Souwmya Sivakumar | DNA Jaipur

Just as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India has made a scathing attack on the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) for miserably failing to ensure any sort of safety in nuclear plants, a series of health safety violations of nuclear power plant contract workers is surfacing in Rawatbhata, Rajasthan.

Two more leaks

Barely a month after he was exposed to over-annual dosage limits of radiation, Nandkishore Nehar was asked to go in and fix another repair at the RAPS-2. “There was another tritium leak into the waters of the Rana Pratap Sagar last month due to which there was a temporary shut down,” he informed. This leak was not reported anywhere in the media. Nandkishore refused to do the repair, saying that he had just been exposed to the highest possible radioactivity only a month ago. According to the AERB rules, a worker over-exposed to radioactivity is not supposed to be sent into radioactive areas of the plant for a whole year.

In the meanwhile, yet another tritium leak was reported from the RAPS reactor-4 at Rawatbhata on 19th of July, where four permanent employees were exposed, said sources. This is the fourth leak in less than a span of two months.

It is two months since tritium, a radioactive gas, leaked at the nuclear reactor unit 5 at the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL)’s Rajasthan Atomic Power Station (RAPS) in Rawatbhata, exposing 38 workers to radiation. But none of the contract workers, including those who received above the annual acceptable dose in one shot, have been given their medical reports or any official certification stating the dosage they were exposed to till date. Three among the 23 contract workers were reported to have received radiation doses over and above the annual regulatory limit of 15 milliseiverts prescribed by the AERB for nuclear power plant contract workers.

On the contrary, the internal software at the plant, which is the only access point for workers to know their lifetime radiation dose on a screen (on which there is no official stamp) by keying in their ‘TLD number’, was shut down for a few days after the incident. “There was a software problem for a few days,” confirmed Vinod Kumar, station director, RAPS units 5 & 6. Very coincidentally, the software chose to collapse exactly after the June 23rd leak.

Tritium and Its Effects

– Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, both naturally occurring and manufactured. In nuclear plants, it is commonly produced in heavy water reactors.

– Tritium easily oxidises to form tritiated water (HTO); once HTO enters the body, it diffuses freely and rapidly across cellular membranes.

– Tritium is potentially dangerous when inhaled or ingested.

“Although most of the tritium comes out of the body in a short time, the real danger is if it gets organically bound. The body does not differentiate between ordinary water and tritiated water. Even if 1% tritium gets organically bound, it can cause a lot of damage by entering reproductive cells and creating genetic mutations and deformities. Besides this, any radioactive dose can lead to cancer,” said Dr. Sanghamitra Desai Gadekar, an internationally renowned doctor, Sampurna Kranti Vidyalay, Surat, Gujarat who has conducted the first ever health surveys around nuclear plant areas in the country, including Rawatbhata.

“We were told by the station director Vinod Kumar not to speak too much to the media and TV channels, else we would lose our jobs. We were called for medical tests a couple of days later at the RAPP hospital, but when we asked for the reports, we were told they had been handed over to the plant,” said Nandkishore Nehar, who received the highest exposure during the incident. “We have asked them many times, but they have not given us anything,” states Gulab Singh, another highly exposed worker, adding that they have now had to put an application under the RTI Act asking for the reports.

“We are not hiding anything. Everything is normal now. He (Nandkishore) received only 20.42 millisieverts (mSv), there is no need to sensationalise. Only if someone has received 1000 mSv is there radiation impact. If they (workers) ask for it (the reports), we will give it. We are providing them under the RTI Act,” said Vinod Kumar. “We anyway provide dosage certificates to the contract workers upon completion of contract,” he added. “None of the workers have ever received any such certificate till date,” countered Man Singh Solanki, general secretary, Anushakti DR Shramik Sangathan, Rawatbhata.

When asked then why is there a 15 mSv limit, how come they were asked to work for 5 hours in the plant when the leak had occurred, instead of the permitted half an hour, and what about the long term consequences of exposure to tritium and who would take responsibility for that, Vinod Kumar was evasive.

Recounting the incident, Gulab Singh said, “on 23rd June, we were asked to carry out a repair at the northern vault of reactor-5, where there is high amount of radiation. We were made out a 30-minute permit but we worked there for five hours instead. We had no idea there was a leak, as tritium has no color or smell. As soon as we finished our work, the officials told us to get of there quickly as they had been a leak. They knew about it as there are special monitors installed in the reactors. We were asked to hand in our dosimeters and urine samples. On the next day, we were told that we had been exposed to high radiation, and told to drink lots of water, cool drinks and beer.”

[warning]“The functions of monitoring of radiological exposure as well as the responsibility of radiological surveillance of Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs) lay with the operators of NPPs. Consequently, AERB had no direct role in conducting independent assessments and monitoring to ensure radiological protection of workers despite being the nuclear regulator of India.”
– CAG Report on Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, tabled in Parliament on August 22, 2012[/warning] [warning]“The actual irony is that there is no independent body to examine radiation health of workers. Tests are done and declared by the NPCIL or related authorities themselves. There is an urgent need to set up autonomous radiation health institutions in every district and state in the country,”

– P K Sundaram, research consultant, Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, New Delhi[/warning]