Substandard parts in Koodankulam: Shouldn’t India learn lessons from South Korea?

Letter to the AERB


Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB)
Department of Atomic Energy
Govt of India


Subject:- Legal notice on Kudankulam

I have enclosed here excerpts from an email I have received on alleged defective control cables in Kudankulam and the unreported accidents causing a serious concern on the public safety of the project.

I had earlier written on this to the Prime Minister and I enclose copies of my letter.

I request you to make public the facts on this and the action taken by DEA/ NPCIL to ensure public safety.

Pending a thorough investigation, I demand that commissioning of Kudankulam be suspended forthwith.

Kindly treat this as a legal notice. If you fail to reply this letter satisfactorily, I will be constrained to seek judicial intervention in the public interest.

Yours sincerely,

Former Secretary to GOI

Dr. E.A.S.Sarma
Former Union Power Secretary
Government of India

Heads started rolling in South Korea’s nuclear industry, as soon as substandard parts were detected in the country’s nuclear power plants. Will Indian leadership ever learn lessons from this and take action on similar complaints received in the case of Kudankulam?

On June 5, 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 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 developments that took place in South Korea’s nuclear industry in the recent months and the prompt and decisive way in which the government there acted on whistle blowers’ complaints should teach a lesson or two to India’s prestigious Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) on the need to value the lives of the people, more than senselessly defending the claims of an obstinate nuclear establishment.

There are 23 nuclear power reactors in operation in South Korea. Another two are under construction. The existing reactors contribute to more than 30% of the total electricity generated in the country. South Korea has ambitious plans to add another 11 power reactors by 2024. Compare this with India. India has only 4,880 Mwe of existing capacity, which contribute to only 2.7% of the total electricity generation in the country. However, like South Korea, India too has ambitious plans to add a little over 60,000 Mwe of nuclear power generation capacity during the next two decades. In South Korea which is heavily dependent on nuclear power, the closure of a nuclear reactor would cripple its economy, whereas it is certainly not so in India.

In South Korea, a few whistle blowers cautioned the government in November, 2012 that fake parts were being used in the country’s nuclear power plants. The government promptly launched an investigation and, pending its outcome, unhesitatingly ordered the closure of two reactors. The country’s leadership was fully aware of the disastrous consequences that a Fukushima-like accident could lead to. The investigation revealed that KHNPC had received 7,682 fake parts from 8 firms on the basis of 60 false certificates and fraudulent warranties. There was no hesitation on the part of the South Korean government to make a public disclosure of these facts, as it knew that taking the people into confidence would help promote its own credibility.

Unlike in India, apparently, the South Koreans value the information coming from whistle blowers on such sensitive matters.

No GenpatsuIn May, 2013, another whistle blower’s information once again led to the detection of more instances of fake quality certification, covering another 53 items supplied to KHNPC by two more firms. These counterfeit parts were apparently used in a number of power reactors across the country. Compounding this further was the detection of microscopic cracks in the tunnels that led the control rods in a few other reactors. Close on the heels of these disturbing finds was the discovery of substandard control cables that failed 9 out of 12 tests, posing a serious danger to the reactors. In the event of an accident, this implied that there would be no guarantee of cooling the nuclear fuels nor would there be any guarantee that radioactive material could be shut off. Caring for public safety, the South Korean government promptly ordered the closure of a few more reactors, bringing the number of offline reactors to 10, out of a total of 23 operating reactors, pending a thorough investigation and replacement of the fake components. The price that South Korea will necessarily have to pay for this is to face a crippling, nationwide power blackout. South Korea preferred it in order to safeguard the welfare of its people.

Detection of substandard parts used in nuclear power plants has led to a thorough shake up of the nuclear establishment in South Korea. The South Koreans are aware that a minor mechanical failure in a nuclear power plant could lead to a disaster with extensive and inter-generational consequences.

Let us compare this with how DAE had responded to similar complaints in the case of Kudankulam nuclear power plant in India.

From quite some time, the people living in the vicinity of Kudankulam have been agitating against the project on the ground that nuclear power technology is inherently unsafe and a Fukushima-like accident could take place any time, triggered by a natural calamity, a human error or a mechanical failure. Instead of taking them into confidence, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL), stoically supported by its parent Ministry, DAE, has adopted an autocratic posture, castigating all those who spoke against nuclear power and branding them “anti-social”.

It was against this background that rumours started floating around that substandard parts were being used in the project and they would lead to a disastrous accident, once NPCIL started operating the plant.

DAE and NPCIL did precious little to dispel these doubts. Instead, they insisted that the plant was “100%” safe and would “soon” be commissioned. Strangely, every time they announced a “scheduled” date of commissioning the plant, they announced its deferment for no valid reason. It happened at least six times! At the BRICS meeting at Durban in March, 2013, the Indian Prime Minister personally assured the Russian President that the plant would be commissioned in April, 2013. More than two months have elapsed and the commissioning of the plant still remains elusive! The procrastination on the part of NPCIL has only given credence to the rumours about the quality of the component parts of the project.

It is not as though there were no specific complaints on the quality of the individual parts of Kudankulam project.

In June, 2012, there were reports of a problem with the welding in the core region of the pressure vessel. These reports were brought to the notice of DAE. There was no information on whether DAE or AERB had ordered any investigation and whether the facts were ascertained. The public has been left guessing.

Around the beginning of this year, there were fresh reports that 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. The only Russian project in India is Kudankulam. It meant that this project too would have received fake parts, calling for an investigation. When this matter was brought to the notice of DAE and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), once again, there was no response. No one yet knows whether there was any investigation carried out and, if so, whether any fake parts were detected.

In April, 2013, there were reports of defective cables used in Kudankulam and one or two accidents taking place at the project site. Neither DAE nor AERB has so far made any statement on this.

Feeling helpless at the silence on the part of the authorities, the citizens tried getting information on these complaints under Right to Information Act, 2005. The answers given on this by NPCIL were cryptic and unhelpful.

Meanwhile, without any reference whatsoever to the numerous complaints cited above, NPCIL issued a press statement, grudgingly admitting that it had indeed detected four “defective valves” which would be replaced! There was no clarification on the Zio-Podolsk affair or on the complaints about welding and defective cables. The fact that NPCIL did detect defective valves corroborated the possibility of several other defective parts being used in the project.

Meanwhile, a Writ Petition was filed by some citizens appealing for judicial intervention to suspend the commissioning of Kudankulam plant on grounds of safety. On the basis of open-ended assurances and guarantees given by DAE, AERB and NPCIL, the apex court recently permitted the commissioning of Kudankulam subject to the following observations.

“When such cause comes up before this Court, it is the bounden duty to remind the authorities “Be
alert, remain always alert and duty calls you to nurture constant and sustained vigilance and nation warns you not to be complacent and get into a mild slumber”. The AERB as the regulatory authority and the MoEF (Ministry of Environment & Forests) are obliged to perform their duty that safety measures are adequately taken before the plant commences its operation. That is the trust of the people in the authorities which they can ill afford to betray, and it shall not be an exaggeration to state that safety in a case of this nature in any one’s hand has to be placed on the pedestal of “Constitutional Trust”.

The court referred to the “trust” reposed by the people in the authorities to ensure public safety. Taking this observation to its logical end, one would expect that DAE and AERB would conduct a thorough investigation into the complaints received on the quality of the various parts in Kudankulam and make sure that they would not pose any potential danger. One would also expect that these authorities disclose the details of such an investigation to the public to allay their fears. Till date, neither DAE nor AERB has fulfilled this court-pronounced obligation to the satisfaction of the people. Meanwhile, public confidence in the safety of Kudankulam stands eroded further.

As Indians, we take great pride in being a large democracy in which “we, the people” matters. Can we say this with any firm conviction in the context of Kudankulam? Should we not learn lessons from South Korea, where whistle blowers are respected and public interest safeguarded?

The problem of “counterfeit, fraudulent and substandard items” (CFSIs) is indeed a global one.

As a result of aggressive marketing by MNCs, who manufacture and supply nuclear power equipment, and as a result of the enormous political patronage that promotes this non-viable, unsafe industry through direct and indirect subsidies, the nuclear industry has become the target of rampant corruption. The procedures adopted by the industry have remained highly non-transparent. The cosy relationship that exists between the industry and its regulators has obfuscated quality assurance in the way nuclear power plants are set up and operated. In a way, the regulators have often assumed the role of promoters of the industry, giving a go by to public safety.

India’s nuclear expansion plans to import reactors along with fuel for 60,000 Mwe capacity are based entirely on non-transparent procurement procedures. AERB which is expected to regulate the nuclear industry in India is a body subordinate to the industry itself! What happens in India in this respect perhaps represents the pattern applicable to the nuclear industry worldwide.

Eleven years after Three Mile Island (1979) and four years after Chernobyl (1986), the US General Accounting Office (GAO) reported in 1990 to the House of Representatives that “nonconforming products, such as fasteners, pipe fittings, electrical equipment, and valves, have been installed in nuclear power plants;” “such products can fail and result in death or injury to the public and workers, increase government program costs significantly, and waste tax dollars.” GAO further reported that “utilities have installed nonconforming products in, or are suspected of having received them for, about 64 percent of the 113 domestic nuclear power plants. Also, during the past 5 years, NRC’S inspections of 13 utilities’ quality assurance programs found problems with 12. As a result of the inspections, NRC took enforcement actions against eight utilities, but in April 1990 the Commission withdrew the actions against two utilities and deferred quality assurance program inspections for at least 1 year”.

Apparently, the regulators of the nuclear industry at that time, as it is the case even today, were in nexus with the industry and, therefore, unwilling to enforce safety measures and uphold the public interest.

In 2011, 21 years after the GAO report mentioned above, the Inspector General of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reported that 28% of the nuclear power operators in USA failed to inform the federal regulators about failures of defective parts that could have led to major accidents in those plants, as well as the others where similar substandard parts would have been deployed.

In other words, the nuclear establishment all over the world has chosen to close its eyes to the dangers of CFSIs, unmindful of the public interest concerns. India’s nuclear industry is no exception to this.

Even International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seems to have made light of the growing concern about CFSIs. One would have expected Fukushima to goad IAEA into hectic action on all fronts of safety, including the need to contain the problem of CFSIs. It took more than two years for IAEA to make a ritualistic mention of CFSIs in the annual report of Convention on Nuclear Safety. Meanwhile, it is possible that a large number of existing nuclear power plants in different parts of the world are operating with CFSIs and many more Fukushimas are waiting to happen anytime!

A few months prior to Fukushima, IAEA’s Nuclear Safety Review (2010) cautioned the world that “plans for some new nuclear power programmes are moving faster than the establishment of the necessary safety infrastructure and capacity”. There cannot be anything more relevant than this for the way India, China and other countries are plunging headlong into a nuclear rush.

“Of course it is just like the Great Leap Forward,” Professor He Zuoxiu, one of China’s leading theoretical physicists, who worked on the country’s atomic bomb project, said. “It’s all about giddy speed and zero preparation. We have not solved the problems of technology, cost or safety but rashly rushed out an over-ambitious plan. I think it is a mission impossible.”
It is indeed “giddy speed” and “zero preparation” in the case of India. We seem to care little for human safety. One can only hope and pray that the Indian leadership introspects on these words with sufficient seriousness and care for human welfare.

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