Sam Rajappa | The Statesman

A JAPANESE parliamentary report on last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster squarely blames the government and the regulators for effectively betraying the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, said in the 600-odd-page report that Japan had embraced nuclear power with an unquestioning single-mindedness that left the industry immune to scrutiny by civil society. “Its regulation was entrusted to the same government bureaucracy responsible for its promotion. A tightly-knit elite with enormous financial resources had diminishing regard for people’s sentiments. This conceit was reinforced by the collective mindset of the bureaucracy by which the first duty of any individual is to defend the interests of his organisation. Carried to an extreme, this led bureaucrats to put organisational interests ahead of their paramount duty to protect public safety.” Kurokawa’s indictment of the Japanese government is equally applicable to the government of India and its atomic energy establishment.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, India’s nuclear regulator, is a captive of the Department of the Atomic Energy, directly under the control of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The present chairman of AERB is SS Bajaj, retired executive director (safety) of Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited. The advisory committees of AERB are filled with people retired from or serving in DAE, NPCL or BARC. The conflict of interest is obvious. A person who held a senior position in the regulated organisation has become the chief regulator. The funding of AERB comes from DAE whose nuclear installations are required to be regulated by AERB, severely compromising its independence. The lack of independence was manifest in Bajaj’s 10 August order granting clearance for “Initial Fuel Loading’ and ‘First Approach to Criticality’ of the first 1,000 MW unit of the Koodankulam Nuclear Project being set up with Russian collaboration at a cost of Rs 17,270 crore. Even before the AERB clearance, V Narayanasamy, minister of state in the PMO, had been telling the media that the Koodankulam plant will be commissioned on 25 August.

The Madras High Court, after hearing all sides on a batch of petitions seeking scrapping of the Koodankulam project, has reserved orders. Instead of waiting for the court’s order, AERB has granted clearance which is tantamount to committing contempt of court. According to the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy, which is spearheading a campaign against the Koodankulam nuclear power project, AERB has given an assurance to the Madras High Court that the post-Fukushima task force’s recommendations would be fully implemented in all the nuclear installations in India and that no fuel loading decision at the Koodankulam plant would be taken until then. What was the need for AERB to rush to grant clearance, brushing aside legality and propriety, except to please its political masters? After the oracle from the PMO has spoken and AERB under the Prime Minister’s charge has jumped the gun, judgment of the High Court has become redundant.

AERB is the watchdog of nuclear safety in India. Under Indian laws and international conventions signed by India, AERB has failed to live up to its mandated obligations. Published documents show AERB has compromised on several counts in areas of nuclear safety because of its lack of independence. The charter of duties and functions of AERB include, among other things, ensuring compliance by the licencees with stipulated safety requirements and keeping the public informed of major issues relating to radiological safety. AERB had laid down certain rules and recommendations on adequate supply of fresh water for the Koodankulam nuclear plant before issuing authorisation for its construction. NPCIL has flouted these recommendations. Yet, AERB has granted clearance for loading nuclear fuel.

The order for the Reactor Pressure Vessel NPCIL placed with the Russian supplier stipulated that it should have no welds on the beltline (middle portion). The one that is installed in the first unit is found to have two welds on the beltline. It is the duty of AERB to inform the public if there is any violation of the terms of trade agreement between Russia and India in respect of the components of the nuclear power plant supplied. Beltline welds lead to accelerated aging of RPV from neutron bombardment, known as embrittlement, and lowers its design life. Failure of the integrity of RPV can compromise nuclear safety. Instead of pointing out the violation of the terms of agreement with Russia and seeking replacement of the welded RPV, captive AERB contended that the welds posed no danger. Is AERB serving the interests of the Indian people or the Russian component suppliers?

In February 2008, the Manmohan Singh government entered into a secret agreement with Russia under which the Indian side and its authorised organisation “at any time and at all stages of the construction and operation of the nuclear power units to be installed at the Koodankulam site shall be the operator of the power units and be fully responsible for any damage both within and outside the territory of the Republic of India caused to any person and property as a result of a nuclear incident occurring at the plant.” The Russians claim the Koodankulam reactors are the best and the safest in the world and our sarkari nuclear scientists acquiesce and lead our gullible politicians up the garden path to enter into such demeaning, one-sided agreements.

Whatever may be the safety claims of the Russians, the people of Koodankulam and neighbouring villages numbering more than 150,000 are apprehensive. The Koodankulam project managers have taken care to locate the staff quarters a good 12 kilometers away from the reactors. Koodankulam village is just one km away. Even closer is the tsumani rehabilitation colony of 450 concrete and brick houses completed in 2008 and sharing a common compound wall with the nuclear plant. The two large domes of the reactors stare at the fishing village of Idinthakarai where fisher folk have been on non-stop relay fast since August last year protesting against the nuclear plant. If the plant is commissioned, coolant water released from the reactor will wash the shore in no time, threatening the livelihood of its people. Does this fall within the safety definition of AERB?

People are angry with the mock safety drill, a mandatory requirement, conducted by the Koodankulam nuclear power plant authorities last month. Instead of conducting it in the villages of Koodankulam or Idinthakarai, it was held at a location 10 km away. While the authorities did not intimate the local people, they brought people from outside for this exercise. When the local people questioned them, they said they were conducting a survey of the incidence of dengue fever in the area. It is a shame that our institutions make a mockery of all regulations and assume that the people will believe their lies. It is evident the people have lost all trust in the government, disillusioned and dismayed at the manner in which their legitimate peaceful protest has been put down with an iron hand. And each step taken by the government aggravates this distrust. Destruction of democracy, rule of law and constitutional rights of the people is the price being paid to thrust a life-threatening nuclear power plant on unwilling people while environment friendly, clean, renewable sources of energy are available aplenty at a much lower cost. Is this the legacy the UPA government wants to leave behind?

The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director, Statesman Print Journalism School