Indian Nuclear Safety: A question of RS.500 only

By Zaheerul Hassan

On August 23, 2012 global nuclear experts went into shock after reading the report of Indian national auditors’ report on India’s nuclear safety and declared Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), a weak regularity body. Interestingly, the AERB was constituted through an executive order in 1983 and reports to the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The locals residing in the vicinities of the  nuclear plants have demanded the relocation of plants away from the populace area. In this connection they are soon going to launch proper protests against AEC and central government.

He exposed that AERB, which supervises safety issues at India’s 22 running nuclear plants, has no power to make rules for enforcing compliance. It can only impose penalty in the cases of nuclear safety oversight. The penalty would be in the shape of a fine of maximum Rs. 500 as a deterrent in cases. In other words, Indian nuclear safety can be comprised in Rs. 500 only. Indian Comptroller and Auditor General have also confirmed the auditor’s report and warned a Fukushima or Chernobyl-like disaster, if the nuclear safety issue is not addressed by the government.

As one of a good neighbour, I number of times in my articles tried to draw IAEA and Indian nuclear authorities’ attention about the weak and poor safety arrangements at all Indian nuclear plants. Unfortunately, “Mr. B. Raman”, former Additional Sectary of RAW instead of further advising its government to improve upon the security and safety arrangement, declared my article, “Credibility of Indian Nuclear Programme” as a classic example of propaganda against Indian Nuclear Programme. Hope, this time my brother is not going to declare the Indian auditor report fabricated one.

It is mentionable here that AERB was constituted through an executive order in 1983 and present report to the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Therefore, “The legal status of the AERB continued to be that of an authority subordinate to the Central Government, with powers delegated to it by the latter.” Therefore, no subordinate detachment or a body can inspect her parental organization or headquarter in true letter and spirit.

Whereas, according to IAEA, independent regularity authority is one of the needs of the agency to inspect the security and safety arrangements at nuclear plants. In this connection Indian auditor very rightly pointed out that a number of countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Pakistan and the US have conferred legal status to their respective bodies.

Report also mentioned “out of the 168 standards, codes and guides identified by AERB for development under various thematic areas, 27 safety documents still remained to be developed. The report said off-site emergency exercises highlighted the inadequate emergency preparedness to deal with situations involving radiological effects from a nuclear power plant which may extend to public areas.  It is also a matter of concern that approach road to the plant site of Tarapur Atomic Power Station was highly congested, which would pose serious problems in dealing with any future emergency.

The current report is not the first one; earlier on February 28, 2012 an expert committee appointed by the Tamil Nadu government on submitted its report on the safety aspects of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNNP) to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, marking a crucial stage in the debate over the project. At the same time, the State government invited the People’s Movement against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) representatives for talks on next day i.e. Feburary29, 2012.

However, on above mentioned report visible clashes has been noticed between government sponsored scientists and private but straight former scientists who were really worried about the lives of the local living around the project. In this regard M.R. Srinivasan, a former chairman of Indian Atomic Energy commission and member of experts committee while talking to the media reporters said that “Let the government have a cool view of the report,” but ” I have not taken back my words on the issue despite that few government officials are satisfied over the issue.”
He further explained that on February 20, after visiting the nuclear plant and holding talks with PMANE representatives in Tirunelveli, Dr. Srinivasan had said the state-of-the-art safety features incorporated in the reactor had made it a ‘third generation plus’ reactor. S. Iniyan, Director of Centre for Energy Studies, Anna University, D. Arivuoli, Professor, Department of Physics, Anna University and former IAS office L.N. Vijayaraghavan are the other members on the committee.

Meanwhile, Mr. Udayakumar has sent a legal notice to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for insinuating that the anti-Kudankulam protests were funded by United States and the Scandinavian non-government organisations. Advocate M. Radhakrishnan, who sent the notice on behalf of Mr. Udayakumar, said the Prime Minister had made a “false statement with an intention to harm his client’s reputation”.

Nevertheless, number of incidents of gas leakages, Uranium theft cases, murder of nuclear staff and scientists have already been reported and registered. Precisely, commenting the major incident in nukes pants, theft cases of enriched Uranium, murdering and harassing of nuclear staff by intelligence agency and leakage of gases are in increase. Reportedly, because of poor safety and security arrangement on May 14 2010, another incident of poor radiation security green place radiation experts have identified eight hotspots in New Delhi Mayapuri area which have 5000 times the natural background radiation defined as safe by the department of atomic energy. In this incident one individual died and eleven others were injured.

The nukes experts always have shown strong concern over Indian poor safety and nuke arrangements on the nuke plants and handlers. In this reared New Delhi    never paid heed to IAEA concerns over nukes safety and security. Almost 160 cases of theft, loss and misplacement of radioactive source have been registered in the local police. Again recently a radiographer boarding a train in New Delhi carrying an industrial gamma radiography exposure device was stolen from him and never found. In April 2007 a radiography Camera stolen from Jadadishphir near Lucknow could not be found till to date.

In November 2009, fifty five employees consumed radioactive material after titrated founded its way into the drinking water cooler in Kaiga Nuclear plant in Karnataka. The leakage of 4-14 tones of heavy water from the pipes at madras atomic processing plant in Tamil Nadu. Six workers have been exposed to high doses of radioactive radiation.

Indian police found dead body of the nuclear scientist, Lokanathan Mahalingam from Kali River in Jun 2009. The scientist was in possession of highly sensitive / classified information. On 29 December 2009, a fire broke out at the BARC, killing two scientists identified as Umang Singh and Partha Bagga. Anantha Narayanan, a scientific working in the computer department of Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam is missing since Feb 2010. A 48 year old Madhadevan lyer, scientist of the BARC was found dead in his official residence in Feb 2010.

Mr. Thirumala Prasad Thenka, a scientist of Raja Ramanna Centre for Advance Technology (RRCAT) committed suicide by hanging himself on 12 Apr 2010. On 28 April 2010, Delhi Police traces Cobalt – 60 to DU Chemistry Department.

Coming back to the current report, the most serious problems relate to ensure the safe use of radiation in medical and industrial facilities across India. In this context, the AERB was ordered by the Supreme Court in 2001 to set up radiation safety directorates in 35 administrative areas, but by July 2012 it had achieved this in only two. The concerned agency had also failed to frame rules for cost recovery from licenses and was therefore bearing almost the entire cost of the consent process for permitting and inspection. The consent system itself has been “weak”, resulting in “a substantial number of radiation facilities operating without licenses.” The report said that 91% of X-ray facilities were not registered with AERB and were therefore unregulated.

The AERB has never set out standard inspection periods for radiation facilities and the comptroller’s report noted an 85% shortfall in inspections at industrial radiography and radiotherapy units, compared to IAEA norms. For diagnostic radiobiology facilities the shortfall was “over 97%”. There is no detailed inventory of radioactive sources to help ensure safe disposal and no “proper mechanism” to check the safe disposal of radioactive waste. It is also worth mentioning here that the Indian state nuclear establishment has not drawn on the services of the IAEA to peer-review its regulatory system and comment on its effectiveness.

In the end, the comptroller very rightly concluded that the government should ensure the regulator is “empowered and independent” and that this is specified in law. Inspection regimes should be set out based on risk analyses and checks should be undertaken either by IAEA or in terms of the norms prescribed by the UN atomic agency.  Auditor report also reminded me the unforgettable miseries of Bhopal Union Carbide Pesticide Plant, when over 8000 innocent people killed and more than 5000 suffered with serious injuries as a result of gas leakage in 1984. The affected individuals of Bhopal have still not been compensated and keep on crying for their rights even in the highest courts.

In short, auditor report confirms that Indian government particular Chairman Atomic Energy Commission has never been serious in removing bugs of safety   at nuclear plants .Moreover, Indian scientists and authorities are lacking expertise in handling sensitive and dangerous material related to nukes and gases.  World community should ask India to stop further expansion of their nuclear and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programme.

(Note; Major part of Indian auditor’s report has been incorporated in unique form with a view to present the facts in original shape)

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