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'30 years next to a nuclear plant did not affect us'

Last updated on: September 28, 2012 15:47 IST

Suresh Moses Lee and his wifeDr Suresh Moses Lee is the Raja Ramanna Fellow, Department of Atomic Energy, Safety Research Centre, Kalpakkam. He was the former director of safety research, health physics, information services, instrumentation and electronics group at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic research, Kalpakkam.

He was one of the members of the central panel of experts constituted to examine the reactors of Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project.

In this interview, he and his wife, Suseela Moses Lee talk about how life was living at the Kalpakkam power plant township for 31 years. They spoke to's Shobha Warrier.

Dr Suresh Lee:

I started my career at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in 1966 in the BARC training school and became a scientific officer in 1967 and worked there till 1973.

Then, for 31 years, from 1973 to 2004 when I retired, I was posted at Kalpakkam and I stayed at the township near the Madras Atomic Power Station reactor.

It was around 1968 that the civil engineering work for MAPS was started and the first reactor became operational in 1983. Then prime minister Indira Gandhi had come to inaugurate it. The second reactor became operational in 1985.

So, in the first 10 years, there was no radiation as such as the plant became operational only in 1983.

We have an environmental survey laboratory that was doing all the surveys on the radiation levels before the plant started functioning. But from 1983, there has been radiation in that area which is within the allowed limits. So, you can say, I, with my family stayed in an area for 21 years where there was radiation.

Now, to give you an idea about the locality. Nobody is allowed to stay within 1.5 kms around the reactors; only those who work in the plant go there. From there up to 5 km is the natural growth zone which meant whatever or whoever was there before the plant came, can continue to live. But you cannot let the area grow other than naturally. For example, in that 5 km area, you cannot start a factory or open a new school.

That is why, the township is kept outside the 5 km natural zone. But that made many villagers ask us, why do you people stay away and why are we here? That is only because the village is the natural growth zone.

I don't remember any agitation by the villagers when the plant became operational in 1983. When the Chernobyl accident happened in 1986, there was an exercise on how people can be evacuated if an emergency occurred. That was how educating the villagers on safety measures started. In fact, they were brought to the plant and we showed them around. In fact, awareness programmes were there for people staying up to 16 km area away from the plant.

You also should have good relations with the panchayat presidents and give them good water connection, electricity, good schools and other facilities. At Kalpakkam, we never had any problem with the villagers living around the plant. What they wanted was more facilities which we were giving whenever they asked for it.

During normal operations of the power plant, there is a small amount radiation which is within the allowed limits. A study by BARC shows that radioactivity from a coal based power station is more than that from a nuclear power station during normal operations. That is because in nuclear power plants, you burn very little fuel as it gives a large amount of energy. On the other hand, you have to burn tonnes of coal to get the same amount of energy, and coal has natural uranium and thorium in it. So, there is absolutely no harm in the normal radiation from a nuclear power plant in normal operations.

Harm can come only when there is an accident. Then, the radiation will be more than what is allowed. Then, you will have the probability of getting cancer as you get older.

As for the workers in the plant, the amount of radiation they get is measured daily and their health monitored regularly. Studies have shown that health of these workers is better than the normal people, and they live longer. That is because of the regular health screenings and monitoring.

The Indian Ocean tsunami happened in December 2004 after I retired. Though all residents were terrified, the reactors withstood the tsunami. 

After Fukushima, nobody wants a nuclear reactor in the area where they stay. The fear is, suppose an accident happens... suppose a tsunami comes... In fact, those who stay in the area should get the feeling that their lives are better if they stay there. That is why I feel what our ex-President Abdul Kalam recommended for the villages is 100 percent correct; that the entire area surrounding the plant at Kudankulam has to be developed. But neither the central government nor the state government is taking the efforts to develop the area.

Personally, I and my family had no health problem just because we lived here for three decades. In my 30 years there, I have never heard any story of anyone dying due to radiation.

I would confidently tell the people living around Kudankulam that they need not have any fear about their health just because they live close to the nuclear power plant. In fact, their health will improve because of new hospitals in the area.

I would say till my retirement, I lived in a protected environment and now I live in an unprotected environment. There is more pollution here in Chennai than at Kalpakkam.

Suseela Moses Lee:

I had no apprehension or fear when we got ready to stay near the Kalpakkam nuclear power plant in 1973. In 1974, my first son was born, and three months after the delivery, I came back from my parents' house to Kalpakkam. My second son was born in 1976. And, both of them grew up there, and studied at the local central school.

Some people feel that if you stay closer to a nuclear power plant, there will be radiation and it will affect children's brains. I would say these fears are unfounded. My first son went to IIT, Madras and then went to the US for his Masters and PhD. My second studied medicine at Vellore. Both of them were there at Kalpakkam from their third month and no radiation affected their growth.

To those who fear about radiation from nuclear power plants, I would say that they need not have any such fears. We have never had any health problems just because we lived there for 31 years. On the other hand, a relative of mine who lived in Cuddalore died of pancreatic cancer, and within three years, his wife also died of throat cancer. They were nowhere near any nuclear power plant.

In fact, I was healthier when I stayed at Kalpakkam. After coming to Chennai, I developed asthma due to the diesel smoke in this area. Compared to Kalpakkam, Chennai is more polluted, I would say.

People talk about fish getting contaminated in the area. I don't agree. We are fish eaters and we used to get fresh fish there. Every morning, fisherwomen used to bring fresh fish home, and we have not had any problem because we ate that fish for three decades. We also used to get fresh vegetables grown in the village. The rice we got from the village market was also from that area. So, whatever we used to consume daily was from the nearby area only.

Image: Dr Suresh Moses Lee and his wife Suseela | Photos: Sreeram Selvaraj

Shobha Warrier in Chennai