Sub-standard Equipments and Corruption put Koodankulam at Risk: 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

Beset with corruption and sub-standard equipments, Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant is not safe. People’s life is at stake.

Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan, doyen of India’s nuclear establishment and former Chairman, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) was in Chennai the other day to address the People’s Committee for Safe Energy (PECOSE) & Breakthrough Science Society (BSS) ALL INDIA CONVENTION on “Approach To The Power Question In The Country”. After speaking on the subject: “Indian Nuclear Power Program:  Guided along a Reckless Track” he interacted with the media. I also addressed the Convention and was present during the media interaction.

His speech as well as media interaction centered around the safety aspects of the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP), which is in the midst of a raging battle between powerful government forces and power of the protesting people. The subject has become hot in recent weeks due to the repeated failure of plant equipments during ‘hot testing’ in the run up to its commissioning. Added to this is the arrest of Sergei Shutov, a director of Zio-Podolsk, a subsidiary of Russian public sector company Rosatom, on charges of corruption, fraud and supplying cheap Ukrainian steel blanks and steam generators in nuclear reactors two of which are fitted in KKNPP.

In this context Dr A Gopalakrishnan strongly demanded an immediate investigation into the safety KKNPP as it was Podolsk that had supplied the components for the reactor. He demanded constitution of a body of independent nuclear engineering specialists to ascertain the KNPP’s safety. China, where similar equipments have been supplied has already started inspecting the quality of its nuclear reactors. India too should do so without delay, he said.

narayanasamyThis is the first time in the history of the Indian nuclear establishment, a former chief regulator, who is respected    all over the nuclear world for his no-nonsense approach has questioned the claims of the government that the plant is fool proof and “greener than even green”. Dr. Gopalakrishnan, a nuclear power engineer with more than five decades of experience said nothing was right with the 1000 MW reactor built with Russian assistance. “The inordinate delay in the commissioning of the plant and the silence of the country’s nuclear regulator, AERB has substantiated our doubts about the safety and security of the plant,” said the country’s former chief nuclear regulator.

Earlier, addressing over 250 delegates of the all-India convention Dr Gopalakrishnan, said the silence maintained by both the Department of Atomic Energy and AERB, was disgusting and dubious. AERB officials are not responding to any queries when there are reports from Russia about the supply of substandard atomic energy equipment. “The AERB chairman should have been here to address the doubts in our minds. But they are avoiding the people,” he had thundered.

He said there were many corruption charges: “Remember, these charges were made by the investigating agency in Russia, their equivalent of India’s CBI. There are charges that inferior quality materials have gone into the crucial components of the reactor being built at Koodankulam. These are not allegations raised by journalists or social activists. The Russian government itself had declared the other day about the arrest of  Shutov,  director of Zio-Podolsk, a Rosatom subsidiary, which supplied the KNPP reactor.”

Shutov was arrested on charges of corruption, fraud and for supplying cheap Ukrainian steel blanks and steam generators in nuclear reactors built by Rosatom. “The scope of this scandal could reach every reactor built and supplied by Russia over the past several years. This demands immediate investigation,” a spokesman of Russian security service had earlier told the country’s media.

Dr. Gopalakrishnan pointed out that the initial agreement for building the nuclear plant was signed between India and the then USSR in 1988. By 1991 the USSR disintegrated. He went on: “The subsidiary units which were supplying the components for the Russian nuclear establishment too fell into undesirable hands. The arrest of the Zio-Podolsk executive in connection with the distribution of cheap and fraudulent materials to reactors is shocking because the same company had supplied components to the nuclear reactor at Koodankulam. Let the Russian authorities themselves come here, examine the entire components and certify that they are of good quality.”

Dr. Gopalakrishnan described the claims of Y N Dudkin, head of the Russian Specialists Group, that the Koodankulam reactors were the safest in the world  as a ploy to hoodwink the people as well as the Centre. “It is the claim of a salesman. We want an official assurance from the Russian Atomic Energy Regulator. Then let’s constitute a body of independent nuclear engineering specialists and have a discussion on the thorny issues. The reactor should be cleared only after these formalities,” he said.

Dudkin had claimed that two Russian reactors, each of 1000 MW are functioning normally in China. “Do you know that the Chinese are examining the entire reactor components following the arrest of the Zion-Podolsk executive,” Dr Gopalakrishnan told the delegates.
The former AERB chairman was highly critical of the stance of A P J Abdul Kalam, former President, who declared the plant safer after a two-hour whirlwind tour in  Koodankulam more than an year and a half ago. “Who authorised Kalam to make such a statement? He is only a missile engineer and does not know anything about nuclear energy. How can such a person make a statement like that?” asked  Dr Gopalakrishnan.

According to Dr Gopalakrishnan, more than the energy requirements of the country, what weighed in the minds of the people who lead the UPA government were personal gains. “They have thrown to winds the well thought out Indian nuclear plan conceived and developed by Dr Homi J Bhabha and Dr Vikram Sarabhai.  Dr Bhabha and Dr Sarabhai wanted India to be free from the shackles of the western world which controls the uranium reserve of the world. The Bhabha Plan was to build a network of nuclear reactors to harness the vast thorium reserve of the country. But we will never reach a stage where we can make use of the Thorium reserves if we import nuclear reactors,” he said.

Dr Gopalakrishnan pointed out that it is humanly impossible to meet 40 or 50 per cent of the country’s energy needs through nuclear power. “You require hundreds of reactors. Do we have the space for that? Remember that all the reactors we are planning to import run on enriched uranium. We do not have uranium resources. The companies selling these reactors to us will give fuel for two years which will be renewed subject to their satisfaction about our conduct. Our nuclear sovereignty has been surrendered to the western powers by the Manmohan Singh government,” charged Dr Gopalakrishnan.

The serious observations made by this veteran and respected nuclear expert vibes with the observation made by the Supreme Court in October 2012 during the preliminary hearing on the issues raised against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP): “We are concerned more about people’s safety than the money spent on the project.” Since ministers including the Prime Minister and nuclear establishment officials have been making contradictory statements a reality check is in order.

First and foremost is the fact that ever since 1988 when India signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement with erstwhile USSR to set up the two 1000MWe VVRS nuclear reactors at Kudankulam, there have been protests from the people in the area against the project.

This agreement was signed on the premise that the spent fuel from the project would be shipped back to USSR for treatment and disposal. Accordingly Union Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) issued Environment Clearance (EC) on 09-05-1989. Based on this EC, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) issued site clearance for the project on 10-11-1989 meaning that when EC was issued, the plant site had not even been finalised! This is gross illegality.

In the Supplemental Agreement signed with Russia in May, 1998, DAE changed the basic scope of the project by agreeing to retain the spent-fuel in India probably within the plant itself. Since spent fuel is highly radioactive and very toxic, its handling and storage involves very high risks and serious environmental implications. Due to these changed conditions DAE should have approached MoEF for a fresh EC which it failed to do. Instead, Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) went ahead with the construction of the project in violation of Environment Protection Act, 1986 (EPA). This was a serious statutory violation that called for cancellation of EC and stoppage of construction of the project. This was not done by the MoEF and the construction commenced and continued.

When the EC was issued, it was assumed that cooling water for the project would be drawn from Pechiparai reservoir in Kanyakumari District, whereas the source was later changed to a seawater desalination plant. This substantial change in fresh-water source would make it necessary for DAE to approach MoEF for clearance under CRZ Rules. There was further urgency because under the 1998 agreement high-quality fresh water was critical to keep the spent-fuel in safe storage. But no CRZ approval was even applied for and NPCIL went ahead with the construction of the huge desalination plants in utter violation of all environmental laws, rules and norms.

Project construction should not have started without prior Consent for Establishment (CFE) of the nuclear reactors at Kudankulam. NPCIL applied for CFE as an afterthought on 30-12-2001 and Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) granted it on 25-02-2004 without any application of mind. This defeated the very purpose of CFE and its relevance to safety and environmental conservation aspects. Thus, the project as it stands today is the outcome of several illegalities that impinge on the local environment as well as the health and the safety of the people living in its vicinity.

It appears that NPCIL has not carried out risk analysis for the worst case scenario based on Fukushima experience to assess the consequences up to 30km and even beyond depending on the direction and velocity of wind. From the time of the original EC in 1989, the local conditions such as population growth have changed significantly and such studies are imperative to understand the implications of an accident. In the absence of such a comprehensive analysis, it will be unsafe to start the reactor units.

As the initiator of the project, DAE should have reviewed the safety norms of KKNPP on the basis of Fukushima experience and redefined the boundaries of the Emergency Plan zoning system to bring the same in line with international best practice and the guidelines formulated by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This has not been done.

National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), created post-Tsunami 2004, is a statutory body chaired by the PM himself that has issued unambiguous guidelines on the institutional structures to be set up for handling nuclear accidents. This calls for State-level and District-level DMAs, providing nuclear shelters for the affected people, hospitals for medical care as well as training and orientation to the officials, local Gram Sabhas and the project affected people (PAP) to respond immediately to disasters and evacuate to safer places in case of accidents. None of these have been complied with.

Though the Government and the Russians claims that KKNPP is 100% safe or ‘safest in the world’ yet the Russian reactor manufacturer company does not trust its own reactor and has refused to share any part of civil liability in case of an accident due to defect in the reactor. Government of India (to appease that Russian company and Russian Government) has signed an agreement with Russia stating that in case of an accident the public exchequer or the tax payers would foot the bill (that might run into lakhs of crores of rupees) while the Russians would be indemnified.

AERB as it functions is not an independent regulatory body. Comptroller & Auditor General of India (CAG) has come out with a scathing report about the ‘lapses in safety measures’ by the AERB posing ‘grave threats.’ CAG has highlighted several lapses by AERB: Non-preparation of a nuclear and radiation policy; no safety documents as recommended by two expert committees; no decommissioning plan which is extremely critical for public safety and non-adoption of international safety standards and practices.

Typical example of AERB’s servility is the fact that NPCL was allowed to go ahead with fuel loading without implementing the 17 safety measures recommended by the post-Fukushima taskforce appointed by the Government of India. For several months NPCL has been telling AERB that it would implement these 17 safety measures by October-November 2012. AERB counsel stated before the Madras High Court that these 17 measures would have to be implemented before any further clearance was given. However, on 10.08.2012, AERB gave initial fuel-loading clearance even while 11 of these safety recommendations were yet to be implemented. NPCIL, without any consideration for people’s safety as observed by Supreme Court is going full-throttle in fuel loading and AERB has fully acquiesced to this!

Given such regulatory capture, lapses and illegalities it is for MoEF to enforce the EPA, revoke the EC, and direct NPCIL to undertake a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as per extant rules which include full public hearing among the PAP. As part of the EIA, NPCIL should be mandated to carry out comprehensive life & livelihood risk analysis on the PAP and the risks of even low-intensity radiation exposure on marine ecosystem. Before MoEF issues fresh EC, NDMA’s norms should be put in place and tested for its effectiveness by an independent agency.

After receiving Supreme Court rub, NPCIL vide its letter dated 29/11/2012, has applied for post-facto CRZ clearance with the Tamil Nadu Coastal Zone Management Authority for a desalination plant already constructed by it. NPCIL sought clearance for the desalination plant, submitting documents required as per Clause 4.2 of the CRZ Notification, 2011. This clearance is being requested for a unit that had already been constructed in violation of CRZ Notification, 1991, as no permission was sought or obtained under this Notification. The fresh application is still pending with the MoEF and activists and experts have sent joint representation to the Ministry stating that it would be blatantly illegal to grant post-facto approval at this stage.

It is understood that a major refit is going on in KKNPP and parts are also being indigenously sourced? The excuse given is that since Unit-I was almost idling for months together because of a major agitation plus litigation in the Supreme Court, there were chances of corrosion and leakage since sea water was used as the coolant. So, the atomic energy establishment first conducted comprehensive checks and later decided to replace components that could have been affected. This seems patently absurd because at no point of time the protestors or the Supreme Court stopped the works related to the commissioning of the plant.

Though fuel was loaded in October last, AERB did not give the nod for criticality (jargon for atom splitting), but directed the KKNPP to do the hot run again to ensure total plant safety. Now the former chief nuclear regulator of the country, known for his integrity of thought and courage of conviction categorically states that sub-standard material has been used in the construction of the reactor itself and many critical equipments are suspect. Under the circumstances even the most autocratic regime in the world will not even dream of commissioning the plant, and instead give it a quiet burial. Probably in Russia itself they may do just this.

But the Prime Minister of this country that calls itself a democracy, at a humiliating meeting at Durban with Russian President Vladimir Putin after he was made to wait for over one hour, promises to commission the KKNPP, that is yet to be cleared by Supreme Court, AERB and MoEF, in two weeks! Can there be a bigger shame and insult to any nation and its people?

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