Smugness still rules in India’s nuclear establishment

Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. Photo by Kawamoto Takuo
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Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. Photo by Kawamoto Takuo

The Fukushima nuclear disaster has sent shivers down the spine of the world public, upset energy generation plans in numerous countries, rattled powerful decision-makers, and shaken the global nuclear industry. But in many ways, India remains an exception to this trend.

The Indian public is deeply upset and shocked at the disaster, which the world’s (and Japan’s) nuclear industry had claimed would never happen. It shares the grief and anxiety of the Japanese people. But the government, in particular, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), remains largely complacent and basically denies the gravity of the catastrophe at Fukushima.

The first response of the DAE bureaucracy to the chain of mishaps that began at the Daiichi power station after a loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA), overheating of nuclear fuel and core damage, leading to a hydrogen explosion, was: “It was purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency….” DAE secretary Srikumar Banerjee described the unfolding disaster as “an unusual situation due to natural disaster”, which “our colleagues in Japan” are “managing … by releasing the pressure building up in the reactor … in a phased manner”.

Nuclear Power Corporation chairman SK Jain was even more blasé: “There is no nuclear accident or incident  …. It is a well-planned emergency preparedness programme …to contain the residual heat after …. an automatic shutdown.”

A fortnight later, the DAE admitted that the Japanese disaster was serious, but said such an accident cannot possibly happen in India; the DAE’s safety systems are superior. It even denied the possibility in respect of two reactors installed at Tarapur in 1969, of the same design (General Electric’s Boiling Water Reactor) as those at Fukushima.

The DAE claimed that the Tarapur reactors have a passive cooling system which does not need back-up power in case of a station blackout. More dubiously, it claimed that all its installations can withstand earthquakes and tsunamis of high magnitudes—when even the Japanese reactors were not designed for these. Jain boasted: “We have got total knowledge and design of the seismic activities. [The] worst seismic events and tsunami have been taken into consideration in our designs.”

The DAE and its apologists continue to attribute the Fukushima disaster to natural calamities. But nuclear emergencies, serious LOCAs and other precursors to a meltdown can occur without natural disasters—as happened at Windscale (UK, 1957), Three Mile Island (US, 1979), and Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986). Nuclear accidents happen because of human error; equipment failure, malfunction or degradation; failure of back-up power or emergency core cooling systems; natural disasters; military attacks, etc. Natural calamities make nuclear accidents more likely.

The DAE denies that serious accidents are inherent in nuclear technology regardless of the degree of sophistication or skills. Its officials blithely say that it is safer to run a reactor than to cross the street. Such outrageously false claims are drilled into DAE personnel during their training and working.

The DAE also says that 18 of its 20 power reactors are based on the Canadian natural uranium-heavy water (CANDU) design, which is qualitatively safer than light-water reactors. This claim was demolished soon after Chernobyl when nuclear engineers, such as those in the Gruppe Oekologie, Hannover, evaluated all existing commercial reactor designs for safety and concluded that each type could undergo a core meltdown.

The Indian nuclear establishment refuses to recognise that even the best of reactor designs are based on probabilistic risk analysis, itself imperfect. There is no such thing as a perfectly safe, 100 percent foolproof reactor design.

The DAE’s record of safety is embarrassingly bad for a small nuclear programme which contributes less than 3 percent to national electricity generation. The DAE has exposed hundreds of workers to radiation doses above the maximum permissible limit, including over 350 by the early 1980s at Tarapur alone, which has two of the world’s most contaminated reactors.

I have visited two of the DAE’s CANDU stations. At the Rajasthan plant, I saw unprotected employees wearing no masks or gloves working in environments where the tritium concentrations exceed 300 to 600 times the maximum permissible. Careless and unsafe practices are routine in DAE installations.

Indiahas had serious nuclear accidents. In 1993, a fire broke out at Narora, a nuclear station 300 km from Delhi. It started in the turbine room because of unsafe practices against which the manufacturer had warned the DAE. It spread to the reactor building. Instead of fighting the fire, the management panicked and violated emergency protocols. The fire ended accidentally, not by design.

At Kaiga, a containment dome being built over a reactor—the last line of defence in case of a radioactivity leak—collapsed. The structural design and construction methods were faulty. It is too frightening to think of the consequences had this happened with a working reactor.

Kaiga also witnessed suspected sabotage in November 2009, when workers were found to have high levels of tritium in their urine. Tritium, a heavy isotope of hydrogen, is toxic and raises the likelihood of cancer. According to the plant authorities, the tritium or tritiated water was spiked into a drinking water cooler. The saboteurs were never identified. Nor is it known how they had access to the tritium, and how they could insinuate it into the sealed cooler.

The DAE refuses to acknowledge the thorny problem of nuclear wastes, generated at every stage of the so-called “nuclear fuel cycle”, from uranium mining to reactor operation to spent-fuel storage or reprocessing. High-level wastes remain hazardous for thousands of years. Science has no way of safely storing them for long periods, let alone neutralising them.

The DAE has got away with unsafe practices because it is not subject to public scrutiny or regulation. India has no independent authority that can evolve standards and regulate reactors for safety. The DAE has merely implemented or copied US and Canadian designs. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is toothless and dependent for its budget, equipment and personnel on the DAE. The Atomic Energy Act 1962 allows the DAE to conceal any information it likes.

After Fukushima, the Indian government has come under public pressure to review the nuclear programme. A recent statement signed by 60 eminent citizens said: “We strongly believe that India must radically review its nuclear power policy for appropriateness, safety, costs, and public acceptance, and undertake an independent, transparent safety audit of all its nuclear facilities, which involves non-DAE experts and civil society organisations. Pending the review, there should be a moratorium on all further nuclear activity, and revocation of recent clearances for nuclear projects.” (Available at

The Indian government is still resistant to any proposal to pause and review its nuclear programme. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has hinted at limited change. He reminded DAE scientists on March 29: “The people of India have to be convinced about the safety and security of our own nuclear power plants. We should bring greater openness and transparency in the decision-making processes relating to our nuclear energy programme and improve our capacity to respond to the public desire to be kept informed about decisions and issues that are of concern to them. I would like to see accountability and transparency in the functioning of our nuclear power plants.”

He added: “I have already directed a technical review of all safety systems of our nuclear power plants using the best expertise available …. [F]uture reactors …will have to be certified by the Indian regulatory authority and meet its safety standards. This will apply equally to reactors and technologies that are imported.”

However, it is not clear if this review will be done by an independent body which includes non-DAE experts and civil society organisations. The only significant commitment by Singh is to “strengthen the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and make it a truly autonomous and independent regulatory authority…[with] the highest and the best international standards...”

If, how soon, and by what means, this will be done remains unclear. But to be effective, the AERB must include people who do not uncritically think that nuclear power is inherently safe, indispensable and desirable. Ultimately, the creation of an independent AERB may be the sole positive outcome of Fukushima’s impact on India.

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political commentator and environmental activist