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Dormant undersea volcano near Kalpakkam atomic plant?

IANS  Bangalore, September 18, 2012
First Published: 14:44 IST(18/9/2012) | Last Updated: 14:46 IST(18/9/2012)

Even as massive protests have stalled the commissioning of the Kudankulam nuclear plant, activists have now raised concerns over the safety of another nuclear site in Tamil Nadu. 

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The activists claim that there is documentary evidence that the Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) in Kalpakkam near Chennai sits near an undersea volcano. They have demanded a thorough investigation of the hazard potential of the volcano by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

In a book first published in Tamil in March and recently translated to English under the title "Kalpakkam Nuclear Reactors and Submarine Volcano," V Pughazhendi and R Ramesh of the Peoples Movement for Nuclear Radiation Safety have amassed documentary evidence showing that a submarine volcano is located 156 km southeast of Chennai and 100 km east of Pondicherry that could pose a risk to the nuclear plant in Kalpakkam.

Besides the two power plants in Kalpakkam, there are also a fast breeder test reactor, and a fuel reprocessing facility. There will also soon be a 500-MW prototype fast breeder.

"Volcanic eruptions and submarine landslides have the potential to produce truly awesome tsunami waves," say the authors, who point out that the site of the fast breeder reactor, then under construction, was flooded when a tsunami struck the coast in 2004.

The threat to a nuclear plant from a volcano is something that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna recognises.

The agency's safety guide, "Volcanic Hazards in Site Evaluation for Nuclear Installations" released in May 2011 asked member countries to safeguard reactors built without considering the effect of volcanoes situated in their vicinity.

The IAEA guide also displayed a world map of volcanos showing a submarine volcano off Pondicherry on the eastern coast of India.

Even though the IAEA guide was released more than a year ago and had mentioned the possible presence of a submarine volcano off Chennai, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) of India failed to take any action, Pughazhendi and Ramesh claim.

"So we ourselves gathered all the available information on this volcano published by researchers in India and abroad," they told IANS.

According to their compilation, besides the IAEA guide book, the undersea eruption off Pondicherry on 20 January, 1757, which resulted in the formation of a new island, is mentioned in the website "Global Volcanism Programme" maintained by the Smithsonian Institution of Natural History in Washington.

The authors quote a letter dated January 20, 1757, by a French sailor to his friend in The Hague: "Started sailing from Pondicherry. We saw fire broke out on the surface of the sea. Pumice stones and combustibles were thrown up to a considerable height. An island was floating up of a size of 5 km length and 5 km breadth, at a distance of 15 km.  There was huge noise like thunder or firing of great guns."

According to the book, pumice stones were recovered in 1981 during the deep sea boring done for oil exploration in Pondicherry Sea.

"All these, and the observation by US volcanologist P. Hedervari that the seismic belt from west of Sri Lanka to Australia is characterised by mild volcanism shows that there is cause for concern," its authors say.

Biju Longhinos and CG Nambiar, geologists at the University College, Thiruvananthapuram, and Cochin University, respectively, also agree with the conclusions of the book.

In a 2008 research paper in "Eco Chronicle," they write: "Analysis of gravimetry, bathymetry and total field magnetic anomaly in that area with reference to the ocean-land tectonic aspects, location of minor earthquakes and incidences of rifting of pumice in sea bottom have geographical coincidences and therefore substantiate the eyewitness report, making a strong case for fairly recent volcanism in the region."

But despite all these claims, the existence of this volcano has not been confirmed by the Geological Survey of India. Some leading geologists are also sceptical.

"I don't think this makes any sense," CP Rajendran of the Centre for Earth Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore told IANS.

"It is possible that the sailors might have seen some floating pyroclastic deposits originated from (an earlier) Java eruption. The rest of the things, like the high heat flow values, are all remnants of geologically much older tectonism which are not of any consequence."

But Pughazhendi and Ramesh insist that the DAE must investigate if the volcano really exists and ensure that the nuclear station complies with IAEA guidelines.

The book making the claims about the existence of the volcano was translated into English by scientists at Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd (BHAVINI) in Kalpakkam, a unit of the DAE.

The authors and translators say that the book has been circulated widely among senior officials of the Department of Atomic Energy, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India. No one had yet denied the contents of the book, Ramesh told IANS.


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