How Safe is Nuclear India ?
Syed Ali Mujtaba
How safe are India’s Nuclear power plants, is a question most often asked whenever any discussion on India’s nuclear installation takes place. There are altogether 14 nuclear power reactors operating at six atomic power stations in the country. However, only three of those nuclear reactors fall under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) standards. The rest – which were built with local technology – are accountable only to national standards set by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). This leaves a question mark on the safety of these plants.
The Union government has assured that the operational procedures are being scrupulously followed "at all the nuclear plants", but going by its own admission, six leaks had occurred at various installations in the past four years. Minister of State for Atomic Energy and Space, Vasundhra Raje while giving the details in the winter session of the Parliament informed the house that these incidents were of minor nature and had no significant impact on the public or the environment.
The Minister said that radiation doses released varied form of heavy water leakage above the limit prescribed by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), to release of radioactive material due to failure of a seal plug during a coolant channel inspection. In few cases it was tritium that leaked from the moderator system, as well.
Even though India´s Atomic Energy Commission has repeatedly asserted that it is doing what it can to ensure that the country´s power plants are safe, still, leaks continue to occur. Unofficial figures available, estimates that 300 such incidents have occurred so far. Some of them of serious nature, where radiation leaks have caused physical damage to the workers.
Ever since India´s nuclear-power program has been launched in 1950’s it is kept behind the veil of secrecy. No one knows what’s happening behind the iron curtain as government never releases any information about the leaks or the accidents. The safety lapses are often hushed up and comes to light only when some serious incident occurs and that too when raked up by some NGO’s.
The reason for lack of information is because most of our nuclear installations are located in thinly populated rural areas far from the hub of media activities. The rural populace living there are too impoverished and ignorant to raise any voice about safety standards. In fact most of them are totally unaware, how to react in case if Chernobyl or Bhopal like disaster comes their way.
Some NGO’s and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), have expressed concern at the increased incidence of cancer and deformities observed in some villages neighbouring the Atomic Power plants. They had demanded introduction of consultative mechanisms to go into the safety status of nuclear installations and people’s right to information to be made paramount. However, these pleas have fallen on deaf ears as more nuclear energy projects are being announced by the Government without any public consent.
Public safety seems to be at a premium because India does not have a truly independent organisation to oversee safety and regulation of its civilian nuclear installations. The nearest thing India has is Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), which is completely subservient to the overarching Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Several suggestions to follow the International Convention on Nuclear Safety were made to the Ministry of Atomic Energy and Space but hardly any attention to public safety has been paid so far. Even the plea to separate the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to make the nuclear safety concern foolproof has so far gone unheeded.
The real problem India faces is non approval by the Western countries to pursue its nuclear programme. Decades of denying nuclear technology have pushed the country to pursue our own indigenous programme. Access to technology or equipment from western countries that follow rules set by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is also not forthcoming because India does not accept full-scope international safeguards for its nuclear activities.
The nuclear safety was further pushed to the brink after India exploded its first peaceful nuclear device at Pokharan in 1974. It was placed under various technology transfer regimes by the West which further hardened due to its refusal to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Pokharan Two nuclear tests in 1998, that confirmed India’s status as nuclear weapon state further isolated the country and also accentuating the dangers to public safety.
More so, the new technology designed to upgrade the safety at nuclear power plants is too expensive for developing countries like India to afford. Unlike, other areas where the developed countries are considerate enough for technology transfer they have kept the nuclear safety technology beyond the reach of the developing nation to maintain their supremacy.
All this has led India to pursue the path of self reliance and bank on indigenous hardware production to build the nuclear reactors. But at this stage Red-Tapeism and corruption comes to haunt, when its alleged that well-connected manufacturers cut deals with the politicians and bureaucrats, often selling defective parts. This bogey has pushed the country to probable Chernobyl-type disaster which is kept at bay not by any deliberate design but simply by accident of fate.
It is an irony that though India has come out with elaborate nuclear doctrine, it has not made public the guidelines to the followed to maintain the safety standards of its nuclear power plants. As long as any foolproof nuclear safety mechanism is not evolved, every Indian would continue to end the day with a sleepless night. The fear is not from Pakistan or the terrorists, but our own nuclear installations, which Nehru described to be the temples of modern India.
The need of the hour is to have a regulatory board which should regularly be briefing the government about the safety requirements and releasing press notes periodically for public information. The board should be equipped with the elaborate contingency plans of fire fighting and evacuation of local people in case of any disaster. NGO’s and local representation should be part of such regulatory board to have transparency in maintaining the safety standards.
The worst fear of nuclear disaster recently came to fore when India and Pakistan were on brink of war in the summer of 2002, but, better sense prevailed and that catastrophe was avoided. However, India is still not out of danger yet, it faces an equally devastating catastrophe emanating from the probable safety lapses of its own nuclear power plants. Will someone do something about it!
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a Television Journalist based in Chennai, India. He can be contcted at firstname.lastname@example.org