(Author is a Research Consultant with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. This is a slightly updated version of an article that appeared in Scroll.in)
-- Kumar Sundaram
ON March 11, news came out that there has been a leak at the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station in Gujarat. A press statement put out by the plant operator, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, on that day stated that Unit-1 of the station had to be shut down after the primary heat transport system had sprung a leak. The operator reassured that there was no release of radiation and workers were safe.
Since then though, there has been no update – neither from the Nuclear Power Corporation nor from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, which monitors nuclear safety in India. As of writing, it has been three days since the accident.
It’s not easy to get the picture with incomplete information. We know that on-site emergency was declared in Kakrapar late evening on March 11 although the accident happened, or started, around 9 am. But we don’t know if the emergency has been lifted and if the situation has returned to normal.
BC Patni, district magistrate of Tapi, said he has no information if the on-site emergency is still in place. Although the reactor is in Surat district administratively, the nearby habitations fall mostly in Tapi district. Patni said the last update that he got was on Saturday evening. He said the nuclear establishment’s team has collected water and soil samples and sent them for radiation tests.
We also don’t know the status of workers, especially those who were on the morning shift that day. All that we have is assurances from the plant officials that radiation counts are “not abnormally high”. When this author spoke to the district magistrate of Surat on the phone, he said he has nothing to say beyond what has appeared in the official press release.
Adhering to international practices, the Nuclear Power Corporation should have constituted an emergency response team with the local civic administration, media and citizens’ groups. It should have also shared latest updates, including radiation counts from inside and around the reactor building, findings of the inspection and status of workers. This would have had the added benefit of quelling any unfound apprehensions and speculations.
Last heard, the plant officials said they are yet to ascertain the cause of the leak. The current chief of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board said to the press that “the magnitude of the coolant system failure is significant”.
The secrecy would perhaps have not been so absolute if ordinary citizens were allowed to use geiger-counters in India to measure radiation. In India the government disallows the use, citing national security, which is outrageous give that globally it is normal for citizens to monitor radiation and ensure their own safety. Even after separation of civilian and military nuclear installations following the Indo-US deal in 2005, the nuclear industry in India continues to enjoy insulation from public scrutiny.
Dr A Gopalakrishnan, who headed the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board from 1993 to 1996, said the situation in Kakrapar might be more serious than what we are being told. He sent an urgent note that I published on the online nuclear resource page I run, DiaNuke.org.
“Some reports indicate that the containment has been vented to the atmosphere at least once, if not more times , which I suspect indicates a tendency for pressure build up in that closed space due to release of hot heavy water and steam into the containment housing . If this is true, the leak is not small , but moderately large , and still continuing. No one confirms that any one has entered the containment (in protective clothing) for a quick physical assessment of the situation , perhaps it is not safe to do so because of the high radiationfields inside...all this points to the likelihood that what Kakrapar Unit-1 is undergoing is a small Loss-of-Coolant Accident (LOCA) in progress. It is most likely that one or more pressure tubes (PT) in the reactor (which contain the fuel bundles) have cracked open, leaking hot primary system heavy-water coolant into the containment housing”
Ever since it was commissioned in 1993, the Kakrapar nuclear plant has had several accidents, including a major one in 1994 when the reactor was flooded and water reached inside the reactor building. The floodgates meant to release excess water could not be opened and the water kept rising, which could have led to a major accident, but it was prevented thanks to the arduous efforts of the workers.
Manoj Mishra, a worker at the power station who blew the whistle on that accident, was terminated by the Nuclear Power Corporation. Unfortunately, even the Supreme Court bought the Nuclear Power Corporation’s argument that he cannot be a whistle-blower since he did not have technical degrees. Mishra had years of experience in the reactor and he was a strong leader of the workers’ union.
Speaking on the Friday accident, Mishra expressed shock that the plant authorities declared an emergency and issued a statement in the evening, since it was no longer possible to hide. By that time, he says, people in the area, especially the workers, had come to know about the accident. According to him, the district authorities of Surat and Tapi came to know first only through the media.
Kakrapar also had a major accident in 2004, when the control rods were irreparably damaged during maintenance work. A similar leak of heavy water, on March 11, 2011, led to a shutdown.
It is important to note that Unit-1 of Kakrapar reactor was started without proper testing of its Emergency Core Cooling System, which again raises serious questions regarding the current crisis. Renowned physician Dr Sanghamitra Gadekar, who is associated with the Gujarat-based anti-nuclear group Anumukti, said, “In 1993, when we came to know that they were starting the reactor without testing the ECCS, we appealed to the prime minister, the Gujarat chief minister and other authorities to halt commissioning. Veteran Gandhian Mahadev Desai then also conducted a fast for five days.”
The Indian nuclear establishment is extremely secretive. When the local community in Koodankulam, the site of a new nuclear plant, demanded basic documents like the Site Selection Committee Report and the Safety Assessment Report, the Nuclear Power Corporation flatly denied.
Last heard, the Department of Atomic Energy wanted amendments in the Right to Information Act to exempt the nuclear establishment. There is complete silence on the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the independence and efficiency of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and the questions raised by the Parliamentary Accounts Committee on nuclear safety in India after Fukushima.
When the Fukushima accident took place, India was the first country to declare the Fukushima reactors safe, even before the Japanese government. When the situation at the nuclear site took a turn for the worse on March 14, the chief of India’s nuclear establishment claimed in a press conference that no nuclear accident had occurred.
According to SK Jain, managing director of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, and Srikumar Banerjee, the then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, all that was happening in Fukushima was a just well-planned emergency preparedness programme. It's more than 10 days since the Kakrapar accident, the leak is still ongoing and the AERB itself has admitted that it might be huge. As the crisis in Kakrapar deepens, we cannot rely for the safety of Indian people on such a callous, secretive and unaccountable nuclear establishment.