Six workers at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant incurred burn injuries on Wednesday after an incident of “hot water spillage” from a valve they were repairing. This is just a week after the Supreme Court dismissed a petition last Thursday asking for operations at the plant to be halted until it could be inspected by an independent committee.

Three full-time and three contracted staff members were carrying out maintenance work on a valve in a turbine unit shortly after noon when the valve began to leak hot water on them. After first-aid treatment at the plant, they were taken to the local hospital, after which they were transferred to another facility in Nagercoil, 38 km away.

While KNPP will become fully functional only after six months, it is being run at low capacity to test its systems. After a routine shutdown on May 12, it restarted at a low power level yesterday morning, and was operational at the time of the incident. Sixty people from nearby villages were also visiting the site, but none of them were affected by the accident, said a KNPP press release.

RS Sundar, site director at KNPP, also said that there was no leakage of radioactivity due to the incident. “We are investigating how the leak happened,” he said to “We can determine this only after a detailed analysis, and after talking to the people concerned in the incident. We don’t want to disrupt them now while they are still in hospital.”

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board had in April 2013 replaced four valves that were part of the cooling system at the KNPP because they were faulty. While the Board noted that these valves were only four among thousands that were functioning normally, members of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy have demanded that all equipment at the plant must be examined by an independent group.

“This is a minor accident, but it proves that substandard equipment has come from Russia, which is among the suppliers of equipment to the plant, said G Sundarrajan of environmental activism organisation Friends of the Earth, who was also a petitioner in the Supreme Court case against the power plant. “If such accidents happen six months before operation commences on a full scale at the site, what will happen ten years later when this equipment has aged?”

In May 2013, the Supreme Court had allowed work at KNPP to go ahead with a few safety precautions, citing the nation’s need for clean and renewable energy. Last week, the court continued to maintain that it saw no need to have an independent committee examine the plant.

“With the Mulla Periyar dam [in Kerala], a committee was appointed and took 11 months to inspect the dam,” said Sundarrajan. “They spent days there and filed a report, based on which SC cleared the issue and allowed the dam to continue. We just want this committee to examine how the plant will deal with its emissions, its spent fuel, and whether the equipment there is up to the mark. After that only they should take a call.”

Another issue, according to Sundarrajan, is preparedness. “They were not able to treat even burn injuries at the hospital, and had to shift the workers to Nagercoil. Imagine a situation where there is a radiological emergency if there is no immediate medical attention available.”

KNPP site director Sundar, however, said that yesterday’s decision to move the affected workers was a medical decision, not his. “There are many hospitals nearby, but appropriate action is up to the doctors’ discretion," he said. "We do not interfere with their medical call.”

He also pointed out that a super-speciality hospital has been built at Kudankulam with state government funds, but it is yet to become operational. The authorities are still sourcing equipment and staff.

One of the main issues with nuclear power plants in India is the secrecy with which they are treated. In yesterday’s incident, the plant first denied anything had happened, but only a few hours later admitted that some workers had been injured. Besides, many of those protesting against nuclear plants have been charged with sedition. SP Udayakumar, a prominent figure in the anti-nuclear movement in Kudankulam, has 382 cases filed against him, with 16 each for sedition and waging a war against India. “The Indian nuclear establishment always speaks the same language,” he said. “They hide failures and highlight achievements. It is the case with Kalpakam, Tarapur, anywhere.”

“We will approach the next government with our concerns,” Udayakumar added. “We want to insist that we review our energy policy, shun nuclear power, and switch to alternative energy generation. As citizens of a democratic country, we have a right to do so. We also have to do our duty.”