How serious is NPCIL about the safety of its power plants?: The latest accident at Koodankulam

Dr. E A S Sarma

Former Union Power Secretary, Govt of India

Know more about Dr. Sarma HERE.

Following the nuclear disaster that took place at Fukushima on March 11, 2011, there has been worldwide concern at the possibility of occurrence of major nuclear disasters. As a sequel to it, several countries are making sincere efforts to tighten the safety norms applicable to heir nuclear power plants and step up the standards of emergency preparedness around nuclear power project sites.

To cite one example, during May 26-28 this year, the Canadian authorities will be carrying out one of the largest nuclear disaster drills in Ontario to test the responsiveness of the disaster management system associated with the Darligton nuclear power plant. Similarly, the Chinese officials are shortly simulating, for the second time during the last five years, the responses of the official agencies and the local communities in the event of a major nuclear disaster in Guangdong province. Such emergency drills test the efficacy of disaster management systems associated with each nuclear power plant. After Fukushima, such drills have assumed a great importance.

One is not sure whether NPCIL has carried out similar comprehensive drills around its nuclear power plant sites so as to test its own ability to coordinate the responses, in the event of a major disaster, of the concerned Central and State agencies and the communities living in the vicinity of each plant.

In para 89 of their order of August, 2012 on Kudankulam nuclear power project, in W.P.No.24770 of 2011, Hon’ble Madras High Court had expressed concern at the need for emergency preparedness on the part of NPCIL and observed that “even though it is stated that the said exercise was done in only one village, namely Nakkaneri village, which is stated to be nearer to the KKNPP, as we are informed that nearly 30 to 40 villages are within 30 Kms radius of KKNPP, such event must take place in all villages and more importantly, apart from the officials, as stated above, the people in the area must be made to participate and an awareness programme must be made to infuse confidence in the minds of the local people that the project is for the benefit of the country and there is no need to alarm”. To the best of my knowledge, NPCIL is yet to comply with this direction and carry out such a comprehensive and meaningful disaster management drill to be able to deal with a serious accident at Kudankulam. This is indeed a matter of serious concern.

What about the safety of the existing nuclear power plants in India?

nuclear industry cartoonIn the past, safety audits were conducted in the case of NPCIL’s existing nuclear power plants but the Corporation, for reasons best known to it, has refrained from taking the public into confidence on the details of the audit findings and the action taken thereon. As a result of intense public concern at the safety of Indian nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima accident, the Prime Minister’s Office came forward and assured the public on April 26, 2011 that “action taken on previous safety reviews will be put in the public domain”. Even though three years have elapsed since then, NPCIL is yet to comply with this assurance, raising serious doubts about the reasons for its inaction.

There is an overall lack of transparency on the part of Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and NPCIL in promptly informing the public of the details of the accidents taking place at nuclear power plant sites, as it was the case with the series of accidents that took place at Kakarpar plant in June-July, 2012 and in the case of the earlier episodes and the more recent accident that took place at Kudankulam on May 14, 2014. In such cases, NPCIL’s silence would only lead to enhanced public concern at the safety norms in vogue at its plants.

NPCIL is perhaps taking undue shelter under the non-disclosure provision in Section 18 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1962. As far as public safety is concerned, the citizen has the fundamental right to information under Article 19 of the Constitution. The Right to Information (RTI) Act, enacted in 2005, has laid down an elaborate procedure for the citizens to invoke this right. Under Section 4 of that Act, NPCIL has the obligation to disclose information to the public, sup moto. Section 22 of the RTI Act gives it an overriding effect over all other Acts. In other words, irrespective of Section 18 of the Atomic Energy Act, NPCIL is obligated under the RTI Act to take the public into confidence in all matters relevant to public safety, as far as the nuclear power plants are concerned.

In the specific case of Kudankulam, for quite some time, there have been apprehensions about the use of substandard equipment in the plant, in view of reports on how the Russian Federal prosecutors had charged the procurement officers of a Russian company, Zio-Podolsk of corruption in connection with the supply of fake parts of substandard quality supplied to nuclear power plants set up in India, Bulgaria, Iran and China. Initially, the nuclear authorities in India had stoutly denied any such possibility but, under intense public pressure, issued a cryptic and a somewhat garbled press release on April 19, 2013, admitting that four valves used in Kudankulam Unit-1 were indeed found to be defective. One is not certain whether the latest accident at Kudankulam has anything to do with a defective valve or any other defective component!

One should compare the response to nuclear safety concerns arising from the use of substandard parts in India with similar concerns that surfaced in South Korea in 2012 and 2013.

On complaints received from whistle blowers in November, 2012 and May, 2013, the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy sacked Kim Kyun-Seop, the President of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Company (KHNPC) for the scandal involving parts supplied with fake quality certificates to several nuclear power plants in the country. The Ministry also said it would dismiss An Seung-Kyoo, CEO of KEPCO Engineering and Construction Company, which was responsible for nuclear power plant design and technology. These moves came after President Park Geun-Hye demanded action over what she called “unpardonable” corruption in the nuclear power sector.

The promptness with which the South Korean government had ordered the closure of several functioning nuclear power plants in the country, despite their significant contribution to electricity generation, and the manner in which the government had instituted a comprehensive enquiry to get at the root of the malaise of substandard parts should provide a valuable lesson to the DAE in India.

Against the above background, If DAE is genuinely concerned about public safety from its nuclear facilities all over the country, the least it could do is to issue directions to NPCIL on the following.

1. NPCIL should make a comprehensive and an accurate public disclosure of the details of the latest accident at Kudankulam, whether it had occurred on account of a mechanical or a human failure, whether it occurred as a result of the use of substandard parts

2. NPCIL should fully comply with the direction issued by Hon’ble Madras High Court in para 89 of their order of August, 2012 on Kudankulam nuclear power project in W.P.No.24770/2011and carry out a comprehensive and full-fledged disaster management exercise covering all such villages within 16km of the plant site, including those in the adjoining Kanyakumari District

3. NPCIL should conduct similar disaster management exercises in the case of all other nuclear power plants

4. NPCIL should place in the public domain the past safety audits on its power plants and the action taken thereon

5. NPCIL should comply with the provisions of the RTI Act in letter and spirit and make suo moto public disclosures on all such matters that affect the safety of the people

DAE should immediately amend Section 18 of the Atomic Energy Act to bring it in line with the provisions of the RTI Act.

The more DAE delays action on these lines, the more it would erode public confidence in the safety of nuclear power.

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