Nuclear disaster: Control rooms with no bosses, hotline turned cold

Smita Nair | Indian Express

They know it’s the last thing of beauty they might ever see: long beds of ramphool flowers scattered across the countryside, their long stalks bending in the wind. For years now, 1,149 first-responders stationed amidst the flowers, at the National Disaster Relief Force base at Sudumbare near Pune, have trained each day for the most horrific kind of industrial accident imaginable: a disaster at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station, Maharashtra.

After years of learning about events from Chernobyl to Fukushima, the men know this: although the odds of a disaster are very, very low, the unimaginable extracts unimaginable costs.

Two basic principles will be key to saving thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of lives: timely detection of the radioactive leak and swift evacuation of people from wind-borne radioactive cloud which will follow.

Led by Alok Avasthy, the NDRF’s 5 Battalion has trained for a decade to deal with CBRN events — short for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear. “If you place us at the spot at the right time, we are confident that we are going to fix the situation,” Avasthy says. The “if” is a carefully considered one.

Dysfunctional system

simpson nuclearTHE 5 Battalion has been called to help in all kinds of disasters over the years — landslides, floods, building collapses, etc. It has always had to get there by road. In spite of extensive correspondence with NDRF headquarters, and subsequent communication between the NDRF and the Ministry of Home Affairs, there’s no hotline that would allow the Battalion to immediately call in air support. The NDRF’s director, as first reported by The Indian Express earlier in this series, has no power to requisition helicopters or aircraft.

In 2011, fatigued and frustrated by the distance between cities and their base, and in an effort to multiply force, the battalion with specialised skills and equipment began picking men from the State Response Police Force for training. Those men, though, have been committed back to law and order duties, dispersed across various units.

“The idea was to strengthen our CBRN response in mega cities,” says Avasthy. “Around 1,100 police personnel were trained in the best of grounds and with the best equipment and mock situations. I do not know where they have vanished today.”

The state government, meanwhile, is pushing to set up a State Disaster Response Force of its own. Having worked on the proposal for months, Milind Mhasikar, secretary of the department, recalls the day when the cabinet approved the proposal for an indigenous response team. “Malin floods took place at 6.30 am and the cabinet passed the proposal at 9.30 am,” he adds. The proposal being worked since January has Rs 100 crore budget only for salaries, with two companies to be shaped before the end of 2014. Nothing much has happened since, though — so raising day might be a while away.

Theory and practice

In theory, there’s back-up in place already. A nuclear emergency should set off what’ called a Level 3 response — involving the country’s defence, paramilitary, police and government agencies all the way from the Centre to the taluka. The National Disaster Management Agency had prepared a structured document, providing precise directions on rescue, decontamination and evacuation, to be administered in real-time by control rooms at the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi and in the states.

The reality is that Maharashtra doesn’t actually have a set of operating procedures in place, which would govern all organisations in a crisis. The SOPs of three agencies that The Indian Express accessed showed overlaps, while one at the state level hadn’t been updated since 2005. The State Relief and Rehabilitation Office has asked all concerned agencies, from police and essential services to traffic, to prepare a single SOP for various situations. It is currently working on one for railway strikes.

“We have kept streamlining the SOP for mega-disasters like terror attack in a nuclear reactor for last as the number of agencies involved is huge,” an official explained

To make an SOP work, it’ll need an effective control room. The Maharashtra secretariat’s control room, run by the SRRC, does not have a single professional disaster expert — just staff on deputation from various departments like general administration, irrigation and animal husbandry. The position of the nodal officer, the Director of State Relief and Rehabilitation, has not been occupied for 45 days. Two crucial posts, the capacity-building officer and resource coordinator, do not exist.

Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, which operates all the 19 nuclear power plants, takes safety seriously, operating a ‘defence-in-depth’ strategy involving multiple layers of concrete protection and electronic systems. After the 9/11 terror attack, the new age reactors were given another coat of security, to ensure that they are missile-proof. Emergency preparedness drills are conducted every two years, along with the district administration.

\Yet, a 2011 emergency census document obtained by The Indian Express shows that there will be real problems should a large crisis emerge. A population of 2,98,573 people will have to be evacuated in an extreme emergency, not counting the swelling floating population in the area. The 2011 exercise found that there were limited evacuation modes and ground routes, due to area demographics and its proximity to sea. NPCIL and NDRF teams too have pointed to the lack of check on increasing density around the site, which is against the AERB norms.

Things which work well during drills — of which populations are warned for weeks — don’t always work when the exercise is over. An out-of-routine check to the State Transport Bus office at night by an official saw that 18 buses were available for evacuation near a reactor — but no drivers. Another official at the State Health Department confessed that while medicine keeps getting updated and stocked at all hospitals around the site, there is a lack of expertise in treating radiation-related conditions. No-one knows what impact modern communication means, like the social media, will have: it has never been factored in during exercises.

The police, key to handling the hundreds of thousands who will need evacuating, haven’t shown great skills with panicked people: 18 had died in a stampede outside the gates of Mohammed Burhanuddin, spiritual leader of Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community, hours before his funeral in January, 2014.

In many cases, there’s an unwillingness to consider low-probability events — the ones that actually cause the most fatalities. Last year, fired by news from Japan’s Fukushima disaster, the civic administration approached NPCIL with a “core meltdown” theme for mock drill exercise. The scientist community shot it down, suggesting that a drill should be of “probable events” and not “unfounded situations borrowed from reactors abroad”.