The Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project situated on the sea shore in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu has always been more in the news for what is happening outside the plant than what is happening inside it. Lately it was lauded as the only nuclear power plant that is producing 1,000 mega watts of power in the country.
R S Sundar (image below), the site director of KNPP, is a soft spoken man. Here he clears all doubts about the plant in an interview with A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com.
By manufacturing 1,000 MW of nuclear energy you have become the biggest in the country. Where did this 1000 MW go?
What we are generating from Unit One is 1000 MW (which is 24 million units per day). We have four 400 KV dedicated lines laid by the Power Grid Corporation of India. Three go to Tirunelveli and one to Madurai.
Whatever power is generated it is evacuated through these lines to the central grid. From the central grid it is distributed to the states.
You are supposed to supply the southern states?
The major load goes to Tamil Nadu which gets 54 percent. The rest goes to Kerala, Karnataka and Pondicherry.
How come not a single chief minister has acknowledged that they are getting power from Koodangulam?
I don’t know about that but last financial year we generated 11 million units and this financial year so far we have generated 1,060 million units. We have records of this and we are getting payments from all the electricity boards.
You are selling power already?
Yes. Whatever power we are now producing is called infirm power. Till we start commercial operations we are free to do tests. We always inform the grid when we do tests. We never shut down without informing them. Now we are getting Rs. 1.22 an unit.
You are getting paid and it is not commercial, could you explain please?
There are lots of weightages and parameters in fixing the tariff. Now we are charging a nominal amount. When we are in infirm operations we can reduce generation, we can stop generation and do any tests that we feel is required at this stage.
Once we start commercial operations we cannot do this. Even now we don’t suddenly stop anything. When you are producing a 1,000 MW you have to inform the grid of anything and everything you are doing.
When will your commercial operations start?
In a month or two. This morning we were generating a 1000 MW and now we are generating 300 MW. We had to reduce because of some tests we are conducting. After the tests we will increase to 1000 MW after informing the grid.
Once the commercial operations start, you won’t do this?
Once commercial operations start it will be like any other power source. It will be steady. Then we don’t need to do these tests. These are tests we do for collecting baseline data. It is part of commercialising it. This data is for future reference.
Many a times you have shut down the plant in the past. Can you actually stop a nuclear reaction after it starts?
There is a button which can shut it down in 3 seconds but that we use that only for emergencies. By introducing boric acid and control rods the reactor is shut down. Normally once we start the chain reaction it takes 24 hours for the reactor to become ‘critical’ which means the reaction is self sustaining.
As we can start it we can also stop it. This is one of the fundamentals of any nuclear reactor. It should be capable of being shut down immediately in case of any untoward happening and also have a normal way of shutting down.
What you have to realise is that it remains radioactive and so there will be heat generated by the decay process. We have to keep cooling it.
The control rods and boric acid absorb the neutrons and slow down the chain reaction and ultimately stop it. This is a controlled chain reaction and can be stopped at any time.
Last month there was an accident involving valves, earlier too you have had problems with valves malfunctioning?
In a plant of this size there must be 10,000 valves. We were doing maintenance on one of the high pressure heaters. We had shut down the reactor. The turbine side was shut down. This valve was being removed by our employees and three contract workers.
The same team had worked on a similar valve the previous week. When they pulled out the valve, hot water which had not completely drained out, spilled out. They got first degree burns (20 to 60 percent).
They were treated at a township hospital and the in Nagercoil. Two of them were shifted to Apollo Hospital in Chennai. All of them have recovered and come home.
They have not come back to work?
They have not come back to work as they need some more rest.
There were complaints the sub-standard material was used by your contractors in civil construction at the plant. Was the quality checked?
Firstly we don’t use bricks. Secondly anything that is used here for construction has to withstand 4.5 atmospheres of pressure. Only after that test is passed does everything get approved.
We have an ISO 9000 certified laboratory here. Every layer of cement is tested and was tested during construction. No substandard material can pass our tests. All records of every test are available.
What are the medical facilities available here?
We have two doctors and a few staff in our hospital. We have given a contract to the Bejan Hospital in Nagercoil to provide medical services here, round the clock. They work under the supervision of our doctors. We also have a referral with Apollo Hospital.
When you go commercial will it be only for unit one?
Yes. At the moment only unit one is running.
When will unit two be up and running?
By this year end it will be also running.
Are you starting work on Unit 3,4,5 and 6 together?
Presently the governmental agreement is for Units 3 and 4. Subsequently 5 and 6 will be taken up.
Everything will be the same?
There will be minor changes. Russia will provide the technology and we will put up the plant. We will have more indigenisation in the conventional systems like electrical systems, cooling water systems.
Do you have sufficient land?
We have sufficient land for six units.