The women protesting the Kudankulam nuclear plant

Xavier Amal, a 55-year-old resident of Idinthakarai, has been at the forefront of the protests against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu. Amirtharaj Stephen/pep collective
02 July, 2019

On 10 September 2012, thousands of people from four villages in Tamil Nadu gathered on the beaches of Idinthakarai, a village in the state’s Tirunelveli district, to protest against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, located barely two kilometers away. That day, uranium fuel was being filled in the plant—the final step before the nuclear reactors are functional.

As the protestors—the majority of whom were women—marched towards the plant, the state responded with tear gas and subsequently opened fire on the crowd. The protestors fled to the sea to escape the police. One person was killed, and 66 people were arrested—several of them on charges of sedition.

The KNPP is the largest nuclear power plant in India. It has faced opposition from local residents and fishing communities ever since it was first proposed in 1979. Construction on the plant began in 2001, and it has been operational since 2013. The protestors claimed that the plant’s effluent, discharged into the sea, releases toxins and impacts the quality of fish. They feared that the plant will take away their livelihood and that of future generations. Fish workers said that since the plant has been operational, the quantity of fish has reduced, and the varieties diminished.

Protests against the project picked up speed in 2011 after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, which involved a major earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. According to Japan's Reconstruction Agency, formed to coordinate the post-disaster rebuilding, at least 15,000 people were killed in the disaster and thousands had to be evacuated. Residents of Idinthakarai, which had been hit by a tsunami in 2004, feared a similar fate.

Last month, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board called for a public hearing to discuss building an Away from Reactor, or AFR, a facility to store the spent fuel. The hearing, scheduled for 10 July, was postponed, amid renewed protests by villagers.

In June this year, I travelled to Tamil Nadu to meet the communities protesting the plant. Anthony Xavier Amal, a 55-year-old resident of Idinthakarai, who is affectionately known as Xavier Amma—or Mother Xavier—has been at the forefront of the protests in the village. “This place is the only home we know,” she said. “Fishing is what we know and who we are.” For her, and others in the village, the protests are a matter of saving their identity.

Amal was among those arrested in September 2012. “We all gathered that day to show the government that we knew what they were doing,” she said. “But the state turned violent.” Amal said they were taken to the local police station at 11 am, and made to wait there until 11 pm, before being taken to jail. “I was in Trichy jail”— Tiruchirapalli Central Prison—“for over 80 days, and they charged us with sedition and waging war against the state,” she continued. “They strip-searched us and treated us like murderers or robbers. The food was terrible, and no one was allowed to see us—only our lawyer. Every time we had to go court—it took seven hours in a bus one way. My body would ache on those days.”

Now out on bail, Amal lives in a one-bedroom house that the government gave her after the 2004 tsunami destroyed her home. She sells idlis for a living, and earns about Rs 500 daily. Every day, she wakes up by 5 am to make idlis and cook the sambar, and customers line up at her home from 6 am until she sells out. A single mother, Amal has three children who live and work outside the village. “My husband left me when I was pregnant with our third child,” she said. Her younger son helped her build an additional kitchen so that she could make more food. Most people in the village have two sources of income to support their family. “I struggle to make ends meet,” Amal told me. “I have loans to pay off, and daily expenses, and I want to make sure my children get married. But if I have to drop all this for the movement, I will do it.”

The Kudankulam protest movement is unique among other people’s movements because women have been at the heart of it. “The women made all the difference,” SP Uday Kumar, one of the main coordinators of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, said. PMANE is a community-based civil-rights group formed in 2001 that has spearheaded the protests in Idinthakarai against the plant. “They would sit for hours and hours every day at the church tent,” Kumar told me. “They were the ones ready to make food for the other protesters, they attended all the meetings. They carried the struggle on their shoulders.”

The protests that began in 2011 continued actively for four years until 2015, after which they died down. Melret Raj, a close friend of Xavier Amal and an active member of the resistance, recalled that period of time. “We didn’t sleep for those years,” she said, almost in tears. “We would go to the church in the morning after we finished feeding our families, sit there until evening, come home, cook again, and go back and sleep there.” The local church had become a collecting point for the protestors. Raj said they ensured the protests continued even after Xavier Amal and others were arrested. “There was a time where we were trapped in the village,” she said. “The police had blocked all the roads. No one could go out and no supplies could come in. Are we not citizens? I am still so angry.”

Raj took me for a walk along the Idinthkarai beach and pointed to where the police opened fire. “We are fisherfolk, that’s all we know how to do,” she said. “The sea is my mother, she is in my blood. I am here to fight for her. When the violence happened in 2012, I was saved from the police because I can swim and went into the water. Xavier Amal cannot swim so the police caught her.”

I also met Sundari, another protestor who was arrested with Amal. “It was so dehumanising,” she said. “They called us terrorists for fighting for our land.” Sundari recounted the social boycott she faced upon her release from jail. “When a man fights and goes to jail it is different. When a woman goes, she is separated from her children, and when she gets out of jail, her family disowns her. They are ashamed of her, even when she did nothing wrong. My own extended family stopped speaking to me, but my husband and my children knew why I went to jail.” Penten, a fish worker and Sundari’s husband added, “I asked her to go to the protests. I told her that this means so much to her, that she should go and that I would look after the children.”

Sundari continued, “Why do we need a nuclear power plant? They think we are illiterate, but we know that even wind and solar will create energy. If nuclear is so great, why don’t they put a plant in Delhi? Or why doesn’t Modi put one in his backyard? Why do they need to ruin our village?”

One of the key concerns for the protestors is the plant’s effluent. Raj, Melret’s husband and another fish worker, described the discharge that the plant emits into the sea. “It is frothy, it looks like soapy water,” he said. “It is steaming hot and brown, like cow dung. You can see the steam come from the water, and when you go a little close and touch the water, it will feel hot. The fish cannot survive in this. The fish we used to get within 10 kilometres, we now are going 20 or 25 kilometres into the sea to catch. Even the fish we do catch, we worry about the chemicals that they have taken in from the waste. What are our children supposed to do for a livelihood?”

Rupert Simon Raja, another fish worker in Idinthakarai, has been a part of the movement since 1991. “It is the same then as it is now, the government doesn’t want to listen to the people, they don’t respect our wishes,” he said. “We are not prepared for any disaster that might happen here. If we are hit by a cyclone or another tsunami, where will we go? It will be like Fukushima.”

According to the PMANE, the project currently lacks a mechanism to store its spent fuel, and a long-term solution to dispose nuclear waste. International standards recommend the building of a deep geological repository, or DGR—a permanent facility to store radioactive waste. The Nuclear Energy Agency, a France-based intergovernmental agency that facilitates cooperation among countries with advanced nuclear technology infrastructure, has described the importance of proper disposal of nuclear waste in a 2008 report. “The most hazardous and long-lived radioactive wastes such as spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste from fuel reprocessing, must be contained and isolated from humans and the environment for many tens of thousands of years,” it stated. “Disposal of these wastes in engineered facilities, or repositories, located deep underground in suitable geological formations is being developed worldwide as the reference solution in order to protect humans and the environment both now and in the future.”

At the moment, the Kudankulam project does not have any DGR facility. “What are they doing with the waste? There is no answer,” Kumar, a coordinator of the PMANE, said. He claimed the waste is being stored at the plant site itself. “If there is no permanent DGR, that means they are going to use the Kudankulam reactor facility as the DGR—that means a very dangerous problem,” he continued. “The nuclear reactor will be there for only 40 to 60 years, but waste will be there for 48,000 years. This is a serious matter. It has implications for our succeeding generations for centuries to come. First, let them set up a DGR in the country and then let us consider what we are going to with all the waste.”

I reached out to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, a public-sector enterprise responsible for nuclear power reactors and overseeing the KNPP project, but did not receive a response. Meanwhile, the women of Idinthakarai are ready to begin the struggle again at any point. Even though they were unable to stall the KNPP operations, Amal does not believe that they have lost. “Now, people from all over India know us,” she said. “We have traveled across India, supporting other communities and telling them not to give up their land, and they are aware now. They know how harmful nuclear reactors are, and no one wants them. Our struggle showed the way.”

Correction: An earlier version of the article, referring to the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, which included an earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear accident, noted that at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, "three of its six nuclear reactors melted down, killing at least 1,600 people." This did not accurately reflect the causes of these deaths. In fact, these occurred as a result of evacuation-related stress and illnesses related to the disaster. The article has been corrected to reflect that, according to official figures, at least 15,000 people were killed in Japan in the disaster. The Caravan regrets the error.