Need for Independent Review of Indian Nuclear Plants

The Indian government has promised a full safety audit of the existing reactors. The Atomic Energy Commission has also said that they would review the Areva designs taking into consideration the experience of Fukushima. However, the prevailing voice within the nuclear energy establishment is one of smug complacency.

Nevertheless, it is very hard to share such optimism. This is because the issue here is not that a safety audit should be done but who does this safety audit? We have an Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) that draws its personnel from Atomic Energy Commission, report to the Atomic Energy Commission and is even located in the Anushakti Bhavan, the headquarters of the Atomic Energy Commission.

This is no way to run a critical safety regulatory function. It is also contrary to international practice as well as treaties that India has signed on the need to separate regulatory and operational functions in nuclear energy. This remains the single biggest obstacle for a safe nuclear energy program in the country.

In no country with a large nuclear energy program is the nuclear regulator a part of the body it is supposed to regulate. A former chairman of AERB (Mail Today, March 15, 2011, Nuclear Regulation in Shambles, Dr A Gopalakrishnan) has stated that AERB has no serious disaster management oversight and does not have the ability to address serious design and safety issues.

If India is indeed serious about a nuclear energy program, it needs to create a proper safety organisation in this area instead of the current AERB, which has become a virtual rubber stamp for Atomic Energy Commission. A safety audit without an independent regulatory body is of little value.

It is not the best kept secret in the world that Indian plants have had problems at different points. The collapse of the Kaiga dome and the fire in Narora which caused all controls to be lost are cases in point. In Narora, again workers facing very heavy odds, managed a safe shut-down of the reactor manually.

The point is with complete opacity surrounding the nuclear plants and the functioning of the Atomic Energy Commission and its attached body, the AERB, it is difficult to accept the results of the safety audit. We can already predict the report – all we need to do is to listen what the nuclear establishment has been saying for the last few days and we will know what the report is likely to say.

Interestingly, one of the points that the country’s nuclear establishment has made repeatedly is that Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) — that are the bulk of the Indian reactors — are much more safe than the Light Water Reactors (LWR’s ). If this is indeed so, why the fascination for the LWRs which according to the nuclear establishment is less safe? Why then leave the tried and tested route of PHWRs for which we have indigenous capacity for imported reactors which by their own admission is less safe?

It is in this context we have to look at the controversial Jaitapur project. The government is keen to put 6 units of 1650 MW EPR reactors of Areva, France make. Though Atomic Energy Commission chairman, Srikumar Bannerjee claims that this design is tested, as it has worthy predecessors, the fact remains that there is not one plant of this design that has yet been commissioned.

That a Fukushima type of accident of earthquake-cum-tsunami will not affect Jaitapur is no consolation as no two serious nuclear accidents have ever been alike. Question of how safe this plant is cannot be answered by saying a Fukushima type accident will not occur here.

Jaitapur plant proposes to have 5 per cent enriched uranium as fuel against the normal enrichment of 3.5 per cent for LWRs and natural uranium for PHWR’s. It also has a higher burn rate than the current LWRs. Dr Gopalkrishnan, former chairman, AERB has asked in his article,  (DNA, February 9, 2011, Jaitapur Deficit of Public Trust) “How much understanding, based on relevant data, do Areva and NPCIL together have on the radiological and physical behavior of high-burnup spent-fuel from these EPRs and the consequent serious safety issues related to its long-term storage, cooling, transport and reprocessing?” These questions are not going to be answered based on the belief of a few scientists.

It is interesting also to note that Areva, while claiming its technology is completely safe, has also been very unhappy with the prospect of liability that the current Indian law prescribes, even though the upper limit for such liability is only Rs 1,500 crore. This itself shows how much confidence they have for their technology.

There is little doubt that Fukushima will cast a radioactive cloud over the nuclear renaissance touted by the nuclear industry. Nuclear technology still remains one of the most complex technologies that we know. Rushing in with ever larger sizes and complex designs have been the bane of this technology from the beginning. In their hurry to invite foreign suppliers for the Indian market, the Manmohan Singh government never took this into account.

All the reactors being pushed by foreign suppliers – Areva, GE and Westinghouse – have the same problems regarding provenness of technology and complexity of design.

DAE has been pushing the case for import of 40,000 MW of Light Water Reactors. In this, the DAE and other agencies seemed to have become captive to the PM’s  objective of a strategic tie-up with the US and pushing in imported reactors, without addressing issues of safety. What has been effectively lost sight is that safety of nuclear plants cannot be subordinated to whatever foreign policy objective that the PM has in mind.

The Fukushima disaster provides a clear warning on this.

As India is now trying to induct in a number of foreign reactors, particularly Light Water Reactors, which, by the admission of senior figures in the nuclear establishment, is less safe than the indigenous Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors, it is critical that such designs should be subjected to independent review.

India should halt all import of reactors, particularly of untested and unproven designs from Areva, GE or Westinghouse and focus on creating a proper safety infrastructure for nuclear energy. Till then, there should be a moratorium on all imported reactors including Jaitapur and Kudankulam. Simultaneously immediate steps should be taken up to separate AERB from DAE and make it a truly independent body, reporting directly to the parliament.

Finally, as an immediate measure, all existing plants should be reviewed by creating a task force including independent members outside DAE to make this exercise of safety audit credible.

Prabir Purkayastha/People’s Dmocracy

Nuclear Meltdown: The Threat is Real for India

Japanese nuclear engineers are making heroic efforts at immense personal risk to prevent a steam explosion (not a nuclear explosion) in the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) at Fukushima. This is the point at which the design and construction standards of the concrete double containment structure of the nuclear reactor will have to withstand the explosion.

This could trigger a partial or total meltdown of the reactor core, similar to what happened in USA in 1971 in the Three Mile Island NPP. (This put the US nuclear power industry into the doldrums until USA revived it by negotiating the nuclear deal with India in 2009).

Japan has a reputation for good design and safety standards and good quality control and quality assurance in execution. It would be the fervent wish of every thinking person on the planet that the double containment will not fail and that the engineers will control the desperately delicate situation in the Daiichi NPP. Nobody is as yet even thinking of the costs of containing the accident and the subsequent nuclear clean-up.

But let us now cut to the nuclear situation in India. The issue of Indian design and construction quality standards stands naked when we note that the concrete containment dome of the Kaiga (Karnataka) NPP collapsed when under construction, and had to be rebuilt. It has not been revealed whether it was a failure of design or execution quality.

It is not possible to obtain reliable information regarding the operation, safety standards and performance or other cost, constructional or operational aspects of any NPP because of the following reasons: One, Section 18 (Restriction on disclosure of information) and Section 24 (Offences and penalties) of the draconian Indian Atomic Energy Act 1962, do not permit anybody to even ask questions about NPPs.

Two, nobody except the nuclear industry is permitted to conduct tests for radioactivity even outside the perimeter of any NPP. Three, the Environment Protection Act 1986, does not apply to NPPs. Four, the safety and monitoring agency (AERB) is not an independent agency and the public has to accept whatever health and safety information is released by the NPP or the AERB.

Five, the budget of the DAE is not placed even before Parliament and the power generation and efficiency figures are not available even to the Central Electricity Authority (CEA). In short, the Indian nuclear industry is a closed door to the rest of India, and this can be at the cost of public safety and health.

Further, in the event of a nuclear accident, Government of India (GoI) has sought to cap or limit the liability of operators or suppliers of nuclear hardware and technology to assure profits to the US nuclear industry. In simpler language, this means that the real financial cost of post-accident nuclear clean-up and repair would be borne by India, as the liability of the suppliers would be limited to the cap amount, while the real costs of health and livelihood would be borne by the people.

In view of the secrecy and the poor standards of construction even in the nuclear industry, the conflicting parameters of safety, operational cost and radioactive emissions of any NPP leave the public to guess when one of India’s NPPs may suffer a serious accident, and whether we will be able to handle the disaster effectively and efficiently.

Indian nuclear engineers are second to none, thus the issue of safety in India’s nuclear establishment is institutional. The secrecy, intransparency, unaccountability and self-certification of the nuclear industry makes one doubt whether we will be able to prevent serious emergency or handle it effectively should it happen.

This also raises questions about the advisability of going for mega NPPs such as planned in Jaitapur, Maharashtra. This is quite apart from the fact of enormous resistance to its construction from local people on the grounds of livelihood and environment.

Let us hope that the Indian nuclear establishment would never need to handle a serious accident of the type of Three Mile Island or Chernobyl or Fukushima.

SG Vombatkere

Indo-US Nuclear Deal: Kowtowing Again!

One more accord has been concluded under the much-trumpeted Indo-US nuclear deal. But like the previous two — the 123 bilateral agreement with the US and the safeguards accord with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the latest agreement, too, will escape scrutiny by the Indian Parliament. The newest agreement involves US consent to India to reprocess spent fuel of American origin.

Is it a good advertisement for the world’s most-populous democracy that while the American president will submit the reprocessing agreement to the US Congress for scrutiny, the Indian Parliament will again be shut out from playing any role on this latest accord? How can there be effective checks and balances in a democracy if the executive branch insists that the national legislature has no role to play in any international agreement?

It is only on the nuclear-accident liability issue that the government is coming to Parliament because that involves passing a new law. In fact, it wants Parliament to pass a law that limits liability to a pittance, overturning the doctrine of absolute liability that the Supreme Court has set in response to the Bhopal gas disaster.

The result of blocking Parliament from scrutinising the nuclear deal is that India is now saddled with a deal that does not adequately protect its interests. India has got no legally binding fuel-supply guarantee to avert a Tarapur-style fuel cutoff, and no right to withdraw from its obligations under any circumstance, although the US has reserved the right for itself to suspend or terminate the arrangements.

The terms of the latest reprocessing agreement are in continuation of what the US was able to extract in the 123 bilateral agreement. The US has retained the right to unilaterally suspend its grant of reprocessing consent to India. This is an extension of its right, incorporated in the 123 agreement, to unilaterally suspend or terminate fuel supply to India. That is exactly what the US did in the mid-70s under its previous 123 agreement with India dating back to 1963. As a result, the twin-reactor, US-built Tarapur nuclear power plant near Mumbai, was left high and dry.

In the newest 123 agreement, the US has retained the legal right to unilaterally terminate cooperation but provided political assurances to India that such a right will be exercised only in extraordinary circumstances. A similar approach is mirrored in the reprocessing accord.

Under Article 7 of the reprocessing accord, the reprocessing consent can be suspended on grounds of “national security” or a “serious threat to the physical protection of the facility or of the nuclear material at the facility,” and if the party determines “that suspension is an unavoidable measure.” So the US right to suspend reprocessing consent is unfettered.

Still, the agreement’s article 7 and the accompanying “agreed minute” record political assurances to India that such a right shall be exercised only in special circumstances and after careful thought. But such assurances hold little value when the legal right to suspend reprocessing consent is explicitly recorded in the text.

The actual implementation of the reprocessing agreement is years away, even though US-origin spent fuel has been accumulating in India for nearly 40 years at Tarapur.
India will not be able to reprocess that spent fuel until it has built at least one new dedicated reprocessing facility — a process that will take a number of years. Article 1(3) specifies that the US consent relates to “two new national reprocessing facilities established by the government of India.”

Only in those new facilities, approved by the IAEA, can India reprocess the discharged fuel under international inspection. Any additional reprocessing facility can be added only with prior US agreement.

Another feature of the agreement is that it amplifies India’s reprocessing obligations with the IAEA, including to provide facility-design information in advance and to allow unhindered international monitoring and verification (article 2). But in addition, the accompanying “agreed minute” obligates India to permit US “consultations visits” to each dedicated reprocessing facility. Every “visiting team of not more than 10 persons” will be permitted onsite access “at a time and duration mutually agreed by the parties.”

It is thus apparent that the US has got what it wanted. For example, the state department had earlier notified the US Congress in writing that “the proposed arrangements and procedures with India will provide for withdrawal of reprocessing consent” by the US. That is exactly what the text of the accord provides. Also by providing for US “consultations visits,” it effectively permits IAEA-plus inspections.

Had the Parliament been allowed to play a role, the government would have been able to leverage that to fight back one-sided provisions.

Brahma Chellaney/DNA