Nucleocracy's nonsense

THE chairperson of the Atomic Energy Regulation Board (AERB), A Gopalakrishnan, has urged the media and public to take a sensible view of the accidental leak of radioactive waste from the Waste Immobilisation Plant (WIP) of the Tarapur Atomic Power Plant (TAPS) and "not to blow up the incident to scandalous proportions". No suggestion could be more scandalous, especially coming from a regulatory official and its shows the low level that state regulation has reached even in high tech and highly intellectual areas.

Indeed, every aspect of the handling of the incident by the TAPS authorities and other concerned agencies of the country's nuclear establishment is scandalous. Increased levels of radioactivity were detected in May. It took the authorities more than a month to source it down to leaks in the WIP. The construction plan of the plant had provided for a "delay tank" meant to trap and treat such leaks. The plant authorities suddenly woke up to the fact that it had never been built! As a result, the hazardous leak went straight into an open drain that passes close to the wells and ponds of the nearby village of Ghivali, which has a population of 3,000.

For nearly a month the villagers have been worried about the deaths of cattle and other household animals. They also noticed increased activity of radioactivity monitoring teams around their houses, and wondered whether the two were connected . The teams from TAPS told them not to worry since nothing had happened. In any case no humans had died. Nor will they. Radiation kills slowly.

There is more of this nonsense of nucleocracy. For decades, the Indian nuclear energy establishment has derided and discounted any criticism of the risky working of nearly all its reactors. TAPS itself has the reputation of being one of the filthiest nuclear power producers in the world. The 220 MWe reactors, built by General Electric of USA, are of a type used in several other nuclear plants around the world. But the two of this species used at TAPS emit 10 to 15 times more radioactivity than their counterparts elsewhere. It is no secret that TAPS authorities have kept down per capita exposure to radioactivity at the plant by having a high turnover of shopfloor employees and casual workers in ancillary operations.

The plant is also associated with an unusual incident rate which is high even in comparison to other reactors in India itself. It is also the country's premier facility for the generation of plutonium, which comes from spent uranium fuel and is necessary to run the Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR) near Madras. Plutonium comes polluted with several other toxic radioactive substances, whose weeding out passes under the relatively clean term, "reprocessing".

This operation has made TAPS to be associated with extraordinarily high amounts of various kinds of radioactive waste. All these considerations have been shrugged away by the plant's authorities claiming that, this time round, there were no potential hazards of the leak.

Environmental and public health organisations, as well as anti-nuclear experts and theoreticians, generally use the exposure of such remarkable callousness as an opportunity to ram through the disbanding of a country's nuclear programme. The open-endedness of a debate on this issue just enables the nuclear establishment to persist with its negation both of the value of public scrutiny and of a strict regulatory push towards safer operations.

Transparency and regulations would cover 3 objectives: first, the nuclear establishment must pledge to follow a far more rigorous operational safety culture than the one it works with right now. The AERB has admitted that there were 124 "incidents" in Indian nuclear plants in 1993-94 alone. Second, the Indian nuclear establishment must continually innovative for safer operations; this area is especially critical since most Indian reactors are afflicted with the debilities of fatigue and age. It is also a provocative area of R&D which has never been encouraged in the ultra-conservative Indian nuclear energy establishment. Third, bodies with reviewing powers, such as the AERB, must be empowered to be genuinely independent of the powers-that-be in the nuclear establishment. At present, the AERB keeps too many skeletons locked away in its cupboard. In times of crisis, the body is actually reduced to a damage controlling public relations outfit.

Yet none of these objectives can be achieved if influential sections of government as well public opinion continue to regard the nuclear energy sector as a national holy cow beyond the pale of ordinary laws. Untold crores of rupees have been spent on the 10 nuclear power reactors in India, but their share of total power generation is an abysmal 1.3 per cent of the country's electricity output. This alone is surely reason enough to ensure that the nuclear establishment becomes far more accountable regarding both performance and safety.