Undermining nuclear safety

Print edition : June 24, 2000

THE Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) was created on November 15, 1983 through a gazette notification (No. 25/2/83-ER) signed by the then Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Dr.Raja Ramanna. Among other things, the AERB was empowered to lay down safety standards, frame rules and regulations in regard to public and worker safety under the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act, 1962 and enforce their compliance in all DAE and non-DAE installations.

The AERB has been attempting to meet these responsibilities to the best of its abilities since then, within the constraints of a serious lack of independence from the DAE and a shortage of adequate technical manpower of its own. But, through an Office Me morandum dated April 25, 2000 Dr.R.Chidambaram, the present Secretary of the DAE, has ordered that the regulatory and safety functions at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and its facilities, exercised at present by the AERB, will henceforth be ca rried out through an "Internal Safety Committee Structure" to be constituted by the Director of the BARC. The independent safety assurance and regulation has thus been made the responsibility of the same people who manage these installations, defeating t he very principle of unbiased external scrutiny, which is at the core of any such regulation.

The order states that the BARC will ensure compliance with the "principles" of good safety management as given in the relevant Safety Codes, Guides, Standards, and so on developed by the AERB "wherever applicable," and the acceptable limits of radiation exposure to members of the public prescribed by the AERB. Enough loopholes are provided in this order to allow the BARC to limit its controls to the minimum that they selectively wish to implement. Interestingly, the order is also silent about the BARC c omplying with the acceptable limits of radiation exposures to its workers, who today bear the brunt of the radioactive leakages and the over-exposure arising out of design deficiencies, poor maintenance and inferior housekeeping at old BARC facilities.

Currently, the AERB is mandated to ensure the safety of the workers also from radiation exposure but no such obligation is henceforth imposed on the BARC and its nuclear facilities regarding its workforce.

Besides the old power reactors, most of the potentially hazardous nuclear installations are the BARC facilities spread around the country. The Apsara, CIRUS and Dhruva reactors at Trombay, all spent-fuel reprocessing plants and radioactive waste manageme nt facilities, the uranium enrichment plant in Mysore, the large high-activity liquid radioactive waste storage facilities at Tarapur, Trombay and Kalpakkam and the high-risk reactor test facility for nuclear submarine reactor development coming up at Ka lpakkam are all part of the BARC installations now to be self-regulated. Most of these installations were not well-accessible to AERB purview even earlier, because of the clandestine nuclear weapons programme to which they were contributing all along. Al so, the older among these facilities, set up 25 or more years ago, have not been designed, constructed or maintained over the past as per acceptable safety standards.

During this writer's tenure as AERB Chairman, the BARC management refused outright to comply with the procedures and corrective actions ordered by the AERB on the basis of its Safety Issues Document on DAE Facilities of 1995. The matter was heatedly deb ated in early-1996 at one of the meetings of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), held to review the document. The Cabinet Secretary and the Finance Secretary strongly defended the AERB's authority and the need for it to oversee the safety aspects of the BARC's operations, while the current Secretary of the DAE and the then Director of BARC strongly opposed it as interference in BARC operations. At that meeting, thanks to the firm stand taken by the two non-DAE Secretaries, both seasoned bureaucrats who understood the serious negative implications of weakening the regulatory body, the AERB's directives were approved for implementation and the BARC was asked to comply fully with the stipulations. But whether any corrective action has since been initiated at all by the BARC on the serious safety deficiencies pointed out in the 1995 AERB document is not known. After the April 25 order, no one outside of the BARC will ever know the answer to this or even the right to know.

The servile AERB of today seems to be relieved that its responsibilities with regard to the BARC facilities have ended. The AERB Chairman is reported to have made a statement to the effect that the fuzziness with regard to the AERB's responsibility for B ARC installations has now been finally removed. Perhaps he is relieved because he no longer has to confront such powerful antagonists as the Secretary, DAE, and the Director, BARC, in trying to uphold the spirit of and need for independent safety review and control, for which an organisation like the AERB was created in the first place. Through its support for the DAE action, the current AERB has shown its callous disregard for its moral obligation, to the nuclear workers in BARC facilities and to the g eneral public, to serve as an independent watchdog organisation in order to ensure their safety and well-being. It makes one wonder whether the present AERB can any longer be trusted as an "independent" regulatory agency, which could subserve the interes ts of the workers and the public. If the AERB would like the public to believe that it would still "ensure and guarantee" public and worker safety against potential mishaps in BARC installations, it would be lying, since no such control is going to remai n with the AERB.

The AERB will never even know what is happening in these facilities from now onwards, and any such assurance from it is therefore worthless.

If, in India's new-found but questionable nuclear weapon status, the intention is to regulate the safety of military installations separately, it can still be done with some degree of transparency and without forgoing the principles of unbiased oversight . In the United States, all nuclear facilities are overseen by a Defence Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB), whose members are distinguished independent experts drawn from outside the government. The DNFSB is responsible for overseeing independently and from the outside all activities in the nuclear weapon complexes of the Department of Energy (DoE). In the normal course, the DNFSB submits its recommendations to the Secretary, DoE. But in case its reviews show a severe or imminent potential threat to public health and safety, it is required by law to submit its recommendations directly to the U.S. President and the Secretaries of Defence and Energy.

The DNFSB is answerable to the Congressional Committees on Atomic Energy, where it cannot withhold any information under the cover of the Official Secrets Act, and it even has to conduct open public hearings.

Will Dr. Chidambaram and the DAE assure the citizens of this country that the Internal Safety Committee of the BARC will also meet all similar requirements? If so, let him start by revealing to the public who the members of his internal committee are. An d, in the process, if he would like to browse through the bio-data of the chairman and members of the DNFSB of the U.S., he is welcome to visit the Website www.dnfsb.gov. While Chidambaram refuses to divulge the membership of the BARC internal safety com mittee, the Americans do not find it necessary to hide such information on DNFSB from anyone, even from Dr. Chidambaram.

Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan is a former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

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