Plug the deadly nuclear leak

The Kaiga contamination has blown the lid off the nuclear establishment in India that reeks of corruption, favouritism, and a cover-up culture. The whole establishment must be thoroughly decontaminated. But who will bell the cat?

NM Sampathkumar Iyangar Ahmedabad

A week before setting out for the State dinner hosted by US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told reporters in New Delhi, "We do all within our power to ensure the security and safety of our nuclear installations. Let me assure that." Journalists were quizzing him on media reports about terrorist threat to the country's nuclear facilities.
That was on November 15.

When a tired Singh returned on November 30 after his high-profile trip to Washington DC and Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, where he participated in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, he could hardly have expected concerns on nuclear safety to crop up again.

Excessive exposure to radioactivity was reported by workers of an atomic power station at Kaiga near Bangalore. According to official figures, over 60 workers had to be hospitalised. The incident had created a big scare in the country that has witnessed the world's worst industrial accident. There is lurking fear that the former Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal is still leaking dangerous toxins into drinking water.

Singh put on a brave face and said he had received a briefing from aides. He said, "It is a small matter of contamination and is not linked to any leak. There is nothing to worry. All our systems are intact and under control. An inquiry has been ordered."

A small matter of contamination? Nothing to worry?

Singh was relying on inputs from Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), the State-owned monopoly nuclear plant operator of India. A company release said a preliminary enquiry did not "reveal any violation of operating procedures or radioactivity releases or security breach". Its CEO, SK Jain, said in a statement, "It is possibly an act of mischief."

The theory went that an insider had mixed radioactive tritium in drinking water in a cooler kept in the operating island. The reactor was under annual maintenance. Former chief of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Anil Kakodkar had told the State-run media, PTI, "Somebody deliberately put the tritiated water vials into a drinking water cooler." He said the AEC was investigating "who is behind the malevolent act". Kakodkar happens to be the key negotiator from the Indian side to almost wrap up the controversial India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

Manmohan Singh's junior, Prithviraj Chavan, looks after the ministry of atomic energy. He endorsed the story. Chavan set several agencies to investigate the accident, but prejudged the cause as "breach of some security measures". That is a favourite phrase with the Indian government. "Somebody from the lab who had access to the water cooler had done it between 3 am and 6 am (of November 24)," he revealed.

Singh was only repeating the cock and bull story that a disgruntled employee injected the radioactive stuff into a sealed water cooler. India's cooperative media had no desire to question how this 'sabotage', during the three-hour window, could poison so many men.

Similar incidents in the past at other atomic power reactors of the same design should put the issue in perspective. Massive quantities of radioactive coolant-moderator leaked out of the heavy water reactor at Kakrapara during in-service inspection a few years ago.

Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is the agency tasked with ensuring radiation safety in India. In an official report in February 2001, the AERB revealed that workers received collective radiation dose that was three times the internationally permitted level. The administration slammed Dr SP Sukhatme, AERB chief, who urged the NPCIL to act upon the excessive tritium leakages from the heavy water in power stations.

Two years ago, degradation of sealing arrangement was noted in one of the coolant channels in a reactor at Kalpakkam. It resulted in six tons of irradiated heavy water spilling into the reactor building, according to an NPCIL release.

With such inglorious past record, it is hard to picture a poor water cooler as the culprit for radiation poisoning reported on November 25. Yet, a search is on for a scapegoat who can be presented as the mischief monger. This prompted several 'Bangladeshi Muslims' on the rolls of the plant's labour contractor to flee the city. After all, Muslims are the 'preferred terrorists' to be picked up to 'crack' any such incident in the country. And, every Bengali-speaking Muslim is a Bangladeshi agent!

Of note, Dr Sukhatme had recommended improvement of the design of coolant channels to control leaks in 2001. But nothing has been accomplished on this front. The criminal investigation this time around, too, is not focused on what caused the radiation. The motive is to ensure the real story behind grave leaks from the coolant channels is hushed up.

In fact, these leaks could as well be the outcome of rampant corruption and palming off dangerously sub-standard components to build nuke facilities. Any honest probe to get to the root cause would expose the dishonesty of powerful bosses.

The atomic power sector is in the grip of a powerful and extremely influential mafia. Unscrupulous science bureaucrats, corrupt politicos and greedy business tycoons, who also control the media, are able to siphon off monstrous sums in the guise of national security and strategic interests. India's Atomic Energy Act puts affairs of the nuke mafia beyond scrutiny by courts, Comptroller and Auditor General or even Parliament.

Engineering director of the NPCIL wrote to a newspaper in 1996 when silly design flaws in coolant channel components were pointed out, "In over 35 PHWRs all over the world, not a single case of failure (of the compromised component) is known to have occurred in service." There could nevertheless be catastrophic failure due to the flaw. The official admitted that for the first three reactors built in India, all the components were made as per Canadian designs and specifications. "Requirements were evolved" for the components of subsequent reactors "on the basis of our own development work", he said.

Added to the design botch-ups were grave compromises detected in the material integrity of some of the critical components. For instance, inspectors had taken the presence of impurities such as sulphur and phosphorus beyond stipulated limits in reactor grade steel as "small matter of contamination" and allowed them for building reactors.

It was well known that such compromises could cause grave radiation leaks. The NPCIL, however, hushed up the allegation to protect contractors who did deals with 'friendly' engineers up to the very top of the establishment.

Another NPCIL Director informed the media, ". . . concessions on dimensional deviations on 'micron level' have been considered in the past from all suppliers. These deviations are considered only when they don't constitute any deterioration from functional point of view and difficulty from installation point of view. Chemical composition deviations also have been considered such as phosphorus and carbon content being on the higher side, after full evaluation by metallurgists."

This, incidentally, is the usual 'style' adopted by the nuke science officialdom to obfuscate plain malfeasance. The experts are capable of justifying the acceptance of tap water in place of distilled water for intravenous drugs "after full evaluation"!

The AERB winked at the scandal and appointed an experts committee that consisted of the very same engineers. The committee opined that the issue brought to its attention was not of "serious" safety concern. Top nuke wonks of India are sure that not all safety concerns in a nuclear facility need be serious, particularly when compromises are noted in material integrity.

Karwar superintendent of police, Raman Gupta, is currently in touch with the officials. The cop, who can in no way get access to the 'deals' of the 1990s, claimed, "We have got good clues and have zeroed in on the suspect." It doesn't need much nuclear engineering expertise to realise that his probe can get nowhere as long as corrupt practices in building reactors are outside its scope.
Interestingly, Obama heaped praise on Singh, calling him "a man of honesty and integrity" at the joint press conference after discussions at White House. The leaders reaffirmed their "full and complete" commitment to implementation of the India-US civil nuclear deal "as early as possible."

The joint resolve needs to be weighed in the light of the nonchalant attitude to integrity and contamination - of drinking water, of reactor components, or management personnel - in the atomic power business. It must be noted that atomic energy is probably the only sector in India that has defied Singh's reforms agenda since the 1990s. There even exists an Atomic Energy Retirees' Association of former top bosses, specifically formed to oppose any monitoring by 'outsiders'.

As a result of scuttling transparency, the nuclear power business in India reeks of corruption, favouritism, and a cover-up culture. It will be too dangerous to treat it as a small matter of contamination. The whole establishment must be thoroughly decontaminated before it can contribute positively to economy.

It will be interesting to watch how Singh and Obama are going to assure the world that the inherently dangerous technology will be in safe hands. For that matter, tolerating dual technology in the hands of dignitaries with cavalier attitude at the helm can spell doom for the planet.

The writer is a technocrat specialising in development and manufacturing of sophisticated precision machine components for nuclear and aerospace applications

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2010