Transparency ala Nuclear - Surendra Gadekar

- Surendra Gadekar

"We will not jump to say that our power reactors will not suffer a similar kind of situation but we are planning to revisit all the safety aspects of our plants after doing a complete analysis of the Japanese incident and share the entire safety means with the public in a transparent way," chairman and managing director of Nuclear Power Corporation of India SK Jain said. As I read this statement in the DNA newspaper of March 13, 2011, I was reminded of the various occasions when I have had the privilege of sharing safety concerns with a number of nuclear bigwigs in a oh so really  transparent manner.

There was the time just before the opening of Kakrapar-1 reactor in 1992. Some anonymous source sent me a letter that stated that in the hurry to commission the reactor, (it was already years behind schedule), the authorities  had decided to go ahead with commisioning activities despite the fact that the vital Emergency Core Cooling System (ECCS) had not performed according to specifications during testing. As the test cannot be repeated once the reactor starts functioning and since the ECCS is a vital component in the defense against catastrophic accidents like the present one at Fukushima where too the cooling systems have failed, he felt agitated that the nuclear authorities in the country were so hell-bent on starting the reactor in such a hurry as to bypass a critical safety test. As proof he attached the xerox of a letter dated April 9,1992 written by Shri K Natarajan who was the chief engineer (Instrumentation & Control), who although had allowed the commissioning of Kakrapar-1 insisted that these test be properly conducted in toto on Kakrapar-2 and any retrofitting necessary be done later following the successful completion of the tests. 

We made copies of this letter and sent it to all the MLAs of Gujarat with a covering letter from Shri Narayan Desai who also undertook a five day fast to appeal to the conscience of the authorities not to allow the nuclear mandarins to  undertake this hazardous step. Of the 181 members of the Gujarat legislative assembly only four bothered to reply. Significantly our local MLAs were amongst the absentees. However one of the recepients Shri Babubhai Jasbhai Patel (an ex Chief Minister) forwarded the letter to the Prime Minister (Shri Narasimha Rao) and he directed the Chairman of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to “look into it”. The chairman, Dr P K Iyengar asked the head of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Mr Soman to go and “allay fears”.

So Mr Soman came to our small tribal village, Vedchhi via Valod, district Surat. I must admit that he came in style. Four cars were needed for his entourage of just three others. Just as they were about to leave, he remembered his mission. Regarding the matter at hand, the failure of the ECCS all he said was, “Trust me. These are routine tests. We shall take very good care.” 

It has been many years. Time has passed and even I had forgotten about the untested ECCS at Kakrapar. However, the Fukushima accident and the failure of the cooling pumps to provide adequate cooling, has again thrust this matter into my mind. All the more so since I read various nucleaocrats saying again and again that there was a severe earthquake in Gujarat in 2001 and Kakrapar survived that “without any safety scares”.  Since this is an example of the much touted “transparency and sharing with the public” one needs to remind one's self along with these worthies that the epicenter of that earthquake was in Kutchh which is only about 600 kilometers away from Kakrapar. So saying that Kakrapar operated without any safety hiccups during the Kutchh earthquake is just a little better than saying that Indian reactors operated without any problems although there was a huge earthquake in Japan or the tsunami causing earthquake in Sumatra!
But then, if I am not mistaken, Kakrapar is situated not very far from the Vansda-Bharuch faultline. On 23rd March, 1970, there was an earthquake of intensity 5.4 on just this very faultline that resulted in some loss of life. Five point four you say, the earthquake in Japan was 8.9 or maybe 9.1. That is hundreds of times more destructive than a mere 5.4. This is certainly a comforting thought, till I read further in the DNA article where it quoted Mr S K Malhotra, the chief spokesperson, Department of Atomic Energy. “The design of a nuclear reactor is location specific. The thickness and the height of their walls are planned considering the area where a plant is set up.”  So while the Japanese being buffeted by earthquakes every now and then build structures to withstand tremors of intensity 8 or 9, we being prudent and frugal, and not wanting to overbuild, look at the 1970 earthquake and build power plants to withstand something like 6 at the most. But then I remember the scenes of devastation in Kutchh where in most places, not a single so called 'pucca' house was left standing following the 2001 quake and quite a few newly built multistory apartments collapsed in Ahmedabad which is some 300 kms distant from the epicenter. Is our nuclear establishment so very different in its mindset than the rest of us, that they meticulously stick to exacting standards, I wonder?

Even in Japan, where they supposedly strictly obey rules unlike us Indians, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant, the largest in the world was badly damaged by the July 2007 Chūetsu offshore earthquake. “This shook the plant beyond design basis and initiated an extended shutdown for inspection, which indicated that greater earthquake-proofing was needed before operation could be resumed.” In other words, even in the land of the frequently quaking earth, the largest reactor in the world was not built to withstand an intensity 6.6 earthquake. The authorities were also surprised that a hitherto unknown faultline lay close to the reactor site. This in a land where the study of earthquakes is literally a matter of life and death!

So the absence of an ECCS at Kakrapar, the second last defense against catastrophe, with only the oft repeated statements of various nucleocrats regarding how safe Indian nuclear plants are to give one reassurance while watching the last defense – the various reactor buildings popping off like bubbles in a stream is not very comforting. Especially when I remember the meeting I attended in Ratnagiri where the collector and the station director of the proposed Jaitapur nuclear power plant, Mr C B Jain were also present.

The question of seismic safety invariably cropped up and Mr Jain blandly reassured us in the most transparent way that earthquakes were unknown in this region. This to a group of more than a hundred people most of whom had been personally shaken experiencing scores of tremors during the past few years. Since in India printed documents are the highest authority, to put the matter at rest, I took out a copy of seismic zoning map of India that showed Jaitapur in zone IV, a region of high seismic activity. Mr Jain coolly countered that region I was the highest (most earthquakes) and V the lowest (least quakes) as far as earthquake zone map went.

Now here was a director of a one lakh crore project asserting something with complete confidence and facing him were a group of rustics talking about technical issues such as seismic zoning. Whom were the journalists in the audience to believe? Luckily for me the map I had was coloured showing  regions in white to various shades of pink to a dark red for region V. (Himalayas and Kutchh). It was the end of the discussion.

In days to come, as the Fukushima tragedy engulfs us, and as the radioactive poisons are carried in the air from place to place, we are likely to hear a lot of  such nonsense from nucleocrats and our beloved scam tainted leaders in the name of openness and transparency.  


Surendra Gadekar

A well-known Indian anti-nuclear activist and physicist, Gadekar lives in the remote tribal village of Vedchhi near the Kakrapar atomic power plant in the western Indian state of Gujarat. There, with his wife, a physician, he runs a Gandhian school for young activists and monitors the Indian nuclear industry, conducting surveys of power plants, uranium mines, and nuclear-testing facilities to determine the effect on the public's health. In 1987, he founded Anumukti, a journal devoted to establishing a non-nuclear India.



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