Does India have the World’s Safest Reactor?

P K Sundaram

The claim of Koodankulam reactors being ‘safest in the world’ appeared in the newspapers today, nth time in last couple of years. The Russian Deputy-PM last year in October had said Koodankulam is world’s safest. I thought of doing a google search for the term ‘safest reactor of the world’. Here are some interesting observations:

reactorThe independent experts would rightly tell us that while every nuclear accident might be a different kind of accident and we might be able to incorporate its lessons in new designs, it simply means that new reactors might undergo new kind of accidents. Simply put, there cannot be an objective criteria for deciding on a nuclear ‘top 10’. US at one time did publish a list of 10 most dangerous reactors, but that was more to demonize USSR-vintage reactors and to claim implicitly that its own nuclear power plants are safe. This is not to underestimate the danger of the Soviet/Russian reactors, however. Out of the 10 listed reactors, several were VVERs – or the VVER 440s  to be more precise- previous versions of the VVER1000 reactors being installed in Koodankulam. VVERs – voda voda(water water) energy reactors, called so because they use water both as moderator and coolant, are known to be high-risk. These are water hungry reactors and need uninterrupted supply of purest water. Again, Koodankulam reactors are perhaps the only reactors that do not have a natural source of fresh water supply. They depend on a desalination plant of inadequate capacity, making them highly vulnerable.

Since the publication of the world’s 10 most dangerous reactors list quoted above, there have been several claims about most dangerous reactors – from Monju in Japan to Metsamor in Armenia and the Indian Point in the US. But even these negative top lists are subjective. The IAEA once did publish a list of 9 most dangerous reactor accidents.

Coming back to the world’s safest reactors, it seems a typical vendor’s trick. Every vendor claims its reactor to be the world’s safest. And the IAEA, the promoter-in-chief of these nuclear vendors, has been quite generous in granting world’s most safe status. In 2007, it called China’s Tianwan reactor the safest in the world. Within a fortnight after Fukushima, Ontario claimed to have world’s safest reactor. Before Fukushima, Bill Gates was building the world’s safest reactor in China. Just 4 days after Fukushima, the then French President Nicholas Sarkozy declared his country’s reactors to be the safest in the world. Exelon’s flagship reactor in Illinos, the Byron Station, was touted to be world’s safest too till it lost operability to all of its safety-related equipment in Jan 2012. In 1988, the then world’s safest remained safe because it didn’t run much and was eventually closed. Austria’s world safest reactor in Zwentendorf never went into operation.

Just few months back when the IAEA team was in Rawatbhata, it called the reactors among the world’s safest. This came from IAEA soon after two consecutive incidents of Tritium leaks in Rawatbhata, where more than 30 exposed contractual workers are still struggling for independent radiation monitoring, leave aside compensation and health facilities.

So, the world’s safest reactors are either closed or are yet to be built, when we get 100% control over forces of nature, knowledge of geology, worker’s human errors, even onslaughts of jellyfish and rats. Till then, we should wait for Mr. Narayansamy’s 15 days. India’s nuclear establishment, not its reactors, is perhaps among the safest. Safe from any public scrutiny and accountability.

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