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Interview

'We are confusing national pride with nuclear safety'

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Jun 15, 1999 | From the print edition

Adinarayana Gopalakrishnan , former chairperson of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, submitted a report to the prime minister's office listing the safety lacunae in India's civilian nuclear set up in 1996 . In an interview with Down To Earth, he says such a closed, callous system is a threat to human health and the environment

What is the basis of the serious questions raised by you about the safety of nuclear reactors, especially the Russian-made ones to be set up in Tamil Nadu?
In 1995, when I started gathering all the status reports, I found recommendations made in 1979, 1987 and 1995 were not being adhered to. This means that for 16 years, that is since 1979, we have been taking unnecessary chances with power reactors that have inferior and defective systems. This shows tremendous lack of consideration for the general public living in and around nuclear power stations.

Is it only bravado from the nuclear establishment or is there a technical problem?
If the repairs need to be done, some of these reactors will have to be shut down for a year or nine months. They were trying to avoid such a situation unless and until it becomes absolutely necessary. They are waiting for a time when maintenance jobs will pile up and then in one go they will finish them. This is a huge risk.

Is it true that safety mechanisms are inherently weak in these reactors?
They are certainly not as efficient or effective as in modern reactors such as light water reactors. In terms of physics, unless you go for very large sizes there are no problems of inherent weaknesses. However, I have some doubts about the inherent safety of 500 megawatt ( mw ) reactors from the physics standpoint. But for the 235 mw system, which is small and compact, I think these safety questions are not there.

But if we continue running them with leaks and damages, we are causing about an eight-fold increase in the radioactivity levels inside a plant compared to the Canadian reactors.

Consequently, our installation workers are facing more radiation than the permissible limits. However, this limit is only a guideline within which you are supposed to operate. The idea is to get as low as possible. But we are not sticking to the As Low As Reasonably Achievable ( alara ) principle.

Have you heard of any manifestations in terms of health hazards, occupational hazards in these reactors?
The safety issues involving the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station ( raps ) were raised by Sangamitra Gadekar. It is true that the population around the plant is too small. The relevance of such a small population for a statistical study needs to be seen.

I have also looked into the issue myself. Many villagers in the late 1970s and the late 1980s were used as temporary workers within the power station to clean up radioactive material. There is no database with raps about how many people entered the radioactive area or for how long each was exposed to it.

As the chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, I asked for such information. I never received any.

Many villagers told me that possibly, they had made garments of the cloth used for cleaning the place. Some of it must have been radioactive. The cloth must have been taken out of the premises with the connivance of the station personnel. And perhaps this might have caused problems. However, this is just speculation.

In future, there should be a strict database about the number of casual or temporary labour being used in the plants and the amount of radiation they are exposed to.

What about waste disposal mechanisms in nuclear plants?
Waste disposal technology development in India is lagging way behind international levels. We have some 12 tanks each with a capacity of nine lakh litres containing very high-level radioactive waste. These tanks are in Trombay and Tarapur. In any other country with good glassification technology, this waste would have been converted into solids, and then disposed off. We are yet to reach that technological level.

And if we keep operating like this without improving the available technology in the waste disposal area, we will reach a stage when the whole countryside will be filled with such tanks. Every tank is a risk, because if one of these tanks start leaking then the whole countryside, waterways and groundwater will be contaminated for centuries.

Is a safe technology available?
Every country has problems in getting rid of its radioactive material. But as far as glassification is concerned, all developed countries have their own technology.

We are yet to set up large-scale plants of sufficient size to convert this waste into a disposable form. Lakhs of litres of waste liquids are waiting to be processed. The West is not going to provide any technology to us because this is related to fuel reprocessing and plutonium production. So, we need to accelerate our own efforts.

What makes you believe that the PMO gives tacit support to such arbitrary, dangerous actions?

During my tenure I prepared a substantiated document on the existing status and problems specific to installations and I submitted it directly to the pmo . I had discussions with the prime minister's secretary, the finance secretary and the cabinet secretary and gave them these reports explaining the importance of the issue. They are all members of the Atomic Energy Commission ( aec ). I know that the department of Atomic Energy can defy a lot of people, but ultimately a word from the pmo would have prevailed.

The pmo was, perhaps, weighing the pros and cons of the issue because it involved the same scientists who were also making the bomb. The pmo, probably, did not want to ruffle any feathers.

Which other issues of nuclear policy did you raise?
There are three areas which require attention. A truly independent and competent regulatory agency must be established. The aerb today is a farce. Because the aerb reports ultimately to the dae secretary, who is also responsible for functioning of the plants.

Secondly, make safety-related information accessible. They may charge Rs 100 per report, if need be. This will increase public awareness and bring some accountability to this department.

Thirdly, there should be debates on the problem with the public and non-governmental organisations as participants.

During my tenure, the aerb issued around 25 to 30 press releases, both positive and negative. And we provided free access to people with queries. After I left, it all stopped.

The country's nuclear power programme is hit by inordinate delays, huge expenses and below-target performance. Now you say that many plants like the one in Madras are risky. Why are we going ahead like this?
This is because we want to show the West that even if they shut us out, we have a friend in Russia. For Russia it is also an economic need and they are not going to let go of any prospective customer.

I, however, have very serious difficulty in accepting the safety and instrumentation systems of these reactors. All other countries using Russian reactors have insisted on replacing the control and instrumentation system with a better Western design and make. It is much more reliable.

The International Atomic Energy Agency ( iaea) , which has examined every single vvr (water-cooled, water-moderated) design after the Chernobyl accident, has rated deficiencies in each as per acceptable standards and what needs to be done. The vvr s we are getting are perhaps the best vvr s that Russians have designed. Still the iaea reported that their control and instrumentation system is weak and it should be replaced.

Today we cannot get reactor control and instrumentation systems from the West because we are not signatories of the Non Proliferation Treaty ( npt ). So we are forced to live with the entire below-par Russian supply.

Our overriding desire is to make a national point at the expense of the people of Tamil Nadu. Unnecessarily, we are mixing up very crucial public safety issues with politics and scientific pride. Safety of human health must be isolated dispassionately from such considerations. Here we will have two 1,000 mw reactors situated in the southern tip of India. If the wind is blowing in the wrong direction and you have an accident, the whole of Sri Lanka could be affected. Then you have a real international crisis in your hand.

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