`We want to show the world that we can deliver'

Print edition : April 23, 2004

Interview with S.K. Agrawal, Project Director, KKNPP.

S.K. Agrawal, Project Director of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP), brings to his myriad tasks a rare finesse, be it in managing personnel, dealing with designs or erection of equipment.

With a bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Roorkee (now Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee), he joined the 18th batch of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) Training School at Trombay near Mumbai in 1974-75 for a year's training in nuclear engineering. He then joined the Power Projects Engineering Division of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), which later became Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL). He began his career as a Design Engineer for nuclear power plants and was associated with the design, construction and commissioning of several Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor-type nuclear power plants in the country.

When India signed the Inter-Governmental Agreement with the Soviet Union on November 20, 1988, for the construction of two units of the Russian VVER-1000 at Kudankulam, Agrawal was selected to join the techno-commercial negotiations. But the project almost fell through because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It was revived after 10 years, in June 1998, and Agrawal was made the Head of the Representation of the First International Office of NPCIL, which was set up in Moscow. In Russia, he was associated with the preparation of the Detailed Project Report (DPR) and the Preliminary Safety Analysis Report for the KKNPP, including the techno-commercial offer. Based on these inputs, the final negotiations were held with the Russians and the project was sanctioned by the Government of India. In October 2001, Agrawal, now 51, took over as the Director of the KKNPP.

Excerpts from an interview he gave T.S. Subramanian in his office at the KKNPP site on March 13.

On March 31, it will be two years since the first pour of concrete for the construction of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project. Where does the project stand now? What are the milestones achieved in the last two years?

In the last two years, we made good progress by reaching the first two milestones fast. This was done with the aim that if we got a good start, we would be ahead of schedule even if some problems cropped up on the way. The first milestone was the first pour of concrete. It was supposed to take place in May 2002. This schedule itself was very tight. But we advanced it by two months. This is a record in the sense that the contractor could mobilise the resources, do the qualification of the concrete, pass all the stringent requirements of NPCIL and pour the concrete on March 31. Another important milestone was the laying of the raft, that is, the foundation of the reactor building, which, according to the Russians, takes seven months to complete. We did this in 93 days. Put together, we were ahead of schedule by six months for the first unit.

There was supposed to be a gap of one year between Unit 1 and Unit 2. We said to ourselves, "Why should there be a gap of one year when the resources are available? Why can't we put some resources in Unit 2?" That was how work on Unit 2 also started practically in parallel. Today, the phase difference between the two units is just two to three months.

The inner containment wall of Reactor Building-1. Liners, or plates made of carbon steel, will be embedded on it. This is for the first time it is done in any nuclear power project in India.-

This was a good start, and we went very well thereafter. But difficulty arose with working documentation, which was to arrive from the Russian designers. But I shall not blame the Russian designers for not supplying the designs in time because the project was racing ahead of schedule by six months and consequently there was pressure on them to advance their drawings and documents. They tried their level best but even today they are not able to match our speed. Even now we are waiting for working documentation... and with it the progress would have been much, much more. To that extent, I am satisfied, and yet not satisfied.

The Union Department of Power wants NPCIL to add more power to the grid during the Tenth Plan that ends on March 31, 2007. S.K. Jain, Chairman and Managing Director of NPCIL, is confident that Kudankulam's first unit will attain criticality before March 2007. Are you confident you can do that?

As things are moving today, I must say that in the last joint coordination committee meeting, the Russians appreciated and took serious note of the question of supplying the working documents and the equipment in time for construction and erection. This has given us hope that construction activities will not be held up in the next two to three months for want of working documents. We are geared up for that stage. What the CMD has promised, we are committed to that. Being an international project, it is not a question of meeting only the 10th Plan target. We want to show the world that we can deliver the goods.

What equipment are yet to arrive from Russia? The huge core-catcher has arrived... .

This is a gigantic project. The entire supply of all the major equipment that will go into this is from the Russian Federation. This is because the soft loan extended by the Russian government is in the form of the supply of material. The more we buy, the more we utilise the credit. Sometimes the question is asked: "Are we not capable of making the equipment?" Yes, we are capable of that because we have manufactured all the equipment for our indigenous nuclear power plants. But it is a question of financial management also.

The quantum of material is huge. The piping; the special doors; the fire doors (exit); the carbon-steel liner plates and the stainless steel plates, which are for the wall and floor lining, and containment; the gigantic tanks 12 to 15 metres high, which come under the category of ODC (over dimensional consignment); the huge core-catcher, which we are installing for the first time at Kudankulam, all have to come from Russia. The core-catcher has arrived. The nuclear components, which are critical for us, will soon arrive. They include the steam generators, which are very big; the reactor pressure vessel, which will be the largest equipment; the turbine and the generator and so on. The generator weighs 380 tonnes.

General Electric of the United States built the two reactors at Tarapur on a turnkey basis. The Canadians later built the first reactor at Rajasthan. DAE personnel were associated with both the Americans and the Canadians. You are now working with the Russians. What is the difference in approach and style among them?

I was in school when the Tarapur Atomic Power Project was being built (in the mid-1960s). I had joined the Department when the Canadians were winding up the Rajasthan Atomic Power Project. But some of the Canadians continued to work with us and I interacted with them.

The Kudankulam project implementation closely follows the philosophy of the Rajasthan project - the Canadians supplied all the design and material. It was like technical cooperation, not turnkey.

The Russians' style of working is different and it has its plus and minus points. The kind of fear and control (associated) with the old USSR - if a person makes a mistake or deviates from the responsibility given to him, the punishment can be severe. Each person had a well-defined role to play. A person has to do this. For doing it, he will have the input and data, and he has to give the output. This approach does not work in a building project. When you want to speed up, you will have to handle all kinds of dynamic situations. You have to take certain decisions even if the input data are not available. As a designer and an engineer, you have to assume those data and go ahead. This kind of approach is not there (with the Russians). It will be difficult for them to change unless the written guidelines are changed. The old generation of Russians may not find it easy to change. The new generation of Russian designers may not bother about procedures like these. They may deliver the goods, and we have seen that also. Of course, the old generation is experienced and especially good. We cannot underestimate their capability.

This fundamental difference in approach is delaying the working documentation... . To prepare a working document, you need input data. The input data means you have to order the equipment. Ordering the equipment means the entire process of ordering: the manufacturer makes the drawing; he makes the data, dimension and weight, and commits them to the designer. The designer then starts the work. So you can imagine whether there is scope for speeding up the work here... .

The approach is the same in construction. Everything is so defined that no decision needs to be taken at the site. If there is any deviation or problem, nobody will try to solve it at the site. They will refer it to the designer, who will take his time. The solution will be found, documents will be duly signed and everything is fine at the microscopic level; then they will go ahead with it.

This does not work here (in India)... . If a problem crops up, we sit down, discuss what to do, work out the best possible solution and go ahead. The Russians were not used to this. However, the Russians have now become as good as our people in taking decisions on the spot. This is the construction phase and we are now getting good cooperation from the Russians.

Have Indian operators gone to Russia for training on the VVER-1000 reactors because India's PHWRs are different from them?

The training of operation and maintenance personnel takes four to six years. This kind of a training programme was arranged for Indians, but it is impossible, especially the time taken, because we are experienced. We don't need that kind of a total, long training programme. So a strategy was worked out with the Russians.

There will be three phases. Phase A is imparting basic knowledge about nuclear power in general, and VVER in particular. Since we prepared the DPR and we know the VVER design and technology now, we said we could impart that knowledge to our operation staff. With that basic knowledge imparted here, Phase B training will be done in Russia. Depending on the background and level of the people, it may vary from three months to one year. Phase C is actually a classroom training in Russia with on-the-job training in an operating nuclear power plant. That is an important part of the training programme. People come back here and we provide them Phase D training. It is a long process in the sense that they will take part in the preparation and commissioning of the equipment (at Kudankulam).

By then, we shall have our own full-scale simulator and training centre. The building is almost ready. The simulator - which is the heart of the training centre - has been ordered. It may take a year and a half to arrive. Training in the simulator is the ultimate because it is a 100 per cent replica of the power station. What you see in the control room of the VVER-1000 unit, you will have it in the control room of the training centre. The hardware, the equipment, the rotors and so on will be simulated by a computer programme. You can create any scenario, any accident, any abnormal condition and see the reaction of the operator, and how he handles it. There will be an alarm, and all kinds of things will start ringing in the control room. The teacher, who sits in a small cabin in the control room and creates the accident, will ask the operator to describe the accident. The operator will reply, "LOCA (loss of coolant accident) has occurred." The teacher will assess whether his responses are good, answers are good and whether there is spontaneity in his handling of the situation. So this is the ultimate. Thus, the biggest portion of this training programme takes place in India and a limited portion in Russia.

We are also training some of our staff as teachers. Personnel of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) will form part of the training programme. The entire gamut is planned well.

Will the Russians be building more reactors at Kudankulam? The terms of the Nuclear Suppliers' Group (NSG) prevent the Russians from selling us more reactors because we have not acceded to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Dialogue is on between the two countries about additional units. But the requirements of the Nuclear Suppliers Group/nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty remain. So the situation is this: Russia is willing to sell more reactors. As regards the United States or any other country, if you see their statements in the recent past, there is a kind of shift or softening of the stand as far as peaceful uses of nuclear energy are concerned. If you think that is any clue... the Russian Minister, who was here, was hopeful when he told the press that after these two units are built, the world will know how safe and efficient these reactors are, and he was confident that more units will be built.

Although many of those who gave land for the project have been given jobs in NPCIL, the local MLA, M. Appavoo, has been saying that not all those who gave land have been employed.

I do not like to get into a dialogue about what a public representative says. I can talk about what we are doing. We are giving preference to land-losers and the local people. The Government of India has set some norms. They should be within a certain age limit and have certain minimum qualifications. One has to meet them even to be called for the test/interview. The land was acquired in 1988. There are many land-losers. Their kith and kin have grown up. So they are not eligible according to the criterion of age unless there is a policy change. People do not understand this. They ask, "So and so is a land-loser? Why don't you give him a job?"

When a land-loser meets the basic criteria such as recruitment norms and age, he gets an entree for selection. His capability factor comes in. People argue, "What skill is required for doing a helper's job? You can recruit anybody." But I would say that grooming a technical person is easier than setting right the attitude of the less educated. We do look at their attitude. After all, he is going to work for long with us. We see whether a person is sincere and his attitude and approach are right. If a land-loser meets these criteria for these kinds of jobs, he will straightway get a job.

There are people here writing letters to newspapers, preferring complaints and going to courts (about jobs), forgetting that for any single vacancy, 10 people apply. The recruitment process is like this: you first go through a written test. If the number of people who applied is 5,000, reduce it to 500 persons (who have scored top marks in the test). Interviewing 500 persons itself is a big job and you reduce it to 50. People ask, "I wrote the test. How can you reject me?" Qualifying for the written test is also on a 10:1 ratio. So, for every one person selected nine others are dissatisfied. These nine persons allege that injustice has been done to them. But it does not mean that if you are rejected once, you are rejected forever. They do not have the patience to wait for the next opportunity. Some people who want to take advantage of this situation catch hold of these persons and exploit them.

The process at NPCIL is absolutely clear and transparent. Anybody is free to come in and look at how the entire process is done and also talk to the selected people. It is easy to find out whether there is truth in what they say... (that they got the jobs) with nothing to spend from their pocket. The application form cost Rs.2, but (unscrupulous) people printed these forms and sold them for Rs.100 and collected lakhs of rupees. So we decided that this should be stopped. So we photocopied these forms and kept them in stacks in village panchayat offices. We publicised that there is no need for people to buy application forms from anybody.

You made the application forms available in panchayat offices?

Yes... Some agencies opened in Nagercoil, and even in far-off places such as Thuckalay and even in the Madurai area. I read about them in the newspapers. But they were `professionals'. They knew how to perform gimmicks. Lakhs and lakhs of rupees, crores I would say, were collected. So we did some hectic campaigning. For every recruitment, we called the press and told them about the entire process, and that if anybody approached (the candidates with the promise of getting him a job), they could contact so and so, and we gave the phone numbers.

We requested the electronic media also to give as much coverage as they could - that people could approach NPCIL directly. This definitely helped. Today, I don't see anybody complaining.

People ask, "Who is a local?" A local does not mean that he is from the nearby Kudankulam and Chettikulam villages. Jobs for the locals means that recruitment will be done from the entire district, and also the State of Tamil Nadu. So far we have recruited about 350 persons. Barring three or four persons, the rest of them are from Tamil Nadu. The majority of them are from Tirunelveli district. Of them, the majority is from Radhapuram taluk (where the KKNPP is located).

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