From Russia with Love: Unsafe Submarines, MiG-15 and Nuclear Reactors

M G Devasahayam

M G DevasahayamShri M. G. Devasahayam is a former IAS and Managing Trustee, Citizens Alliance for Sustainable Living, Chennai

He is the Convener of the PMANE Expert Group on Koodankulam.

Shri Devasahayam can be reached at

Article courtesy: GFiles

As the news of a fatal blast in a submarine near Mumbai pours in, we republish this recent article by eminent public policy expert Mr. M G Devasahayam cautioning against the Russian Roulette.

The sectors involved are the most sensitive of all ~ defence and nuclear. The questions that arise are: who is spinning the cylinder, who is placing the muzzle and who is looting the exchequer even at the risk of national security and human lives?

The Russian roulette is a ‘lethal game of chance’ in which a player places a single round in a revolver, spins the cylinder, places the muzzle against someone’s head, and pulls the trigger. This was the game that ‘dacoit’ Gabbar Singh played in the blockbuster Sholay. Once the trigger is pulled, life or death of the person is entirely a matter of chance.

The Russians have been playing out this game in India for over four decades. First was the introduction of the unsafe Russian MiG-21 fighter aircraf in the Indian Air Force. These aircraft numbering around 900 are indeed lethal because half of them have been involved in fatal crashes. The IAF is still sticking to these ‘wings of death’ due to deliberate delays in the induction of the indigenous light combat aircraft.

Things have come to such a pass that a senior IAF officer, Wing Commander Sanjeet Singh Kaila, has filed a petition in Delhi High Court, contending that flying a MiG-21 amounted to “violation of his fundamental right to life” under Article 21 of the Constitution. He has done this because a flight exercise in 2005 went awry; he has been rendered unfit for flying and even day-to-day tasks due to debilitating neck and back pain. For all airmen flying MiG-21 and the soldiers they support, it would continuously be a ‘lethal game of chance’.

Admiral Gorshkov, an unsafe Russian second-hand aircraft carrier was renamed INS Vikramaditya in 2004 and contracted for around Rs. 4600 crore for refurbishing and retrofitting, to be delivered in 2008. It was still invisible in 2012, by which time the price had gone up to Rs 12,000 crore. By the middle of that year, when the aircraft carrier was put on sea trial, ‘it spectacularly failed’ with eight of the nine boilers breaking down, with their firebrick insulations evaporating due to the high temperature generated. The ship had to be cut open to replace the boilers and other major repairs. This meant additional cost and the final delivery price (if at all delivered) could be a staggering Rs 16,000 crore! On 4 July, an announcement was made that final trials of the carrier were set to begin in Russia on 10 July. Media reports quoting sources say that if all goes according to plan it could be delivered in another five months. Even then it would be no more than a floating junk masquerading as modern-day aircraft carrier. For the sailors who would man this carrier it could be a continuous ‘lethal game of chance’.

Almost to the day, a game far more lethal was played out on the southern tip of India when India’s nuclear establishment did the sriganesham for the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) ~ making it go critical ~ on 12/13 July. This is the first of the two 1000 MWe VVER nuclear reactors supplied by the Russian atomic energy corporation, Rosatom, through its subsidiary, Atomstroyexport. Crucial materials and reactor parts including safety subsystems, equipment and components have been sourced from the ZiO-Podolsk, another Rosatom subsidiary.

The reactor and other core equipment had arrived at the site by mid-2005 and KKNPP was originally scheduled to start commercial operation in 2007. Active protest against the plant was shortlived and there has been no restraint order from the courts. Yet, despite announcing several deadlines by the Prime Minister, Minister of State in PMO and nuclear bigwigs, there was no sign of commissioning the plant for six long years. Repeated tests had failed and everything was kept under wraps.

Despite thick layers of secrecy, the truth started surfacing when there were specific complaints on the quality of the components, systems and parts installed in KKNPP. In June 2012, there were reports of welding in the core region of the pressure vessel which was against the original design specifications. At the beginning of this year, there were reports of Russian Federal prosecutors charging and arresting the procurement officers of Zio-Podolsk for corruption in connection with the supply of substandard systems and components to nuclear power plants, including KKNPP. This included use of low quality steel in the fabrication of the reactor.

What is worse, the control and instrumentation system of the plant is suffering from serious flaws and has been tripped during tests after emanating spurious signal/noise. This has led to panic in neighbouring villages. According to World Nuclear Association, an international body that promotes nuclear business around the world, the control system documentation for KKNPP was delivered late, and when reviewed by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) it showed up the need for significant refining and even reworking some aspects.

Therefore, containment structures of the reactor pressure vessel were cut open and instrumentation /control cables laid in the same tray making the system unreliable. Experts are of the view that “if the reactor is under operation and if the control and instrumentation systems are not reliable, then it would lead to a catastrophic release of energy in a short-time interval. Or the fission process can become uncontrollable and the nuclear reactor will turn into a nuclear bomb.”

Yet, the Russians and India’s nuclear establishment have brazenly played the ‘lethal game of chance’ to get this substandard and risky nuclear power plant commissioned at any cost. They have commenced the First Approach to Criticality (FAC), which is the beginning of a fission chain reaction that could make the process irreversible. This is in serious violation of the Supreme Court’s May 6 order wherein it had directed the NPCIL and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board to ‘oversee and ensure quality of various components and systems in the plant and submit a report to the Court before commissioning of the plant.’ Implicit in the order, was not just the formal filing of such a report, but its perusal and approval by the Supreme Court.

However, the agencies concerned merely submitted the report secretly in a sealed envelope to the court registry and completed the FAC even before the envelope was opened by the judges.

Simultaneously, the contract has been negotiated to supply two more Russian reactors (1000 MW each) at the mind-boggling price of Rs 40,000 crore which is 2.5 to 3 times of that of coal fired and wind/solar energy plants. The quantum of kickbacks can only be imagined.

These worthies have also willingly defied the International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines which are candid and clear: “Despite all the precautions that are taken in the handling and use of fissile material there remains a possibility, while very small, that a failure (i.e. instrumentation and controls, electrical, mechanical or operational errors) or an incident may give rise to a criticality accident. In some cases, this may give rise to exposure or the release of radioactive materials within the facility and/or into the environment, which may necessitate emergency response actions. Adequate preparations should be established and maintained at local and national levels and, where agreed between States, at the international level to respond to nuclear or radiological emergencies”.

First the Air Force, then the Navy and now the mass of people themselves are the victims on whom the ‘Russian roulette’ is being played. Potential victims are soldiers, sailors, airmen and millions of farmers and fisher-folk living in the vicinity of KKNPP. The sectors involved are the most sensitive of all ~ defence and nuclear. The questions that arise are: who is spinning the cylinder, who is placing the muzzle and who is looting the exchequer even at the risk of national security and human lives?

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