nuclear safety

Nuclear leak in Kakrapar may be more serious than the government is telling us

There have been no updates after the day of the accident. What is the government hiding?

On March 11, news came out that there has been a leak at the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station in Gujarat. A press statement put out by the plant operator, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, on that day stated that Unit-1 of the station had to be shut down after the primary heat transport system sprang a leak. The operator reassured that there was no release of radiation and workers were safe.

Since then though, there has been no update – neither from the Nuclear Power Corporation nor from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, which monitors nuclear safety in India. As of writing, it has been three days since the accident.

Blanket of secrecy

It’s not easy to get the picture with incomplete information. We know that on-site emergency was declared in Kakrapar late evening on March 11 although the accident happened, or started, around 9 am. But we don’t know if the emergency has been lifted and if the situation has returned to normal.

BC Patni, district magistrate of Tapi, said he has no information if the on-site emergency is still in place. Although the reactor is in Surat district administratively, the nearby habitations fall mostly in Tapi district. Patni said the last update that he got was on Saturday evening. He said the nuclear establishment’s team has collected water and soil samples and sent them for radiation tests.

We also don’t know the status of workers, especially those who were on the morning shift that day. All that we have is assurances from the plant officials that radiation counts are “not abnormally high”. When this author spoke to the district magistrate of Surat on the phone, he said he has nothing to say beyond what has appeared in the official press release.

Adhering to international practices, the Nuclear Power Corporation should have constituted an emergency response team with the local civic administration, media and citizens’ groups. It should have also shared latest updates, including radiation counts from inside and around the reactor building, findings of the inspection and status of workers. This would have had the added benefit of quelling any unfound apprehensions and speculations.

Last heard, the plant officials said they are yet to ascertain the cause of the leak. The current chief of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board said to the press that “the magnitude of the coolant system failure is significant”.

'Situation might be serious'

The secrecy would perhaps have not been so absolute if ordinary citizens were allowed to use geiger-counters in India to measure radiation. In India the government disallows the use, citing national security, which is outrageous give that globally it is normal for citizens to monitor radiation and ensure their own safety. Even after separation of civilian and military nuclear installations following the Indo-US deal in 2005, the nuclear industry in India continues to enjoy insulation from public scrutiny.

Dr A Gopalakrishnan, who headed the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board from 1993 to 1996, said the situation in Kakrapar might be more serious than what we are being told. He sent an urgent note that I published on the online nuclear resource page I run, DiaNuke.org.

“Some reports indicate that the containment has been vented to the atmosphere at least once , if not more times , which I suspect indicates a tendency for pressure build up in that closed space due to release of hot heavy water and steam into the containment housing . If this is true, the leak is not small , but moderately large , and still continuing. No one confirms that any one has entered the containment (in protective clothing) for a quick physical assessment of the situation , perhaps it is not safe to do so because of the high radiationfields inside...all this points to the likelihood that what Kakrapar Unit-1 is undergoing is a small Loss-of-Coolant Accident (LOCA) in progress. It is most likely that one or more pressure tubes (PT) in the reactor (which contain the fuel bundles) have cracked open, leaking hot primary system heavy-water coolant into the containment housing”

History of accidents

Ever since it was commissioned in 1993, the Kakrapar nuclear plant has had several accidents, including a major one in 1994 when the reactor was flooded and water reached inside the reactor building. The floodgates meant to release excess water could not be opened and the water kept rising, which could have led to a major accident, but it was prevented thanks to the arduous efforts of the workers.

Manoj Mishra, a worker at the power station who blew the whistle on that accident, was terminated by the Nuclear Power Corporation. Unfortunately, even the Supreme Court bought the Nuclear Power Corporation’s argument that he cannot be a whistle-blower since he did not have technical degrees. Mishra had years of experience in the reactor and he was a strong leader of the workers’ union.

Speaking on the Friday accident, Mishra expressed shock that the plant authorities declared an emergency and issued a statement in the evening, since it was no longer possible to hide. By that time, he says, people in the area, especially the workers, had come to know about the accident. According to him, the district authorities of Surat and Tapi came to know first only through the media.

Kakrapar also had a major accident in 2004, when the control rods were irreparably damaged during maintenance work. A similar leak of heavy water, on March 11, 2011, led to a shutdown.

It is important to note that Unit-1 of Kakrapar reactor was started without proper testing of its Emergency Core Cooling System, which again raises serious questions regarding the current crisis. Renowned physician Dr Sanghamitra Gadekar, who is associated with the Gujarat-based anti-nuclear group Anumukti, said, “In 1993, when we came to know that they were starting the reactor without testing the ECCS, we appealed to the prime minister, the Gujarat chief minister and other authorities to halt commissioning. Veteran Gandhian Mahadev Desai then also conducted a fast for five days.”

Non-transparency

The Indian nuclear establishment is extremely secretive. When the local community in Koodankulam, the site of a new nuclear plant, demanded basic documents like the Site Selection Committee Report and the Safety Assessment Report, the Nuclear Power Corporation flatly denied.

Last heard, the Department of Atomic Energy wanted amendments in the Right to Information Act to exempt the nuclear establishment. There is complete silence on the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the independence and efficiency of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and the questions raised by the Parliamentary Accounts Committee on nuclear safety in India after Fukushima.

If we are serious about the safety of Indian people, the status quo with the nuclear establishment cannot be allowed to continue.

Kumar Sundaram is a Research Consultant with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Virat Kohli and Ola come together to improve Delhi's air quality

The onus of curbing air-pollution is on citizens as well

A recent study by The Lancet Journal revealed that outdoor pollution was responsible for 6% of the total disease burden in India in 2016. As a thick smog hangs low over Delhi, leaving its residents gasping for air, the pressure is on the government to implement SOS measures to curb the issue as well as introduce long-term measures to improve the air quality of the state. Other major cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata should also acknowledge the gravitas of the situation.

The urgency of the air-pollution crisis in the country’s capital is being reflected on social media as well. A recent tweet by Virat Kohli, Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, urged his fans to do their bit in helping the city fight pollution. Along with the tweet, Kohli shared a video in which he emphasized that curbing pollution is everyone’s responsibility. Apart from advocating collective effort, Virat Kohli’s tweet also urged people to use buses, metros and Ola share to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibility, ride sharing app Ola responded with the following tweet.

To demonstrate its commitment to fight the problem of vehicular pollution and congestion, Ola is launching #ShareWednesdays : For every ​new user who switches to #OlaShare in Delhi, their ride will be free. The offer by Ola that encourages people to share resources serves as an example of mobility solutions that can reduce the damage done by vehicular pollution. This is the fourth leg of Ola’s year-long campaign, #FarakPadtaHai, to raise awareness for congestion and pollution issues and encourage the uptake of shared mobility.

In 2016, WHO disclosed 10 Indian cities that made it on the list of worlds’ most polluted. The situation necessitates us to draw from experiences and best practices around the world to keep a check on air-pollution. For instance, a system of congestion fees which drivers have to pay when entering central urban areas was introduced in Singapore, Oslo and London and has been effective in reducing vehicular-pollution. The concept of “high occupancy vehicle” or car-pool lane, implemented extensively across the US, functions on the principle of moving more people in fewer cars, thereby reducing congestion. The use of public transport to reduce air-pollution is another widely accepted solution resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Many communities across the world are embracing a culture of sustainable transportation by investing in bike lanes and maintenance of public transport. Even large corporations are doing their bit to reduce vehicular pollution. For instance, as a participant of the Voluntary Traffic Demand Management project in Beijing, Lenovo encourages its employees to adopt green commuting like biking, carpooling or even working from home. 18 companies in Sao Paulo executed a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by helping people explore options such as staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling. After the pilot, drive-alone rates dropped from 45-51% to 27-35%.

It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the growth of a country doesn’t compromise the natural environment that sustains it, however, a substantial amount of responsibility also lies on each citizen to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle. Simple lifestyle changes such as being cautious about usage of electricity, using public transport, or choosing locally sourced food can help reduce your carbon footprint, the collective impact of which is great for the environment.

Ola is committed to reducing the impact of vehicular pollution on the environment by enabling and encouraging shared rides and greener mobility. They have also created flat fare zones across Delhi-NCR on Ola Share to make more environment friendly shared rides also more pocket-friendly. To ensure a larger impact, the company also took up initiatives with City Traffic Police departments, colleges, corporate parks and metro rail stations.

Join the fight against air-pollution by using the hashtag #FarakPadtaHai and download Ola to share your next ride.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Ola and not by the Scroll editorial team.