Challenges to nuclear safety framework in India

K S Parthasarathy
On August 30, the Union cabinet approved a bill for setting up a new nuclear safety regulatory authority in India. This agency shall enforce nuclear and radiation safety rules in the country.

The mission of the authority is to ensure safe use of nuclear energy and ionising radiation. Enhancing the legal status of the regulatory agency is appropriate as further significant growth in nuclear power generation and use of radiation is anticipated in the next few years.

The department of atomic energy (DAE) which administered the Atomic Energy Act enjoyed the powers to promote and regulate all activities in the field of atomic energy. With the setting up of the nuclear regulatory authority of India, DAE shall continue to promote nuclear energy and the regulatory authority shall enforce safety requirements. Separation of promotional and regulatory functions is in line with good practices.

Since 1983, when AERB was set up, there has been some concern that the board will be subservient to the DAE which delegated the requisite powers to it. The track record of the board does not support such a premise. AERB remained as a functionally independent organisation to take decisions on merit. The enhancement of its legal status will lead to an even better regulatory system in place.

The annual reports of the board bear testimony to the regulatory effectiveness of the agency. One could count over 50 instances of regulatory actions of the board against DAE installations. These included reducing power levels of nuclear power plants and shutting down the plants for specified periods to carry out appropriate tests and evaluations, among others.

Consequent to the fire incident at unit one of the Narora Atomic Power Station (NAPS 1) in 1993, specialists appointed by AERB recommended that the turbine blades in the LP fifth stage roots must be modified. The board ordered sequential shut down of each unit of the operating PHWR stations for inspection of its turbine, generator and associated components to assess their state of health and fitness for continued operation. NPCIL complied with the directive.

The board reviewed the tsunami incident at Kalpakkam in December 2004 and ensured implementation of its directives.

In light of the criticality accident at Tokaimura, Japan, on September 30, 1999, the AERB directed detailed safety reviews of the plants carrying out fuel fabrication and spent fuel reprocessing in India. The nuclear fuel complex at Hyderabad implemented some remedial measures at the enriched uranium oxide plant at Hyderabad.

Public concerns

Public may have concerns about Tarapur Units 1 and 2 which were designed as per earlier standards. Specialists re-evaluated the seismic safety of these reactors and remedied the shortfalls by following the practices and guidelines in the Safety Report Series No 28 titled ‘Seismic evaluation of existing nuclear power plants’ of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA, 2003). The regulatory agency shall enforce recommendations arrived at in light of the accident at Fukushima in all nuclear installations.

The nature of the regulatory restrictions imposed by the regulatory agency and the way they were enforced, indicate that the agency was not influenced by any one, in its decision making.

As per the existing procedure, the Nuclear Power Corporation can prefer appeals against the decisions of the regulator to the Atomic Energy Commission. Though complying with some of the directives of the regulator was very expensive, the Nuclear Power Corporation implemented them without filing appeals.

There may still be debate on the true independence of the regulatory agency as it has to draw technical resources from the institutions of the DAE. No nuclear safety regulatory agency has all its expertise in-house. As earlier, the new agency will be empowered to invite independent specialists for safety review. The technical support organisations (TSO) analyse the scientific and engineering issues referred to them. They will not be involved in decision making.

The agency staff has adequate competence to review such analysis. Currently, there are about 200 scientists and engineers in AERB. All of them have high academic qualifications and professional training. Over 50 of them have more than 15 years of experience in critical areas of nuclear and radiation technology.

The agency’s advisory committees will continue to have members from academic and research institutions, industries and government agencies such as the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Central Electricity Authority, Central Boilers Board, among others. The authority will have eminent specialists as members; they take final decisions considering the recommendations of the advisory committees.

NPCIL has identified new designs of nuclear power plants such as EPR (French), AP-1000 (US), ESBWR (US) for installing at new sites. AERB is already reviewing these designs to identify potential safety issues, if any, in advance. In the case of Kudankulam nuclear power plant, the plant designers made many changes in the first of a kind system taking into account the suggestions of the safety committees of AERB.

With over 27 years of solid experience in regulatory matters, the legally strengthened agency is poised to face the challenges posed by globalisation of nuclear technology.
(The writer is former Secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board)



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