Issues of nuclear safety

Print edition : March 13, 1999

The safety status of nuclear energy installations in India is far below international standards, and in the absence of an independent regulatory body this has serious implications for public safety.

The fact that India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) remains a dependent creature of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is an indictment of official attitudes to nuclear safety. It is also a clear violation of the international Convention on Nuclear Safety to which India is a party. Among other things, the Convention requires each contracting party to take steps to ensure "an effective separation between the functions of the regulatory body and those of any other body or organisation concerned with the promotion or utilisation of nuclear energy." The Pokhran tests of May 1974 and May 1998, and hawkishness within the nuclear energy establishment, have only reinforced secretiveness and non-accountability on safety issues.

In this expert appraisal, Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan, a former Chairman of the AERB, looks closely and specifically at the safety status of the DAE's facilities, which he finds "much below international standards", and proposes a break with the post-1974 track record on nuclear safety by creating a properly empowered independent AERB in a new legislative framework.

- Editor, Frontline A. GOPALAKRISHNAN

ENORMOUS benefits have been derived from the wise utilisation of the atom ever since radioactivity and, subsequently, the nuclear fission process were discovered. As experience amassed, so did wisdom on how to use atomic energy without attracting the most hazardous and long-lasting impact it could have on mankind if it is mismanaged. In spite of this awareness, the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island did occur. Nations across the globe have learned their lessons from these disasters; India, however, chooses to ignore the warning.

In India, people are not aware of the potential hazards they will face if a nuclear installation in their neighbourhood is mismanaged and it leads to a major accident. Only such awareness could prompt them to demand information and data on the true status of these installations. The people must realise that they have the right to such information in the democratic system, even though the draconian Official Secrets Act is repeatedly employed by the government to deny them this right.

The experiences of the past have taught governments across the world the absolute necessity to have a truly independent nuclear safety regulatory agency, to serve as a watchdog on behalf of the public. Here again, India refuses to learn; its nuclear regulatory body is kept as a servile entity.

Other nations have built their regulation norms and approaches to strengthen nuclear safety through international cooperation. India stands isolated by the rest of the developed world in this context, ever since the Pokhran weapons tests of 1974. In spite of this, substantial multinational assistance in safety areas is available through the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But India takes the stand that it can do without it. In today's inter-dependent world, there cannot be a more foolish and arrogant stance.

Whatever little the public knows today about nuclear safety is from media reports. The media, however, need to take on a more proactive and sustained role in bringing about change. However, in spite of these reports Indian parliamentarians are not alarmed, nor are they curious to know the truth. Offers from well-informed persons to testify before the Parliamentary Committee on Energy on this subject have been ignored.

It is in this backdrop that this article is written. The hope is that it would evoke enough interest among concerned citizens in all walks of life, so that they will initiate and sustain a fight for their right to know, and the freedom to live safely in the neighbourhood of nuclear installations.

DAE installations

All nuclear activities in India, except those for medical and industrial applications, are carried out under the responsibility of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). This article gives a limited overview of the safety status of some of these installations and their significant problems. The lack of a truly independent nuclear regulatory mechanism and the unprecedented powers and influence of the DAE, coupled with the widespread use of the Official Secrets Act to cover up the realities, are the primary reasons for this grave situation.

The two units of the Madras Atomic Power Station at Kalpakkam, near Chennai. Nuclear power stations, research reactors, fuel reprocessing units and waste management facilities are the installations which pose the highest risk to the health and life of workers and the general public.-S. THANTHONI

Nuclear power stations, research reactors, fuel reprocessing units and waste management facilities are the installations that pose the highest risk to the health and life of workers and the general public. This article focusses mainly on the problems of power reactors.

India has 10 operating nuclear power reactors; four more are under construction. Table 1 gives the list of the reactor units and their power ratings. Table 2 indicates their very poor performance, with a gross life-time capacity utilisation factor of about 37 per cent. The corresponding figures in respect of some other nuclear power nations are well above 60 per cent (Table 3). The DAE has never challenged the capacity utilisation figures published by foreign journals.

When it comes to safety, the existing compilation of safety-related unusual occurrences indicates a high degree of human errors and equipment failures. Installation-wise, the overall safety status can be gauged from the following:

Tarapur power station (TAPS-1 and 2)

The two boiling-water reactors at Tarapur are of 1969-vintage U.S. design. All similar reactors around the world have been shut down for reasons of safety. The two reactors at the Tarapur Power Station (TAPS) share the same subsystems, including the emergency core cooling system, in violation of all safety standards of today. The inerting of the TAPS containment with nitrogen was long discontinued by theDAE, and operation in the present mode could lead to a containment explosion in case a loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA) happens. Many parts of TAPS reactors are uninspectable, nor do Indian scientists have the tools or the technology for doing this. After 1974, no spare parts or assistance have been coming from the United States The two steam generators in each unit are totally disabled owing to extensive tube failures and because of this TAPS has been de-rated from 200 MWe to 160 MWe. It is evident that TAPS-1 and 2 should have been shut down long ago in the interest of public safety.

Rajasthan Atomic Power Station (RAPS-1 & 2)

RAPS-1 and 2 are the two oldest Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR) nuclear power units, built with Canadian assistance. RAPS-1, which was originally rated at 200 MWe, had to be de-rated to the 100 MWe level, after an end-shield showed cracks and consequent leakages. In RAPS-1 and 2 and the Madras Atomic Power Station-1 (MAPS-1), 3.5 per cent nickel stainless steel was used to make these shields, which led to radiation embrittlement and cracking.

The nuclear fuel in the PHWRs is housed within a pressure tube (P.T.) which passes through a calandria tube (C.T.) with a gas-filled gap between them. In the first seven Indian PHWRs, P.Ts were made of zircalloy-2, which was later found to be prone to creep deformation under irradiation. Canadian PHWRs have all been fully changed over to P.Ts fabricated out of a zirconium-niobium alloy. The reactors at RAPS-1, MAPS-1 and 2, the Narora Atomic Power Station-1 and 2 (NAPS-1 and 2) and the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station-1 (KAPS-1) will have to be re-tubed en masse between six and eight full-power years. Otherwise it could lead to a serious LOCA, as happened in Canada in 1984. RAPS-2 has recently been retubed, but the degree of quality control and reliability are questionable.

Another very serious safety deficiency in the four reactors at RAPS and MAPS is the absence of an adequate high-pressure emergency core cooling system (ECCS), which is crucial for avoiding core-meltdown in the case of a LOCA. In a LOCA that occurs as a result of a medium-sized pipe break, which is more likely, the coolant in the fuel channels could vapourise and cause voids, leading to a partial core meltdown. No PHWR anywhere in the world currently operates with such an obsolete and unsafe ECCS as the ones at RAPS and MAPS.

Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS-1 and 2)

In the early 1980s, the discovery of some pieces of zircalloy in a moderator pump in MAPS Unit-1 was traced to the problem of substantial cracking of the reactor inlet manifold. An identical problem surfaced in MAPS-2 almost during the same period.

Instead of fabricating the manifolds as an integral unit as per Canadian advice, at MAPS the DAE fabricated each manifold in three sections and then joined them within the calandria. The poor quality control in such work, done within a confined space, has led to the cracking. The MAPS reactors were de-rated from 235 MWe to 175 MWe because of this and their continued operation in this mode is not considered safe, even at this power level.

The P.T.-C.T. contact problem and the inadequate ECCS system, as in RAPS, also exist in MAPS-1 and 2. Thus, the synergy of different kinds of serious safety issues in MAPS-1 and 2 puts this station at a higher risk than will be acceptable anywhere else in the world. And Chennai city is within 30 kms of MAPS.

Narora Atomic Power Station (NAPS-1 and 2)

One major modification at NAPS-1 and 2 was the inclusion of a fourth level of safety protection through the gravity addition of boron solution (GRAB) into the reactor core, as a last-level protection in the event of a prolonged station power blackout. Just that eventuality occurred on March 31, 1993 in Narora Unit-1 when a devastating fire brought the reactor core very close to partial fuel meltdown. The timely use of the GRAB system saved the day.

In 1985, an overheated cable joint at RAPS-2 caused a fire, which spread through the cable trays and disabled four out of eight PHT pumps. In 1991, a fire in the KAPS-1 switchgear room led to a complete loss of emergency diesel power and a partial loss of D.C. power supply. Then came the NAPS-1 fire in March 1993.The DAE does not seem to have learnt from its experiences.

The 1993 fire was initiated by two steam turbine blades which broke at their roots and caused the turbine's destruction. Faults in the blade of the design in similar turbines were detected by the turbine designer, GEC of the United Kingdom, a few years prior to the Narora fire. In 1989, GEC promptly provided a revised blade design to the Indian manufacturer and it, in turn, prepared detailed drawings for fabricating and supplying new blades for NAPS, KAPS and Kaiga. But the DAE did not take any action on the warning from the GEC, until months after the Narora fire.

Kakrapar Atomic Power Station (KAPS-1 and 2)

In June 1994, flood waters entered the condenser pit and the turbine building basements in the KAPS reactors because sealing arrangements were not provided to prevent water ingress through cable trenches and valve pits. Similar flooding had occurred twice at RAPS in 1976 and 1982, owing to the very same construction errors as at KAPS.

The first-generation microprocessor-based indigenous control system of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) has been introduced at KAPS. There have been instances of dangerous and erratic behaviour, such as a shutdown rod coming out when signalled to go into the reactor. The new systems introduced from BAPC are not tested thoroughly for their reliability; no appropriate facility for such testing exists with the DAE.

Kaiga Nuclear Power Project (Kaiga)

The Kaiga project was substantially delayed because the pre-stressed concrete containment dome in Unit-1 collapsed on May 13, 1994 during the final stages of construction. The AERB Investigation Committee's findings, which were later accepted in toto by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), showed that the failure occurred owing to design deficiencies and the absence of quality control.

In the Kaiga-1 and 2 and RAPS-3 and 4 projects, the AERB had directed that integrated ECCS testings be carried out in each reactor before start-up, proof and leakage tests be conducted on the reactor containments, and a full-scope simulator installed for operator training. None of these stipulations have been met by the DAE.

Other DAE installations

Safety standards at the research reactors at BARC leave a lot to be desired. The 100 MWth Dhruva reactor and the 60 MWth CIRUS reactor are in BARC's Trombay complex. The safety culture in BARC is generally poor, even in comparison to the nuclear power stations. There have been instances of a reactor being started up with an operator inadvertently locked inside a room below. There was also an incident of operating the Dhruva reactor for almost one month with an emergency coolant system valve closed tight. The bursting of underground pipelines carrying radioactive fluids within the BARC campus, which has contaminated hundreds of tonnes of subsoil, and leaky tanks holding lakhs of litres of highly radioactive fluids not being replaced or repaired are some of the other instances.

The situation in the DAE's fuel reprocessing and fuel fabrication units is no different. High levels of air-borne radioactive dust and minor explosions in active chemical reactors are not rare. Workers at uranium mines and the extraction plant in Jaduguda and the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad are not adequately protected from radiation intake and external exposure.

A PROBLEM with assessing safety is that all radiation measurements and exposure evaluations are done by health physics personnel employed by the DAE. The AERB has no facilities or personnel to do this. Even in the nuclear power stations, the DAE personnel stationed there carry out the measurements and the DAE then provides the data to the AERB. These DAE physicists, however, receive a monthly bonus from the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC), which is in proportion to the quantum of energy produced. If a reactor is shut down on the recommendation of a station health physicist, he loses his bonus. The reader can guess how honestly the data will get reported to the AERB in this situation.

Safety issues in DAE installations

It is evident from the above that the safety status in the DAE's facilities is far below international standards. In July 1995 the AEC asked me, in my capacity as Chairman of the AERB, to make a brief presentation on the DAE's safety status. The discussion at this meeting was an eye-opener to the non-DAE members of the Commission. The Prime Minister's Secretary and the Cabinet Secretary thereafter informally directed that the AERB must prepare a more comprehensive document on safety. After four months of serious effort by the AERB staff and after referring to more than 700 of the DAE's own documents, the AERB prepared a report titled "Safety Issues in DAE Installations". It covered about 130 safety issues, of which 95 are of top priority. This document was discussed and approved by the AERB at its 46th meeting on November 7, 1995 and then submitted to the AEC.

The document generated heated discussions at the next meeting of the AEC held in February 1996, after which the AEC gave the AERB the clearance to proceed as it felt proper. This decision was taken at the insistence of the Prime Minister's Office and the Cabinet Secretary and the Finance Secretary, and was not that of the DAE members in the AEC or the DAE Secretary. To date, however, it is not known whether any concrete action has been taken on this report, even though the present Chairman of the AERB, asserts to the press that "every issue is being seriously looked into". Top-priority deficiencies still exist, and the AERB is far from being proactive as it used to be in the 1993-96 period.

In June 1994, the IAEA organised a Diplomatic Conference to adopt the final text of the Convention on Nuclear Safety. I was the head of the Indian delegation to this conference and was unanimously elected Chairman of the 16-nation Drafting Committee for the Convention. The Convention, based on the text submitted by this committee, was adopted on June 17, 1994. India was one of the first countries to join the Convention in September 1994.

Article 8-2 of this Convention reads: "Each Contracting Party shall take the appropriate steps to ensure an effective separation between the functions of the regulatory body and those of any other body or organisation concerned with the promotion or utilisation of nuclear energy."

With the present arrangement, under which the AERB reports to the AEC and, in effect, to the Secretary, DAE, it is evident that India is in deliberate violation of this international Convention, to which it is a party.

Independence of the AERB

In India, the administration of the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, is entrusted to the DAE. The Secretary, DAE, in turn constituted the AERB by an executive order in 1983, because of which the AERB is a subordinate entity of the DAE. The AERB is answerable to the AEC, whose Chairman is also the Secretary, DAE. Two other members of the AEC are the Director, BARC, and the Managing Director, NPC. Indeed, one cannot conceive of a more subservient existence - the regulatory agency has to report to those whom it is required to regulate and control in the public interest.

This organisational anomaly, compounded by the AERB's lack of technical staff and facilities, has crippled the regulatory process in many ways. Today, 95 per cent of the members of the AERB's evaluation committees are scientists and engineers on the payrolls of the DAE. This dependency is deliberately exploited by the DAE management to influence, directly and indirectly, the AERB's safety evaluations and decisions. The interference has manifested itself in the AERB toning down the seriousness of safety concerns, agreeing to the postponement of essential repairs to suit the DAE's time schedules, and allowing continued operation of installations when public safety considerations would warrant their immediate shutdown and repair.

In the U.S. the nuclear regulatory system was substantially strengthened only after experiencing the harsh realities of the Three Mile Island accident. Post-Chernobyl investigations found that the lack of independence of the then existing Soviet regulatory body was a major contributor to that accident. In India, are we to wait for a major nuclear disaster to occur before we wake up to the need for corrective action?

Precedents for structuring and managing independent regulatory bodies exist in India. The Chief Commissioner for Railway Safety does not report to the Railway Board, but to the Department of Civil Aviation. The office of the Chief Inspector of Mine Safety is part of the Department of Labour. During my tenure as AERB Chairman I appointed an AERB committee to prepare a document on strengthening and streamlining the regulatory system. In 1996, this committee submitted a 'Code for Governmental Organisation for Regulation of Nuclear and Radiation Facilities'. This draft code spelt out the desirable role, responsibilities, structure and organisation for the AERB. It called for a "functionally autonomous regulatory body". No further action, however, has been taken by the present AERB on this matter.

Also, during the first half of 1996 the then Cabinet Secretary was worried about the AERB's lack of independence. I understand that he was also very much aware of a directive given on file by an earlier Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, that the AERB should be forthwith made an autonomous body, even if it has to report directly to him. Rajiv Gandhi's concern arose just after his review of the DAE's post-Chernobyl report, which did not reflect an adequate level of safety in the Indian installations. But, unfortunately, the DAE successfully saw to it that the late Prime Minister's directive was scuttled. In 1996, the then Cabinet Secretary tried to revive the effort and held a few meetings and framed his own draft recommendations on providing autonomy to the AERB. The fate of this draft is not known.

IT is evident that the nation has entrusted the entire nuclear programme to a department of the Government, which has over the years become more and more powerful and has developed an increasing callousness for public safety and welfare. The 1974 Pokhran tests, in which the DAE played a key role, was the turning point for the increasing arrogance. With both the civilian and weapons programmes under the same individuals and facilities, and with the Official Secrets Act providing a fig leaf to cover up its inadequacies, the DAE finds it easy to maintain this posture. It blocks any attempt to create an independent nuclear regulatory system, with scant regard to the people's right to information on matters that are vital to their health and survival.

In conclusion, today, nuclear safety in India is at a crossroads. In a democracy such as India's, the final solution to this dilemma can only come from Parliament. In countries such as the U.S., and Canada, the nuclear regulatory body is created under a legislative act. In India, the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, which still recognises only peaceful uses of atomic energy, is defunct after the 1998 nuclear weapon tests, which have violated the Act's provisions. It would therefore be timely to amend this Act in order to recognise both peaceful and military uses of atomic energy, if need be, and at the time enact a new Atomic Energy (Safety and Regulation) Act, under which a properly empowered AERB can be given a fresh lease of life.

In order that Parliament acts on these suggestions, it is necessary that parliamentarians are sensitised to the gravity of these issues. Both the public and the media have a serious and responsible role to play in this. We cannot let political compulsions and career ambitions and the craving for personal glory of a few people stand in the way of openness and corrective actions. Above all, the nation's ambition to be a nuclear weapon power, which has necessitated certain false postures of capability, should not blind the Government or Parliament from the ground realities of nuclear safety. Future generations will not pardon this government or Parliament if a nuclear disaster occurs in India, despite the warnings.

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Convention on nuclear safety

Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan was the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Government of India, from 1993 to 1996. He holds M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Nuclear Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, U.S.; his area of specialisation was nuclear safety. He also held senior positions in the University of California, Berkeley, the Argonne National Laboratory of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto. Immediately after his term as AERB Chairman ended, Dr. Gopalakrishnan publicly criticised India's nuclear establishment for its excessive secrecy and lack of accountability (Frontline, August 23, 1996).

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