Chennai: "Varum, aanaa varaadhu" (Will come, but will not come) is a popular comedy line in a Tamil movie featuring comedian Vadivelu which has come into common usage.
And that line is what some use to describe the first 1,000 MW unit of the multi-thousand crore rupee Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KNPP) built by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) at Kudankulam in Tirunelveli district, around 650 km from here.
But late on Thursday evening, armed with the nod from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board's clearance KNPP started its journey towards attaining criticality - the start of the nuclear fission process for the first time in a reactor.
"The process to take the first reactor to criticality commenced Thursday evening. It will take 48-72 hours (Sunday-Monday evening) from that time to attain criticality," R.K. Sinha, secretary, department of atomic energy (DAE) and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), told IANS.
According to NPCIL officials, if everything goes well, the plant would start generating power in 45 days' time.
"Tamil Nadu's share of the 1,000 MW will be 423 MW. As and when the power comes to our grid it will certainly ease the power shortage to some extent," a senior official at Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Ltd (TANGEDCO) told IANS, preferring anonymity.
"We source power from various central power generating units at varied rates but less than Rs.3 per unit, whereas the power from KNPP will be over Rs.3 per unit," he added.
According to him, the commissioning of around 2,800 MW fresh generation capacity has already eased the acute power situation in the state.
Meanwhile the AERB's nod took the People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy
(PMANE) and others who were opposed to KNPP by surprise.
For, the union environment ministry in a letter dated June 27 informed S.P. Udayakumar, co-ordinator of PMANE that the KNPP site visit report is neither finalised nor submitted to any agency so far.
A committee consisting of officials from AERB, NPCIL, Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) had inspected the KNPP May 5.
Similarly AERB, in a letter dated July 1, informed Udayakumar that it would file its report in the Supreme Court before granting next stage of clearance for commissioning the plant.
On July 9, the Tamil Nadu government sought one week's time from the Madras High Court to gather details of cases filed against the anti-KNPP agitators to comply with apex court directions.
Curiously the TNPCB had filed its KNPP report in the apex court early last week and its counsel shared a copy of the report with counsel for G. Sundarrajan who had filed the case against KNPP.
While it was rumoured that AERB, NPCIL and MoEF had filed their reports in the Supreme Court, there was no confirmation on that from the officials.
On May 6, the Supreme Court, in its nod for the mega atomic power plant, gave 15 directions for NPCIL, AERB, theTamil Nadu government, MoEF and the TNPCB to fulfil before commissioning the first of the two 1,000 MW units at KNPP.
The apex court directed the Tamil Nadu government to withdraw all the cases filed against the agitators so that normalcy is restored in Kudankulam and surrounding places and people could be educated on the necessity of the project, which is in the larger interests of the nation, particularly Tamil Nadu.
The apex court also directed AERB, MoEF, NPCIL and TNPCB to oversee each and every aspect of the project, including safety of the plant, impact on the environment, quality of components and systems in the plant before its commissioning.
"After AERB's nod we checked with the apex court to find that AERB, NPCIL and MoEF have filed their reports in a sealed envelope with the court registry. Only with the permission of the court will we be able get a copy of those reports," Sundarrajan told IANS.
Interestingly, by that time, the reactor would have attained criticality if everything pans out well for NPCIL.
"In a true democracy, the reports must be shared with the petitioner and with the larger public and must be debated openly and earnestly. But this AERB clearance defies the spirit of democracy...," PMANE charged.
Speaking to IANS, a Supreme Court advocate, not wanting to be named, said: "Filing reports with the court registry in a sealed cover is normal practice if a litigating party does not want the opposite party to see it. It is for the court to decide whether the reports could be shared with the other party."
According to PMANE, the KNPP is yet to comply with several important legal and safety measures such as CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone) clearance for the desalination plants, effluent outlet pipes and so on.
Sundarrajan said the first and second units at KNPP should discharge its effluents into the sea by a closed pipeline away from the shore.
"To the best of our knowledge there is no pipeline for the discharge of effluents of the first two units of KNPP," he said.
When contacted by IANS, NPCIL officials declined to comment on the matter.
The apex court had also directed the environment ministry to oversee and monitor
whether the NPCIL is complying with the conditions laid down while granting clearance on Sep 23, 2008, under the provisions of the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) Notification of 2006.
It was also to see that the conditions laid down in the environmental clearance granted by it Dec 31, 2009, were complied with.
The KNPP is an outcome of the inter-governmental agreement between India and the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1988. However, construction began only in 2001.
Fearing for their safety in the wake of the nuclear accident in Fukushima in Japan in 2011, villagers in the vicinity of the Kudankulam plant, under the PMANE banner, have been opposing the project.
While the atomic energy establishment is confident about the reactor and says the reactor will come into play, Sundarrajan said the reactor "varum, aanaa varaadhu" at least in the near term.
The answer to "Kudankulam first unit, will it or won't it" still remains a million dollar question for the public.
(V. Jagannathan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)