Saturday, July 08, 2006

Indian nuclear program: Disasters-in-Making

by Adnan Gill

On August 6, 1945 the nuclear bomb Little Boy killed an estimated 80,000 people. In the following months, an estimated 60,000 additional souls were lost to radiation poisoning. Three days later Nagasaki was targeted by the second nuclear bomb. An estimated 39,000 people were killed instantly with another 75,000 believed to have succumbed to radiation poisoning. American intelligence estimates the casualties to be manifold higher in a similar attack on densely populated Indian cities like New Delhi or Mumbai. Indian experts say the country could face an equally devastating nuclear catastrophe, not because of its nuclear rival, but from within. Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan, a former chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) summarized the threats from within as, "There could be lesser accidents which could still release moderate amounts of radioactivity into the crowded areas surrounding some of our less-safe installations at Madras, Trombay or Tarapur. It could be devastating to a large number of people."

An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization report attributes 56 deaths to Chernobyl accident and estimates that as many as 9,000 people, among the approximately 6.6 million most highly exposed, may die from radiation exposure. As horrific as these statistics may seem, experts believe these figures will dwarf in front of mass casualties resulting from an impending nuclear disaster(s) in India. Indian nuclear reactors are called by some nuclear experts, ‘disasters-in-making.’ Experts say, It’s not a matter of if, but when?

Indian industrial complex is notorious for lack of safety and catastrophic disasters. The Bhopal Disaster of 1984 is the worst industrial disaster in history. It was caused by the release of 40 tons of methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide pesticide plant located in the heart of the city of Bhopal, India. The gases injured between 150,000 to 600,000 unsuspected victims, and snuffed at least 15,000 innocent lives. What is even more disturbing is that experts believe Indian nuclear complex is poised to kill even more Indians. Such a disaster will put even Bhopal Disaster to shame. Scientists believe that Indian plants are so poorly designed, built and maintained, a Chernobyl-style disaster may be just around the corner. The threats posed by its mad pursuit of nuclear weapons are real, because India is the only country in the world where nuclear research and plutonium production occur inside or near heavily populated areas. The Indian nuclear complex is believed to be gravely unsafe and most dangerous in the world. It is not surprising that the popular American television program ‘60 Minutes’, charged India with operating "the most unsafe nuclear plants in the world."

The safety black holes in the Indian nuclear program range from hazardous mining practices, near meltdowns, heavy water leaks, turbine-blade failures, moderator system malfunctions, inoperable emergency core cooling systems, coolant pumps catching fires, structure failures, to flooding incidents, to say the least. American-based watchdog group -- the Safe Energy Communication Council (SECC) -- described the Indian nuclear program, especially its reactors to be the “least efficient” and the “most dangerous in the world.” Nuclear safety experts are alarmed by the dangerously unsafe conditions plaguing the Indian reactors. Sharing his alarm with the Christian Science Monitor, Christopher Sherry the research director of the SECC, said, "The fact that India's nuclear regulator acknowledges that reactors in India are not operated to the standards of reactors in the US and Europe is not much of a surprise, [but] it is very disturbing."

How safe are Indian nuclear plants? According to Dr A. Gopalakrishnan, the answer is, hardly at all. In his alarming response to the question Dr. Gopalakrishnan said, "Many of our nuclear installations have aged with time and have serious problems. Our efforts to find indigenous solutions, despite our capabilities, are not well-organized or focused.” Fearing the pathetically unsafe conditions of Indian reactors, he said, “[It] is a matter of great concern."

Today, India has 14 nuclear reactors most of which are modeled after an obsolete 1957 Shippingport (Pennsylvania, USA) design. Only three Indian nuclear reactors barely meet IAEA standards. The rest are accountable only to the so-called ‘national standards’ set by AERB.

An Indian atomic-power expert Dhirendra Sharma estimates that Indian nuclear industry has suffered from "300 incidents of a serious nature... causing radiation leaks and physical damage to workers." He further concedes, "These have so far remained official secrets."

India's nuclear-power program has always been secretive, because politicians use it as a cover for the country's weapons program. The Indian government does not release information about the leaks or accidents at its nuclear power plants. Laws prohibit scientists and politicians from speaking out about the radioactive contaminations and accidents in the nuclear facilities. What throttled the absolute secrecy of accidents at its nuclear programs was the Indian Atomic Energy Act of 1962 (NO. 33 OF 1962. 15th September, 1962), which prescribes that the nuclear program should be shrouded in secrecy. The Act provides the Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) enormous powers and the rights to withhold any information from public. Critics call the DAE an 'unaccountable organization'. It prohibits private and public equity from within and outside the country. It also says the program should be run by the DAE with limited participation from private industries. Due to obscure international oversight and the 1962 Act the safety conditions at Indian nuclear facilities remain dangerously unsafe and largely hidden from the public.

Even four decades after it launched its nuclear reactor program, technical problems with Indian reactors remain so severe that the rated capacity of the country's reactors totals only 1,840-mw, contributing less than 2.5% of India's commercial energy.

A decade ago, a nine-month long AERB safety study of Indian reactors documented more than 130 extremely serious safety issues which warranted urgent corrective measures. The most urgent corrective actions were recommended at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre; Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR); Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited; Uranium Corporation of India Limited; Indian Rare Earths Limited; Nuclear Fuel Complex, and the Heavy Water Board.

Due to its age and insufficient safety procedures, IGCAR is prone to serious accidents. In 1987, during a fuel transfer process, a tube guiding fuel into the reactor was snapped. Then in 2002, 75kg of radioactive sodium leaked inside a purification cabin.

The Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS) reactors are the oldest in the world. They experienced extensive tube failures which led to the de-rating of its reactors from 210-mw to 160-mw. The two reactors share the same emergency core cooling system, which experts say is a recipe for the reactor meltdown.

Kakrapar Atomic Power Station (KAPS) reactors are considered to be India’s model reactors for controlling radiation leaks; not surprisingly, even they emit three times the radiation as much as the international norm, a fact admitted by S.P. Sukhatme, chairman of AERB. Mr. Sukhatme’s shocking admission put the rest of the country's nuclear-power plants in grave perspective. Top Indian antinuclear activist Suren Gadekar found the admission to be extremely shocking and disturbing. He said, "The main implication is that other nuclear-power plants are much worse than even Kakrapar." In February 2002, chairman Sukhatme requested the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd to plug tritium contaminated water leaks in its reactors. In 1994, owing to its faulty design, concrete containment dome of KAPS collapsed. The collapse exposed the workers to high doses of radiation. Thereafter the floodwater entered the condenser pit and turbine building basement which resulted in four-year delay in its commissioning.

In 2002, the AERB ordered the closure of India's first nuclear plant -- Rajasthan Atomic Power Station (RAPS). The reactor was plagued with a series of serious defects ranging from turbine-blade failures, cracks in the end-shields, a leak in the overpressure relief device, and leaks in many tubes of the moderator heat exchanger. It was not the first time that seriously dangerous accidents forced RAPS to shutdown. In 1976, due to construction errors, the reactors were flooded, which forced the shutdown. The reactors were once again flooded in 1992. Also in 1992, four of its eight pumps caught fire. On February, 12 1994, it was shutdown for the repair of its calandria overpressure relief device which leaked radioactive heavy water. Later, in 1994, the Indian Express reported that in the aftermath of Canadian reports on the possibility of rupture in the pressure tubes of Canada-India Reactor, US (CIRUS) reactors, RAPS also went through the safety checks, as it was designed from the copied Canadian blueprints. Once, the emergency core cooling system got obstructed, leading to a near meltdown. RAPS’ innumerable problems forced it to be de-rated from 220-mw to 100-mw. RAPS functioned without high-pressure emergency core cooling system.

Despite a warning from the US-based General Electric (GE), the manufacturers of the turbines, in 1991, India commissioned the Narora Atomic Power Station (NAPS). As a result, in 1993, failure of two steam turbine blades resulted in a major fire in one of the heavy water reactors, which nearly led to a nuclear meltdown. The disaster could have been averted had either the government, or the DAE found it prudent to yield to GE’s warnings.

In 1986, the inlets of Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) reactors cracked and Zircalloy pieces were found in the moderator pump. Then in 1988, MAPS was shut down after heavy water leaked, exposing workers to high doses of radioactivity. Again, in 1991, tons of heavy water burst out from the moderator system. Its emergency cooling systems are said to be inadequate.

Its not only the designs of Indian nuclear reactors that are obsolete and flawed, even the very sites they were chosen to be built upon were irresponsibly unsuitable for such facilities. The under construction 500-mw prototype fast breeder reactor coming up at Kalpakkam was damaged by the waters of 2004 tsunami. In a March 2005 report, the Telegraph (Calcutta) reported, “Water had surged into the reactor’s foundation pit when the December 26 tsunami devastated coastal stretches of Tamil Nadu.” The report further revealed the extent of damage, “The huge foundation pit, close to the [MAPS], was filled with over six meters of seawater and chunks of silt and sludge.” The fast breeder reactor uses liquid sodium as coolant -- liquid sodium is an extremely hazardous agent. Once dried, it can ignite and burn with such heat and intensity that once started, it’s almost impossible to extinguish. Alarmed by the deadly hazards posed by the breeder reactor, in 2005, its Employees' Association and other workers' unions planed to file a court case charging DAE for seriously lacking the qualified technical personnel at critical positions of the MAPS reactors and for the reactor perilously endangering the safety of the plant and the public. The reprocessing plant holding glass-matted enriched waste is said to be just about 150 meters from the sea. Will it be safe if another tsunami strikes?

It is said there is no greater curse then to watch one’s child suffer from a disability and deformation. There are thousands upon thousands of Indian parents who inconsolably suffer from this horrific curse everyday. What is even more heartbreaking is that they don’t even realize the evil that has brought the curse upon them is manmade. It is the evil of nuclear poisoning. Indian nuclear program does not harm only the workers of DAE, but it also harms the lives of ordinary citizens even worst.

“Maloti Singh, a nine-year-old girl whose contract-worker father loaded waste drums, was born with one leg withered into a stump and a deformed foot. Her father and grandmother, who used to collect stone chips from the tailing pond, both have skin cancer. None of the family has seen a doctor.” (Sunday Telegraph, 25 April, 1999, Issue 1430). This is only one example out of thousands of ordinary Indians who have been poisoned by the highly-secretive, unsafe, and world’s most dangerous nuclear program.

Environmental contamination is especially severe in the eastern state of Bihar where Indian government callously mines radioactive materials without any regards to human lives or wellbeing of other species. The health threats posed to many families living near the Jadugoda mine are said to be worst than the after-effects of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. The locals suffer from unusually high number of abnormal births, cancers and a host of other ailments that were previously rare. Radioactive contamination is said to be so massive that genetic mutations have also been noted in animals and as well in plants.

In 1999, the Sunday Telegraph revealed, “In all, at least 30,000 villagers -- and the land and livestock around them -- are being exposed to contamination from the Jadugoda facility, according to researchers. Activists believe that the problems are caused by the lack of safeguards at the mine and its waste dumps, technically known as ‘tailing ponds’, as well as the unprotected movement of uranium and wastes. They fear that contamination has entered the food chain and will affect the genetic make-up of local population for generations to come.” Sadly, those who are the worst affected by the fatal contamination, don’t even realize what is terminating their lives short. Most attribute the strange diseases resulting from the radiation poisoning to the ‘will of God.’

Indian experts like N.M. Sampathkumar Iyangar (former manufacturer of nuclear reactor components) believes the real safety problems with the Indian nuclear program arise from the fact that well-connected manufacturers often sell substandard and defective equipment to build and repair the nuclear reactors. Others believe India cuts corners to save money by forsaking the technologies that make the power plants safe.

What worries experts is not the fact that an ambitious Indian nuclear program has become environmentally unaffordable, rather the reality that its nuclear program has become disasters-in-making.

More articles by Adnan Gill

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