(Special to ‘Financial Chronicle’, 21 September 2011)

by Praful Bidwai

In an unusual move, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to halt construction of two nuclear reactors at Koodamkulam in Tirunelveli district, where more than 100 local residents have been on a hunger-strike against the project since September 11, supported by tens of thousands. Only a few days ago, Jayalalithaa had dismissed their apprehensions about lack of reactor safety as unwarranted. Evidently, determined popular opposition to the project has impelled her to acknowledge the “agonising” state of affairs and the people’s “natural” concern “for the safety of their families and for themselves” after the “Fukushima disaster”.

The Koodamkulam project bristles with problems. Some of them are generic to all nuclear reactors irrespective of origin, design or configuration of fuel and coolant. All existing reactors are vulnerable to a catastrophic accident such as a Fukushima or Chernobyl-type meltdown. Other problems are specific to these reactors of Russian design, and the way they were granted environmental clearance by the Indian government.

A recent study http://www.bellona.org/articles/articles_2011/rosatom_report prepared for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev by Russian state agencies concerned with nuclear safety in the wake of Fukushima reveals that Russian reactors are completely under-prepared for both natural and man-made disasters ranging from floods to fires to earthquakes or plain negligence.

The report comes from an amalgam of sources such as the Ministry of Natural Resources, Federal Service for Environmental, Technological and Nuclear Oversight, as well as Rosatom, the nuclear operator agency. According to chief engineer Ole Reistad of the Norwegian Institute for Energy Technology: “The report reveals deficiencies which have never before been mentioned publicly, nor reported internationally.”

These include 31 “serious flaws”. Among the more critical failings are: absence of regulations for personnel to know how to deal with large-scale natural disasters or other major contingencies; inadequate protective shelters for workers on any given shift in the event of an accident; lack of records of previous accidents, which would enable workers to learn from past mistakes; and poor attention to electrical and safety-significant systems.

This holds true not just of the RBMK design implicated in the Chernobyl accident, but also of the VVER-type reactors which India is importing from Russia. The report questions the capability of reactors to remain safe for extended periods if cooling systems fail. There is no guarantee that power backup systems will be effective should this happen. This is the primary difficulty that beset Fukushima Daiichi when the quake and tsunami hit. Also, key equipment involved in the cooling process suffers from metal fatigue and welding flaws—yet another problem that was ignored at Fukushima. Russian reactors are vulnerable to the kinds of hydrogen explosions that ripped up three reactor buildings at Fukushima.

Most important, the report says that the risk of earthquakes has not been considered as a safety factor for Russian nuclear facilities. Not all of Russia’s reactors have automatic shutdown mechanisms which would be activated in the event of an earthquake.

This should set the alarm bells ringing in India’s Department of Atomic Energy—the more so because the DAE lacks the technical competence to evaluate for safety imported designs of large size such as the 1,000 MW Koodamkulam units. Its experience is essentially limited to 200-230 MW, although it recently installed two 540 MW reactors. But the DAE is, true to type, complacent and blasé about the Koodamkulam reactors.

These reactors were cleared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests way back in 1989—even before the Environmental Impact Assessment process, with a detailed EIA report and public hearings, was inaugurated in 1994. The clearance did not consider the intrinsic hazards of nuclear power generation, radiation releases, or long-term waste storage.

No wonder the DAE’s assertions that the Koodamkulam reactors are perfectly safe and designed to handle all problems including earthquakes and tsunamis have failed to convince the local population—itself highly literate and well-informed. Its empirical observation that the DAE breaches its own siting norms inspires no confidence whatever. Thus, in place of the norm that there should be no population in a 1.6-km radius of a nuclear reactor, sizeable numbers of people live within a 1-km radius, including some recently housed in a tsunami relief colony.

If the government has any regard for safety and for people’s genuine concerns, the least it can do is halt construction at Koodamkulam. There’s an additional reason for doing so at Jaitapur in Maharashtra too. The DAE has just told the French government that it will delay buying European Pressurised Reactors for Jaitapur until post-Fukushima nuclear safety tests have been completed and the EPR design has been officially certified as safe. Since the design hasn’t even been frozen, it’s only logical that all construction at Jaitapur be immediately halted.

India must conduct a credible and independent audit of its nuclear power policy and of the safety of all its reactors, which involves external experts and civil society representatives as well as DAE personnel. Until this is done, there must be a complete moratorium on all further nuclear projects, including Koodamkulam and Jaitapur. After the accidents at Fukushima and Marcoule in France, it would be suicidal to assume that nuclear power is safe. —end--