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Saturday, January 08, 2005

Despatches 45: The doctor in the atomic city

Much of what we see and do in Kalpakkam reassures us that, contrary to my earlier speculation, nothing has gone wrong here. But we have more reason to feel lucky than to feel complacent. Having an atomic energy plant by the sea, close to Chennai, is still an invitation to disaster – and disaster does not have the manners to knock.

The man we come to meet in Kalpakkam is Dr Pugazhenthi. As we drive through the winding roads of Sadras township, the residential area next to the Kalpakkam reactor, we stop a few times to ask where he lives. Everyone in this town knows him. “Oh, Dr Pugazhenthi!” they exclaim. “You’re looking for Dr Pugazhenthi? No problem, just go blah, turn yada, and when you pass etc, you’ll see his office on the right.”

The good doctor bounds out of his office when we arrive. He is a scruffy man in a brown khadi kurta and off-white trousers, with streaks of grey running through his unkempt hair, and a three-day stubble on a chubby face. He talks animatedly, urgently, always as if he is trying to persuade you of something, even when he is simply saying something as innocuous as “the beach is there”. Well, yes, the beach is there, and we walk along with him as he steps off urgently towards the water.

Dr Pugazhenthi gives us a guided visual tour, from the beach, of where the reactor is. It is right on the shore, he shows us, and he tells us of how the waves penetrated the pumphouse, flooded the motor there – needed for cooling the reactor – and tripped the system. A safety engineer in the turbine room noticed that the system had tripped and effected a shut-down of the reactor. (There were also rumours of a small fire in the turbine room, which was soon brought under control.) No issues there.

“A bigger problem than the reactor itself,” he tells us, “is the waste-management faculty, which is a kilometre from the shore. The waters did not go that far this time [they went much further in Nagapattinam, though], if something like this happens again and they do go that far, it could be a disaster. If the affluents there leak out, marine life across the coast would be devastated. It would be a massive environmental disaster.

“Not that a tsunami is needed,” he continues, “for there to be problems in Kalpakkam.”

“What do you mean by that?” I ask him.

“Well, you see, I have done studies on the effects of radiation on the people here, and I believe that definitely there are problems in Kalpakkam. Have you heard of Polydactyly?”

I have, as it happens. Polydactyly is a condition in which people are born with an extra digit on their hands or feet, and any cricket writer will know that Garry Sobers was a polydactyl. Polydactyly is often caused by genetic reasons – but it can also be caused by radiation.

“I have surveyed a large strip from here both north and south of Kalpakkam,” he says, “and I have found 12 cases of polydactyly within a 16 km radius of the reactor, none north of that and two towards the south – in both those cases, though, the mothers were from the 16 km radius.

“None of these were due to consanguinous marriages or parental history,” he adds, thus ruling out the other possible causes of Polydactyly. He also tells me of similar incidences of multiple myloma, which is widely acknowledged to be caused by such radiation.

As we get ready to hit the road again, and are saying our goodbyes, I ask him, “So, Dr Pugazhenthi, why is it that you still live in a town like this?”

I expect an answer about commitment to his cause, and so on, but instead he says, “Oh, this is the safest place for me to be living in. I find big cities like Mumbai and Chennai too polluted.”

He smiles, and we get inside our car, preparing to head off towards the big cities that await us.
amit varma, 11:52 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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