Unclear nuclear issues

Major General Sudhir Vombatkere

S G VombatkereMajor General S.G. Vombatkere retired as the Additional Director General, Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi. He is Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA, in international studies, and is a member of NAPM and PUCL. He writes on strategic and development-related issues.

Contact details:

Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere (Retd) // 475, 7th Main Road // Vijayanagar 1st Stage // Mysore – 570017

Tel:0821-2515187; E-mail: <sg9kere@live.com>

In the background of the adage that there are more questions that a fool can ask than a wise man can answer, this fool asks some questions of nuclear scientists and engineers.

Disposal of nuclear wastes

The goal of oceanographers during the International Geophysical Year 1957-58, was to study “the use of the ocean depths for the dumping of radioactive wastes”. Here we have one set of scientists (oceanographers) studying how to use the natural environment to dump wastes, which another set of scientists (nuclear scientists) know how to generate and know to be dangerous to human life, but do not know how to dispose. Both sets of scientists would appear to consider that non-human forms of life do not matter. Does their not understanding the connectedness of life in its myriad forms indicate the nature of their understanding of science itself, and the connection between the sciences and social issues? Or did they knowingly dump radioactive wastes with a to-hell-with-the-consequences approach?

Starting 1946, USA had been dumping radioactive wastes packed in 55-gallon steel drums, into the ocean. They took care to not dump it near the coast, presumably because they did not want human populations to suffer the effects of radioactivity. U.S Navy ships carried the drums offshore of San Francisco to the Farallon Islands and just heaved the drums overboard, over 50,000 of them. Sailors fired bullets at floating drums to sink them. In any case, the drums (including those that sank without help from the U.S Navy) would corrode in a few years, allowing radioactive wastes to mix freely with sea water to irradiate marine life, and thence to all other life in the food chain. Did not the nuclear scientists know that steel corrodes in a few years whereas radioactivity persists for hundreds of thousands of years? Is that not the reason that such dumping was stopped 44-years later in 1990, and more “reliable” methods adopted? Can fallible scientists with a professional life of a few decades honestly guarantee safe disposal of radioactive wastes with half-life of 25,000 years for at least six half-lifes, i.e., 150,000 years? Is there no realization among nuclear scientists that nuclear waste disposal remains a problem with no real solution?

To be fair, USA was not alone. UK, France, USSR and China did precisely the same in unknown quantities, but USA alone dumped hundreds of thousands of such drums. USSR irresponsibly dumped enormous quantities of nuclear waste in the Kara Sea of the Arctic Ocean [Ref.1]. This includes “…some 17,000 containers of radioactive waste, 19 ships containing radioactive waste, 14 nuclear reactors, including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel; 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery, and the K-27 nuclear submarine with its two reactors loaded with nuclear fuel“. What did the nuclear scientists of these countries know about radioactivity, that they permitted or actually ordered such irresponsible dumping? How and where are our Indian nuclear scientists dumping nuclear wastes? What is their accountability to society?

Long-term risks in practice

Double Nobel Laureate Marie Curie died in 1934 of radiation sickness caused by handling radioactive substances during her laboratory experiments. Her notebooks from the 1890s and even her cookbook are kept in lead-lined boxes because they are too radioactive to handle or be exposed. Even today, 80 years later, those who may want to consult her papers need to wear protective clothing. It is widely agreed that the effects of any and every dose of ionising radiation are cumulative and harmful. An expert is quoted as saying, “There is considerable uncertainty associated with the estimation of risk from relatively low doses … This does not mean, however, that there is no risk, but rather that there may not be any risk and, if there is, we are not certain about how to quantify it“. Also, “…the rationale used in radiation protection for restricting cumulative doses has been that the probability of inducing certain serious effects, such as cancer, is proportional to the dose. This leads to a conclusion that, although the radiation does not accumulate in the body, the risk is cumulative“. [Ref.2]. The effective and equivalent doses received by radiation users or other personnel, are dose limits. They are in no sense “dose allotments” which can and should be “used up”. On the contrary, the guiding principle of all radiation work is: the dose should be As Low As Reasonably Achievable, economic and social factors being taken into account. This is called the “ALARA Principle” and is central to all radiation safety. Therefore, is there really any “safe” dose of ionising radiation, especially as nuclear health physicists – for example, of Euratom, ICRP and IAEA – differ among themselves on the details?

Of risk, deaths and life

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) accident on 26 April 1986 had very serious immediate and long-term effects. Today, Gerd Ludwig, who spent 20 years photographing the area and chronicling the on-going consequences of the radioactive release, says: “Even the numbers of people who will eventually die of cancer related diseases caused by Chernobyl are disputed – the UN initially put the number at 4,000, then 6,000, then 8,000. Now they’re at 9,000. Greenpeace and other reputable environmental agencies have put the numbers at 100,000 and more. Where the number really is, we will never know, because the 800,000 people that were brought in from all over the Soviet Union are dispersed back all over the former Soviet Republics. There is no record of who was there, who got sick and how. We will never know”.

The fact is that the effects of a nuclear accident are horrendous. But nuclear scientists are apt to dismiss this as a “one-in-a-million reactor-hours” accident or some such minuscule probability of occurrence. Placing a figure of probability like “one-in-a-million” on an event, estimates that it can happen only once in a million reactor-hours, but not when it may happen. If it happens tomorrow, it may not happen for a million reactor-hours thereafter. The fact that a finite probability exists, does not say when the accident may happen or what could be the sequence of events that may lead to the accident. What is the social validity of esoteric probability calculations, when the occurrence and the socio-economic-environmental fallout of accidents are completely unacceptable?

Scientists from the nuclear establishments are apt to simplistically argue that more people die from smoking cigarettes than from nuclear radiation. This comparison is fallacious because the numbers who die from nuclear radiation are not known. For example, consider the figures of the 1986 Chernobyl accident mentioned above – the number of people who received irradiation and contracted cancer is enormous, whether or not they died of cancer. It brings up the question whether only the numbers who die are important, and the numbers who suffer greatly reduced quality of life due to radiation-related ill-health are not important. Do not nuclear scientists understand that the Chernobyl accident fallout, for example, irradiated the grass and radionuclides to enter the food chain? Why is death more important than life, that we count how many die due to one or other cause, but not look at life and its quality in terms of health, and elimination of causes of ill-health?

Furthermore, smokers smoke voluntarily, knowing the risks, and non-smokers can avoid smoke. But the location and operation of nuclear installations is imposed upon the public, and since radioactivity cannot be seen, smelt or felt, it cannot be avoided. Thus the fundamental right to avoid what one wants to avoid is denied by NPPs. But why do nuclear scientists, supposedly people with superior logical and thinking abilities, offer such arguments in the first place? Do they really believe this or are they economical with the truth because their paymasters (including governments) demand it?

System failure

Any system can fail, and the more complex the system, the greater are the consequences of system failure. If the failure is minor it is easily dealt with, but a major failure has serious consequences. A NPP is an assemblage of several complex systems and subsystems which are dynamically closely coupled during operation. There is finite risk of failure of a critical system (even due to failure of a minor component) or worse, two or more systems in rapid succession, leading to nuclear meltdown and large-scale radioactive fallout.

Failure of a NPP system has long range – in time and space – physical, social, environmental, economic and political consequences, contemplation of which are distinctly unpleasant. It is not even possible to accurately identify the victims of a NPP disaster because of the very nature of nuclear radiation and the fact that there may be no immediate deaths. (The 1984 methyl isocyanate gas leak from Union Carbide Corporation’s Bhopal plant caused over 15,000 immediate deaths, while the 2012 Fukushima nuclear disaster caused no immediate deaths).

The people who oppose NPPs do so because of a combination of fear of nuclear accident and disease caused by routine radioactive emissions, besides of course loss of land and livelihood. These fears are exacerbated by the fact that nuclear suppliers oppose Government of India (GoI) imposing nuclear accident liability capped at a paltry $450 million, while the liability in USA is $10 billion. At the same time, suppliers insist that there is “full safety” against nuclear accident. What is the role of DAE scientists in resolving this contradiction? If DAE scientists believe that there is no risk of accident, why do they not support GoI in pressing for a liability regime in the public interest?

Accidents and studies

India’s DAE has not conducted independent studies of nuclear accident sequences, and assumes the published results of design basis accident (DBA) predictions from foreign countries. Technical success, even repeated technical success, does not imply reduction of accident risk and can mask minor deficiencies which, over time, can add up to major disasters. The years-long successful U.S space program suffered a major setback in 1985, when space shuttle Columbia exploded due to failure of a rubber seal, a minor component. With NPPs in India operating under the secretive DAE, we have no news of accidents because the in-built intransparency of security rules prevents the DAE from informing the public of accidents. Is this credible basis for DAE’s claims regarding nuclear safety?

The Departments of Atomic Energy – or by whatever name they are constituted and known in various countries – are duty-bound to encourage the use of nuclear energy and ensure the safe operation of nuclear power plants (NPPs). Thus in the execution of their duties, they gloss over the problems of operational safety, underplay the reality of routine radioactive emissions, and aver that nuclear power is cheap. In fact, the platform of the DAE is perched on a three-legged stool of “safe-clean-cheap” nuclear power. Do not nuclear scientists recognize that these three factors are very closely inter-related, since for example, strict adherence to safety requirements leads to frequent shut-downs and raises operating costs?

The DAE has attempted to quantify the risk with respect to nuclear energy, quoting some statistics provided by the Chairman of the CEGB, UK, regarding the relative risks of common activities such as smoking and release of radioativity from NPPs. The risks of low-level radiation are not known and indeed the DAE admits that “data on radiation-induced genetic damage leading to diseases is extremely scarce”. How can the DAE maintain that nuclear plants are safe if data on the subject are scarce?

Cases of physical and genetic damage to workers in uranium mines and in rare earth processing factories and NPPs all over the world are known, but strenuously denied by the nuclear establishment, generally with the argument that the connection between irradiation and medical symptom has little or no statistical correlation. Noting that most nuclear facilities are set up without base-level health studies, how can there be statistical correlation if there is no basic data from surveys conducted prior to setting up the nuclear facility?

The DAE sets store by “defence in depth” with regard to safety in operation of NPPs. The principle of defence in depth is not a speciality of NPPs nor an innovation of nuclear scientists – it is nothing but system redundancy as provided in many electro-mechanical devices such as aircraft. The satisfactory design and functioning of safety systems depends upon the anticipated series of failure events. The DAE mentions the four “barriers that would have to be simultaneously breached” as defence in depth. However, their breaching in series which is much more likely, has not been considered.

Very recently, events in the not-yet-operational Koodankulam NPP (KKNPP) have raised serious anxieties among local communities. Due to damage to a turbine, the causes for which are secret, similar parts (possibly the turbine rotor) have been taken out of another turbine. [Ref.3]. Is such “repair-by-cannibalisation” of major assemblies, which is resorted to only in old equipment, justifiable in a new NPP? Was quality assurance assessment of supplied equipment conducted? Do the KKNPP authorities have a credible repair-maintenance policy?

Further, in the same KKNPP, according to a study based on analysis of power-grid data, there have been 21 power outages at KKNPP between Oct 22, 2013 and Oct 22, 2014. Of these 21 outages, 14 were trips caused by faulty equipment or poor oversight [Ref.4]. When a turbine trips, the heat off-take stops abruptly and the reactor temperature rises very rapidly. This activates the emergency core cooling system (ECCS) to prevent a meltdown. A turbine trip event is precisely the kind of trigger that could lead to nuclear catastrophe if there is a simultaneous chance failure of the ECCS. Of course, the learned nuclear scientists and engineers would come up with a calculation of the improbability of such a combination of events. But as pointed out earlier, no calculations can compensate for an accident. What use is holding a scientist or the DAE accountable after a nuclear accident? It is noteworthy that all this has happened in a NPP that is new, and many doubts have been raised about the inferior quality of installed assemblies, perhaps the most important of which is that the reactor vessel was constructed with a “belt-weld” according to outdated technology. Is the intransparency of the DAE concealing system inefficiency and/or failure of professional integrity?

End questions

Some further questions can and need to be asked. How much do nuclear scientists really know? And how much do they tell of what they know? Due to the unreasonable and undemocratic secrecy inherent in the DAE due to the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, how much can they tell? Why are the people of India expected to trust nuclear scientists and engineers who may not know as much as they pretend to know, and are apt to hide behind secrecy laws to conceal their incomplete knowledge, and the truth regarding matters such as the reasons for the on-going accidents at KKNPP?


#1. Vombatkere, S.G., “The Soviet Union Dumped Enormous Quantities Of Nuclear Waste In Kara Sea In The Arctic Ocean“, <http://www.countercurrents.org/vombatkere100912.htm>; Countercurrents.org; September 10, 2012.
#2. <http://hps.org/publicinformation/ate/q10031.html>; Accessed 31.10.2014.
#3. <http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/energy/power/kudankulam-turbine-to-run-with-parts-from-another-unit/articleshow/44957455.cms>; “Kudankulam turbine to run with parts from another unit”; The Economic Times; October 28, 2014.
#4. “Power outages at Kudankulam nuclear plant dangerous, finds a new study”; <www.dianuke.org/power-outages-at-kudankulam-nuclear-plant-dangerous-finds-a-new-study/>.

** Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired in 1996 as Additional DG Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ AG’s Branch. He holds a PhD degree in Structural Dynamics from I.I.T, Madras. He is Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA, in international studies. With over 380 published papers in national and international journals and seminars, his current area of interest is strategic and development-related issues.
Contact details:
Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere (Retd) // 475, 7th Main Road // Vijayanagar 1st Stage // Mysore – 570017
Tel:0821-2515187; E-mail: <sg9kere@live.com>

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