A controversial decision

Published : Jun 24, 2000 00:00 IST

The decision to remove the AERB's jurisdiction over the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre points to the government's intention to go ahead with its nuclear weaponisation programme.

THE Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is caught in another controversy, this time over the decision taken on April 25 to keep "the safety and regulatory functions" at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) out of the purview of the Atomic Energy Regula tory Board (AERB).

An Office Memorandum signed by the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary, DAE, Dr.R.Chidambaram, stated: "The regulatory and safety functions at the BARC and its facilities hitherto exercised by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board will he nceforth be exercised through an internal safety committee structure to be constituted by the Director, the BARC, for the purpose.... While carrying out the above functions, the BARC will ensure compliance with (1) the principles of good safety managemen t as given in the relevant safety codes, guides, standards, etc.. developed by the AERB wherever applicable and (2) the acceptable limits of radiation exposure to members of the public prescribed by the AERB."

(Earlier, some scientists had raised serious questions about the yield of the five nuclear explosions, particularly that of the thermo-nuclear device, conducted at Pokhran on May 11 and 13, 1998.)

The immediate implication of the development is that the Government of India has decided to go ahead with its nuclear weaponisation programme, which will be essentially based at the BARC's facilities at Trombay, about 25 km from Mumbai. According to Dr. S.P. Sukhatme, AERB Chairman, the Board was consulted before the decision was taken, and it had the approval of the Prime Minister.

Critics maintain that the decision further curtails the powers of the AERB, which has been dependent on the DAE for financial and technical support. The AERB had often been accused of not asserting its independence with regard to safeguards at DAE facili ties even in the matter of radiation doses received by workers and members of the public. They demanded that the internal safety committee include experts from outside and that it be made accountable.

Dr.Anil Kakodkar, Director, the BARC, described the decision as "a straightforward one" because "in a strategic programme - weapons programme - we have to maintain secrecy and also safety". He added: "In fact, we have taken care of both." He said that th e safety culture at the BARC was as old as the BARC itself. Right from its establishment, the BARC has had a comprehensive programme of safety research and management. Even in evolving the regulatory framework, the BARC had made a significant contributio n. It had "the knowledge and competence" to evolve safety mechanisms for the nuclear weapons programme and hence could have its own internal safety committee. So the capability did exist.

Dr.Kakodkar said: "We will completely abide by the standards and codes prescribed by the AERB and ensure that the radiation exposure will be within the limits prescribed by it. So there is no question of any dilution of standards. In fact, our attempt wi ll be to improve the safety standards."

Dr.Sukhatme told Frontline that it was "a logical decision", consistent with the functions of the regulatory bodies in other nuclear weapons states. The AERB was established in order to supervise only the civilian aspects of the nuclear energy pro gramme; that is, monitor the safety and radiation limits of nuclear power generation, he said. According to him, the regulatory bodies all over the world looked after only the civilian aspects of nuclear energy.

He further said: "That is the way it has been all these years. Things have now changed... A certain situation existed after 1998 (in the wake of the Pokhran nuclear tests and India becoming a nuclear weapons state). A stage has come when you should have a separate set-up... Therefore, there was a feeling that there should be a clear-cut demarcation of what AERB should oversee and should not. There was some fuzziness. I wanted some clarity on what we should oversee and should not. This was discussed. The refore this particular decision... It has brought clarity into the situation. There is no confusion."

Dr.Kakodkar said: "In the United States there is a comprehensive programme to go into all aspects of energy technology and nuclear weapons technology. For instance, the laboratories coming under the Department of Energy in the U.S. are like the BARC. The se laboratories do not come under the purview of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (similar to AERB). The April 25 decision is in the same direction."

Dr. P.K. Iyengar, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, brushed aside the controversy, saying "it is not a big issue at all. After all, it is an internal arrangement. The Americans have done that. the BARC scientists are on the AERB committees , providing technical evaluation... I don't think there is any problem with the BARC having the expertise to supervise the safety of the weapons-making programme." It is "good to divide and put all these (weapons-making facilities) under the BARC's contr ol", he averred.

The BARC forms the heartbeat of the country's nuclear power generation and weapons programmes. Its state-of-the-art laboratories carry out research in a variety of fields, including those involving advanced heavy water reactors, virtual reality and fusio n technology. A majority of the BARC facilities - India's first research reactor Apsara and similar research reactors such as CIRUS and Dhruva - are located in Trombay. Other BARC facilities include the Fuel Reprocessing Plant at Tarapur, Maharashtra; th e Rare Materials Plant near Mysore; and the Kalpakkam Atomic Reprocessing Plant (KARP).

DAE officials say that the facilities at the BARC are not "dilapidated", as one critic stated, but are highly sophisticated and are among the best in the world.

THE AERB was set up on November 15, 1983, under Section 27 of the Atomic Energy Act in order to carry out certain regulatory and safety functions at nuclear establishments. The AERB Charter states that "the mission of the Board is to ensure that the use of ionising radiation and nuclear energy in India does not cause undue risk to health and environment." The AERB is supported by the Safety Review Committee for Operating Plants (SARCOP), the Safety Review Committee for Applications of Radiation (SARCAR) and five Advisory Committees for Project Safety Review (ACPSRs). There are two ACPSRs for nuclear power projects, one for heavy water projects, the fourth for spent fuel reprocessing projects and the fifth for waste management projects. The SARCOP carri es out safety surveillance and enforces safety stipulations in the operating units of the DAE, such as the nuclear power stations at Tarapur, Rawatbhatta (Rajasthan), Kalpakkam, Kakrapar (Gujarat), Narora (Uttar Pradesh) and Kaiga (Karnataka). The SARCAR recommends measures to enforce radiation safety in medical, industrial and research institutions that use radiation and radioactive sources.

Explaining the reasons for keeping the AERB out of the safety and regulatory functions at the BARC facilities, Dr.Kakodkar said: "Safety in a weapons programme is very important. This must be done by a structure where the information is contained. In a s ense, there is the principle of need-to-know at work from the point of view of maintaining the secrecy of the strategic programme. Hence, a separate safety committee structure to ensure safety in the strategic programme is required."

Referring to the April 25 memorandum, Dr.Sukhatme said: "There is no way you can exceed the limits laid down by the AERB." For instance, the AERB has stipulated that a worker in a nuclear facility cannot be exposed to more than 30 milliSieverts of radiat ion a year, and that for a five-year period he should not receive more than 100 milliSieverts. He said: "Although the safety responsibility has been handed down to the BARC, they are expected to follow the standards prescribed by us for the benefit of th e worker and the public. This is the crux (of the decision)."

Dr. K.S. Parthasarathy, Secretary, AERB, said that some news reports had given the impression that the decision was taken without the AERB's knowledge, which "is wrong". He dismissed the fears that safety would be compromised once the BARC moved out of t he AERB's ambit. He said that between 1987, when he became the AERB's Secretary, and now, 66 meetings of the board had been held. "At no time was any regulatory decision influenced by any AEC Chairman. There was no pressure from Dr. M.R. Srinivasan, or D r. P.K. Iyengar, or Dr.R.Chidambaram. At no point did any member of the AEC try to influence us." For all regulatory decisions taken by the AERB, the AEC was the appellate body. "There is not a single case of any appeal being made by anybody against our decisions," he said.

On why it took the government two years after the Pokhran-II tests to take the BARC out of the AERB's purview, Dr.Kakodkar said there was nothing significant about the timing. "We have been thinking about this. I was worried about doing it properly. You must prepare for it. The important thing is that this is the way it should be done."

On whether KARP, the Rare Materials Plant, the Tarapur Fuel Reprocessing Plant and the Reprocessing Plant at Trombay would also go out of the AERB's purview, Dr.Sukhatme maintained that any facility that was under the BARC would be removed from the Board 's purview, although "there may be some minor adjustments". (KARP, the Rare Materials Plant and the Fuel Reprocessing plants at Tarapur and Trombay are under the control of the BARC.)

On whether nuclear power stations would continue to remain in the ambit of the AERB as the spent fuel from these stations could be reprocessed into low-grade plutonium for making nuclear bombs, Sukhatme said: "All power reactors generating electricity wi ll remain under the purview of the AERB. There will be no changes. There are 12 power reactors in the country, including Kaiga-2 and RAPS-3."

On whether specialists from outside would be included on the BARC's internal safety committee, Dr. Kakodkar said: "Most of the expertise at the moment is from within the BARC and other units of the DAE. Depending on the need, if there are any specific ca ses where there are experts, it should be possible (to include them on the committee). At the same time, we must be sure about their expertise and security clearance. I have this dual responsibility - of making sure that everything is done safely and of maintaining secrecy."

On Dr.Iyengar's suggestion that India should on no account sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty before testing a neutron bomb, Dr.Kakodkar said what India needed was a minimum credible nuclear deterrent. Whatever tests had to be conducted and whatever data were required towards that goal were realised from the 1998 nuclear explosions. The hydrogen bomb, namely the thermo-nuclear device, was also tested then. Dr.Kakodkar added: "It is of the design which is comparable with the state-of-the-art, and it is a compact thermo-nuclear system. We could not test it at a yield higher than 45 kilotonnes because there was a village nearby. But the test has enabled us to design weapons of a higher yield. A neutron bomb is essentially a tactical system. It is perh aps not very much relevant now."

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