The nuclear power plant has had a chequered history spanning nearly three decades.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa dedicated the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant to the entire nation in a video conferencing event, 28 years after it was originally proposed. Between then and now, the project has had a chequered history, with numerous delays and protests impeding its progress.
When then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Kudankulam nuclear agreement in 1988, it marked the beginning of a promise of nuclear-powered energy self-sufficiency for the country. The 1988 agreement was initially for the setting up of two nuclear reactors in Tirunelveli.
However, the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself soon after the agreement was signed placed a stumbling block before it, and the project was revived only after a decade. In 2000, construction work for the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) began in Tamil Nadu under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
Though public memory of the 2011-12 protests against the power plant are fresher, in 1990, soon after the project was announced, the first protest against it was held by nearby residents, opposing the diversion of water for the reactors from the Pechiparai dam in Kanyakumari district. The fishing community too had apprehensions regarding threat to their livelihood from the project.
In 2004, a port was constructed for transporting raw materials to the plant. Four years later, in 2008, KKNPP decided to set up four more reactors at the plant. The first nuclear power unit was scheduled to start in 2009. It began operations in 2011.
In mid-March 2011, right when India began testing equipments at the first nuclear power unit, the Fukushima Daichii nuclear disaster unfolded in Japan. Even as work on the first unit was underway, protests against it started once again. The Fukushima disaster triggered a series of concerns surrounding the safety of the Kudankulam plant. The protestors, led by S. P. Udayakumar and his People's Movement against Nuclear Energy, were charged with sedition and over 1,800 protesters were arrested.
The plant authorities and the government, and its Russian partners have addressed all associated concerns from time to time. In 2012, project officials allayed local residents' fears that water from Pechiparai and Tamirabharani River would be diverted for the nuclear reactors. An ultra-mega desalination plant at the project site would supply the fresh water required to manage the day-to-day operations of the reactors, officials said.
In 2013, the power plant reached criticality. However, by now the cost of the two initial nuclear power units had escalated from the original by around Rs. 4,000 crore.
The first unit of the nuclear power plant reached full capacity generation of 1000 MW in 2014, of which Tamil Nadu’s share of power is 465 MW. The share of nuclear power in India to the country’s energy mix remains low, approximately four per cent of the electricity production share in 2015, according to the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA). The country currently has 21 operational nuclear power plants.
Kudankulam is the highest capacity generating nuclear power plant in India. Beyond power generation, the project is also seen as a symbol of maintaining cordial relations between India and Russia, as emphasised by Mr. Modi and Mr. Putin.