3. An Atmosphere of Fear and Distrust

Chapter 4: India, Malaysia, Korea
Part 1: Living in the Shadow of Indian Nuclear Development

We left the Tarapur Nuclear Complex and headed for our next destination, the Kalpakkam complex, facing the sparkling blue Bay of Bengal forty miles south of Madras.

The Kalpakkam Nuclear Complex houses two reactors, Madras Nos. 1 and 2, which started operations in 1983 and 1986 respectively, and the Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research, where work on the latest in nuclear technology is carried out using an experimental fast-breeder reactor. We had heard that in 1986 there had been a large-scale burning of fruit, vegetables, rice, and household furniture in the nearby village where the workers at Kalpakkam live. These goods had been loaded on a truck which was normally used for transporting nuclear fuel rods. When the villagers found out they panicked and burned all the goods for fear of contamination.

A.S. Panneerselvan from the newspaper, Indian Week, who had joined us as our interpreter, had investigated this story and exposed the authorities' negligent management of radioactive materials. It was Panneerselvan's first visit to the area and he was keen to carry out some investigations of his own. He asked a man at the side of the road the way to Kokilyamedu, the village closest to Kalpakkam. The man replied that he was from the village of Kokilyamedu itself and motioned to us to follow him to the shade of a tree, so that we would be less conspicuous. His face, burned black from the sun, made him look much older than his thirty-nine years. He told us that the authorities had warned the villagers not to talk to foreigners or any other strangers, his eyes darting around as he spoke to make sure nobody had noticed us. "We don't know anything about what goes on at the plant. But it often stops for some reason or another," he said. "You can tell from the amount of waste water and the change in the temperature of the sea; No. 2 has been closed for over a year now, you know."

At the time of writing, there are six nuclear power stations operating in India. The newest of these, Madras Nos. 1 and 2, were the first to be planned and constructed wholly in India.

The man declined to tell us anything about damage caused by the plant. He refused to have his photograph taken, or take us into the village half a mile away for fear of the consequences. He was not the only one too afraid to talk. We got the same reaction when we visited one of Panneerselvan's friends from university, a scientist who had been in charge of environmental assessment at Kalpakkam since 1983.

The scientist gave Panneerselvan a warm reception—until he heard that the journalist had company.

"Journalists from Japan? You must be joking! If it gets out that I've even met you, I'll be fired. Get out of here." He slammed the door angrily in Panneerselvan's face. "The salary's good, and if he just keeps quiet, his future is guaranteed...," the journalist muttered.

When construction of the nuclear facilities began twenty years previously, nine hundred people had been forced to move "for the good of India." Their new home in the village of Kokilyamedu consisted of a collection of small concrete huts, with no school or hospital, a three-mile walk from the nearest market.

At one edge of the village, a high wall with a watchtower casting an ominous shadow over the people's homes marks the boundary of the complex. The wall stopped at the beach and in its place there was a No Entry sign. We waited until the guard had disappeared for a while, then aimed our cameras over the sign in the hope of getting some shots of the grounds inside. A crowd of children gathered round calling out "Photo! Photo!" and stood in front of the sign, which none of them could read.