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.
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The incredible engineering that can save your life in a car crash

Indian roads are among the world’s most dangerous. We take a look at the essential car safety features for our road conditions.

Over 200,000 people die on India’s roads every year. While many of these accidents can be prevented by following road safety rules, car manufacturers are also devising innovative new technology to make vehicles safer than ever before. To understand how crucial this technology is to your safety, it’s important to understand the anatomy of a car accident.

Source: Global report on road safety, 2015 by WHO.
Source: Global report on road safety, 2015 by WHO.

A car crash typically has three stages. The first stage is where the car collides with an object. At the point of collision, the velocity with which the car is travelling gets absorbed within the car, which brings it to a halt. Car manufacturers have incorporated many advanced features in their cars to prevent their occupants from ever encountering this stage.

Sixth sense on wheels

To begin with, some state-of-the-art vehicles have fatigue detection systems that evaluate steering wheel movements along with other signals in the vehicle to indicate possible driver fatigue–one of the biggest causes of accidents. The Electronic Stability Program (ESP) is the other big innovation that can prevent collisions. ESP typically encompasses two safety systems–ABS (anti-lock braking system), and TCS (traction control system). Both work in tandem to help the driver control the car on tricky surfaces and in near-collision situations. ABS prevents wheels from locking during an emergency stop or on a slippery surface, and TCS prevents the wheels from spinning when accelerating by constantly monitoring the speed of the wheels.

Smarter bodies, safer passengers

In the event of an actual car crash, manufacturers have been redesigning the car body to offer optimal protection to passengers. A key element of newer car designs includes better crumple zones. These are regions which deform and absorb the impact of the crash before it reaches the occupants. Crumple zones are located in the front and rear of vehicles and some car manufacturers have also incorporated side impact bars that increase the stiffness of the doors and provide tougher resistance to crashes.

CRUMPLE ZONES: Invented in the 1950s, crumple zones are softer vehicle sections that surround a safety cell that houses passengers. In a crash, these zones deform and crumple to absorb the shock of the impact. In the visual, the safety cell is depicted in red, while the crumple zones of the car surround the safety cell.
CRUMPLE ZONES: Invented in the 1950s, crumple zones are softer vehicle sections that surround a safety cell that houses passengers. In a crash, these zones deform and crumple to absorb the shock of the impact. In the visual, the safety cell is depicted in red, while the crumple zones of the car surround the safety cell.

Post-collision technology

While engineers try to mitigate the effects of a crash in the first stage itself, there are also safe guards for the second stage, when after a collision the passengers are in danger of hitting the interiors of the car as it rapidly comes to a halt. The most effective of these post-crash safety engineering solutions is the seat belt that can reduce the risk of death by 50%.

In the third stage of an actual crash, the rapid deceleration and shock caused by the colliding vehicle can cause internal organ damage. Manufacturers have created airbags to reduce this risk. Airbags are installed in the front of the car and have crash sensors that activate and inflate it within 40 milliseconds. Many cars also have airbags integrated in the sides of the vehicles to protect from side impacts.

SEATBELTS: Wearing seatbelts first became mandatory in Victoria, Australia in 1970, and is now common across the world. Modern seatbelts absorb impact more efficiently, and are equipped with ‘pre-tensioners’ that pull the belt tight to prevent the passenger from jerking forward in a crash.
SEATBELTS: Wearing seatbelts first became mandatory in Victoria, Australia in 1970, and is now common across the world. Modern seatbelts absorb impact more efficiently, and are equipped with ‘pre-tensioners’ that pull the belt tight to prevent the passenger from jerking forward in a crash.

Safety first

In the West as well as in emerging markets like China, car accident related fatalities are much lower than in India. Following traffic rules and driving while fully alert remain the biggest insurance against mishaps, however it is also worthwhile to fully understand the new technologies that afford additional safety.

So the next time you’re out looking for a car, it may be a wise choice to pick an extra airbag over custom leather seats or a swanky music system. It may just save your life.

Equipped with state-of-the-art passenger protection systems like ESP and fatigue detection systems, along with high-quality airbags and seatbelts, all Volkswagen cars have the safety of passengers at the heart of their design. Watch Volkswagen customer stories and driver experiences that testify its superior German engineering, here.

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

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