Irradiated Lives: Contractual Workers at the Rawatbhata Nuclear Power Plant

A fact-finding report by

Dr. Surendra Gadekar
Dr. Sanghamitra Gadekar
Dr. Soumya Dutta
Kumar Sundaram

On June 28th 2012, Rajasthan Parika, a regional Hindi daily of Rajasthan state in the western India carried a story on its front page about 38 workers in the Rawatbhata Atomic Power Station (RAPS) being exposed to tritium leak while working in the reactor no. 5. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) held a press conference next day in Mumbai. All the major national newspapers published the story only after this brief from NPCIL, reassuring about safety of the workers. While asserting that there was absolutely no leak of radiation in the atmosphere, the NPCIL’s press release also mentioned that the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) was yet to come up with its analysis of samples taken from the soil, air and the plant by its personnel who visited the reactor.


In Rawatbhata, workers denied right to know radioactive exposure

The accident had actually happened at RAPS 5 days previously. It came to light only after the workers raised their voice and demanded proper medical investigation, treatment and compensation from the plant operators. For five days, they were silenced through misleading claims, alluring promises and outright intimidation by the authorities.

In recent few years, there have been at least two more reported incidents of tritium contamination – Kakrapar (Gujarat) in September 2011 where the NPCIL after initial denials accepted that 6 workers were exposed to radiation but callously blamed the workers for over-blowing the incident in order to get permanent employment. In 2010, a similar incident happened in Kaiga (Karnataka) where tritium tube was put into normal water tank used for washing purposes. The NPCIL promptly termed it an internal sabotage and constituted an inquiry committee.

Considering the seriousness of these incidents and their implications for nuclear safety in the wake of India’s massive nuclear expansion underway, some independent experts and concerned individuals went to Rawatbhata to do a preliminary investigation. Amongst them Dr. Surendra Gadekar and Dr. Sanghamitra Gadekar (a physicist and a medical doctor who have conducted health survey around RAPS in the past.) Besides them, the team included environmentalist Dr. Soumya Dutta of Bharat Jan Vigyan Jattha, Sunil and Smita, both prominent social activists, and Kumar Sundaram, an independent researcher.

The team visited Rawatbhata on 10-11 July, 2012. It spoke to the contractual workers employed in the RAPS, including Mr. Nandkishore Mehar – one of the 2 workers whose exposure to tritium beyond the acceptable limits the NPCIL has admitted. The team also met Mr. Mansingh Solanki, the General Secretary of the Anushakti DR Shamik Sangh, a collective of the contractual workers, referred to as Daily Rated (DR) workers in RAPS. He discussed at length about the criminal negligence and brazen violations of workers’ rights faced by the contractual workers at RAPS. The team also met some senior local journalists, concerned citizen and activists of the Parmanu Pradushan Virodhi Morcha (People’s Front Against Nuclear Pollution) who have been raising the issues pertaining to nuclear risks and worker’s safety at Rawatbhata.

A short preliminary report of the findings of this independent investigation team is given below:

Contractual Labour in Nuclear Power Plants at Rawatbhata:

Rawabhata houses a total of 6 operational reacors. 2 more units, No. 7 and 8, are under construction. Rawatbhata is one of the earliest PHWR nuclear sites in India. These reactors are cooled by heavy water (D2O). A total of 2900 workers are employed in the RAPS on daily rate basis while only a total of 126 workers are permanent employees of NPCIL. Although the AERB stipulations prohibit employing contractual workers in the nuclear sector, more so in the radiation work, owing to safety issues and sensitive nature of the industry, engaging casual workers has been a common practice in the Indian nuclear sector. Although the NPCIL maintains that the contractual workers are engaged mainly in maintenance, cleaning and non-sensitive work, it is in these work areas of maintenance and repair that the workers are typically most exposed to radiation. The permanent employees confine themselves to supervision while they delegate all the dirty and risky work to contractual labour, defying all norms of safety and accountability.

The DR workers are deprived of any health benefits and social security. There is no health testing and adequate training on radiation risks before these workers are employed, Although the NPCIL does claim that these workers are provided with dosimeters before entering radiation zones and are allowed to work for limited time under constant supervision, it has been reported in the past in several cases that the workers as well as their employers circumvent these norms through various means. Contractual workers are afraid of loosing their jobs if they receive radiation doses above normal, so they find ways to hide or under-report.

Earlier, the plant authorities used to hire the contractual workers directly. The common practice was to terminate their services a day before they completed 90 days of work (later revised to 240 days) a period after which they can claim permanent employment. But in the recent years, the NPCIL has started hiring them through labour contractors, making the workers more vulnerable. The NPCIL thus frees itself of all responsibilities towards the weakest links in the nuclear human chain. Although the same workers keep working in the same plan for several years and mostly in same working areas, their contractors keep changing and hence they never become technically eligible for regular employment and other work related benefits.

In recent years, the NPCIL’s labour contractors at the RAPS have been arbitrarily lowering the DR worker’s wages and changing their status from skilled to semi-skilled and non-skilled categories. The DR workers have collectively agitated against such moves and the RAPS has responded with vindictive attitude towards the leading voices of these struggles. Last year, the RAPS agreed to the DR workers demands in presence of the local MLA and Member of Parliament Ms Girija Vyas, only to back off from its promises soon and suspend the DR workers’ union’s leaders.

The incident on June 23

The tritium leak in RAPS-5 took place on June 23 when the plant was in shut down mode and maintenance work was underway. As part of the NPCIL’s efforts to beef up the safety of its nuclear reactors after Fukushima, addiional apparatus based on the principle of passive cooling were being installed in RAPS-5’s calendria. Apparently the regular staff of the RAPS and even the special team invited from Narora atomic power station for this purpose declined to perform the task manually, Nandkishore and his 3 other friends were ordered to do the welding in the heavy water pipe. Nandkishore is among the 2 workers whose exposure to radiation far beyond the “permissible limit” has been accepted by the NPCIL. While at least a total of 45 workers present in the area were exposed to various levels of radiation, Krishnapal Singh, Gautam Sonwane and Gulab Singh received doses of 21.5, 45.5 and 16.4 mSv each while Nandkishor himself got exposed to 84.5 mSv of radiation. The NPCIL’s permissible annual limit for contractual workers is 15 mSv.

Nandkishor described the events of the fateful day and the ensuing callousness of the plant authorities in detail.

On Saturday afternoon, June 23, Nandkishore was asked to work on the welding for more than 4 hours while the maximum time allowed in radiation zone is just 30 minutes. He went out of the plant only after 5 pm, only to have tea and return back. In this break, he also underwent a urine test and found his radiation exposure reaching 78.56 rems. The dosimeter provided by RAPS had already crossed the maximum limit so he was issued a new meter by the supervisor, much to his surprise. Before he left for home at 9 pm, he was once again asked to undergo urine test.

Next morning, he was called by his supervisor to report to the plant as soon as possible and was asked again to undergo urine test. When he went back home after the day’s work, he got a call from the incharge around 9 pm and was asked to report at the plant with his other 3 friends who were with him on Saturday. When he told his senior that there is no bus available for the plant, he was asked to report at the earliest even if I meant he and his friends riding 2 motorbikes and reaching the plant. The security personnel at the gate and other check-points hurriedly letting him go without any checking seemed eerie to him as it is totally unusual. Late night, he again gave urine samples. His bosses asked him to take lots of water.

Been irradiated? Drink Beer !

When Nandkishor and his friends asked if anything serious had happened and they should be provided with proper information and treatment, the officials asked them to drink beer regularly. They were offered Rs 200 extra daily, raised to 300 easily when one of them said it meant just 2 bottles of beer. This additional money was stopped after a week or so, and they were told that the tritium taken inside must have gone out of their bodies by now. The workers asked for proper medical checkups and treatment but were repeatedly denied. When they asked for compensation and also permanent employment to ensure financial security and access to RAPS health facilities and other benefits, these were plainly denied by their bosses. It was after repeated failures to get any hearing from RAPS bosses that they approached the local administration and the media.

They kept requesting Chandra Prakash Jha, Project Director of No 5 reactor, and R K Agarwal, Station Director of RAPS, on phone about proper treatment and protection and kept appraising him of their developing symptoms of exhaustion, dizziness and constant trembling of limbs, they were told not to get swayed by “outsiders”. When Nandkishor asked for his medical reports, the officials refused. They were called for a meeting with the seniors where they were warned of meeting the same fate as of Mansingh and other workers who were suspended for protesting against reversal of wages.




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