place to be whenever there's an earthquake is at the perimeter of a nuclear plant because they are designed so well" ... but it's not just the fear of disaster that enrages the local community; it's also the quality of the construction itself and the effect of the plant's discharge on fish. The fisherfolk are worried about the effect of the hot water discharge from the plant on the reproductive cycles of the fish that form the basis of their livelihoods.

Another catalyst for concern is the prosecution in Russia of the procurement director of ZiO-Podolsk, a Russian company supplying crucial components to nuclear power plants including the KKNPP, for corruption and fraud. Shutov, the procurement director, has been charged for purchasing low-grade materials and selling them as high-grade materials for components and parts. Even the official story of the plant is littered with defects and flaws and its "immediate commissioning" has been announced and re-announced so many times that it's become a running joke with Idinthakarai residents.

The KKNPP has claimed several times to be generating power, but the locals beg to differ. The 'tsunami colony', a settlement of people displaced by the Asian tsunami of 2004, sits 500m from the plant. They keep a vigilant watch for steam, noise and any of the signs that they observed when it was running tests: nothing. The KKNPP is obviously troubled but the real concern is the determination of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd to get it working.


The full force of the government, the media and the police are behind the effort to stifle resistance. Bedazzling in its complexity and sophistication, nuclear energy has become a tool for the Indian establishment to demonstrate its modernity and progress. Nuclear energy is apparently vital to the national project and anyone opposed to it is therefore classified as "anti-national".

But, despite suffering repression and slander, resistance to the KKNPP is alive and well. If the church bells ring in Idinthakarai, the fisherfolk come in from the sea and all the townspeople gather for a meeting or to take their grievances down the beach towards the nuclear plant. The protests against the KKNPP are strictly non-violent but police have responded with full force to intimidate and suppress the movement. There in the so-called "world's largest democracy", fisherfolk defending their livelihoods in peaceful opposition to a nuclear power plant are charged with "sedition" and "war against the Indian state" among many other political offences.

The local authorities have failed to comply with the Supreme Court verdict to drop thousands of false charges laid on protesters. So they are flies stuck in legalistic honey, some with as many as 190 charges against them, unable to leave the "Republic of Idinthakarai" for fear of arrest beyond the safe haven of the town. One of the movement leaders, Pushparayan, was not even permitted to travel to another village to attend his father's funeral. He hadn't seen his father for two years as he was under 'village arrest', and was denied a proper farewell.

People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy

The People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy headquarters sit opposite a majestic Catholic church with a large sheltered space for protest meetings. The thatched shelter is hung with info-sheets and photos, graphically depicting the victims of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl and the deformed children of Jadugoda town, which hosts India's 45-year-old uranium mine. Banners also line the space, bearing signatures and faces pledging solidarity and commitment to shutting down the KKNPP.

There's a board showing the number of days the relay protest fast has been running. It reached 900 days on January 31. Behind that board is a gold-framed picture bearing four faces − the people that have paid for dissent with their lives. Two people died during protests and two while held in police custody for protest charges because they were denied their medications. Alongside these horrific events of state repression runs the multi-faceted war of attrition, including the confiscation of passports, and the police harassment of the women of Idinthakarai.

The communities around the KKNPP have empowered several men, including S.P. Udayakumar and M. Pushparayan, to act as leaders and public spokespeople for the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy, however it is generally acknowledged that the steely determination of the women is what keeps the movement going. Sundari, an Idinthakarai local, spoke of the abuses she suffered in prison, and the openness with which the police admitted that they were making her an example with the intention of deterring other women from taking a stand against the KKNPP. The war of attrition led by the police will not stifle the battle of the women of Idinthakarai to defend their community and to reach out in solidarity to the other communities in India facing nuclear projects.

An open letter by the women and children of Idinthakarai states: "We realise more than ever that our struggle is not against nuclear energy alone. Our demand is to be allowed to pursue a life style based on truth, justice and hard work. Our adherence to this has made us raise crucial questions about democracy and governance, about the way decisions are being taken in our country and how the well being of the marginalised are neglected and trampled upon."

The Australian and Indian governments are currently arranging a uranium export deal. In 2011, the Labor Party reversed its policy against uranium exports to countries that haven't signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, specifically to allow exports to India. The Coalition government is now carrying the project forward, despite popular opposition at mine sites, along the transport routes, at the sites of nuclear power stations and in places flagged for radioactive waste dumps in Australia and worldwide. Selling uranium to India makes Australia an accomplice in risky nuclear projects and cruel repression of the communities surrounding nuclear power plants. It also facilitates the expansion of India's nuclear weapons arsenal − if not directly, then certainly indirectly: imported uranium frees up India's domestic sources for use in weapons production.

In three days of conversations, impressions, shared walks and meals, we began to sense what life is like living a peoples' movement against a nuclear power station. We recorded interviews and tried to act as conduits between anti-nuclear movements in Australia and this gorgeous town where we hope Australian uranium never lands.

It doesn't really matter where the uranium comes from; the people of Idinthakarai are adamant that no uranium should fuel the KKNPP and that 2014 is the year to shut it down, completely.

Gem Romuld is co-ordinator of the Anti-nuclear & Clean Energy (ACE) collective at Friends of the Earth, Melbourne.