Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Health, Nuclear Energy - Nuclear Weapons, Peace

INDIA: Dangers of a Lax Nuclear Strategy

Malini Shankar

BANGALORE, Nov 19 2011 (IPS) - On August 26, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan resigned, taking responsibility for the disastrous meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was caused by the March 2011 undersea earthquake and ensuing tsunami.

In India, on the other hand, the deliberate contamination of a drinking water tank with radioactive waste in the Kaiga nuclear power plant in Western Ghats in the state of Karnataka has gone unpunished for two whole years.

Neither government nor corporate actors have yet taken responsibility for the incident.

The contamination of a drinking water cooler near the clothing crib of the power plant led to 86 employees showing higher than normal traces of tritium, a radioactive substance, in their routine urine discharge test on the night of Nov. 23, 2009.

A full 24 months later, not only has the incident gone unpunished but the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) has also refused to identify or reprimand the culprits, while the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) continues to belittle the issue.

The NPCIL has claimed ever since that the incident was merely “an act of mischief” and has failed to examine the attendance roster of the night shift employees for the night in question, to ascertain who might have caused the contamination.

“Without much cooperation from NPCIL the police are at their wits’ end,” Nagaraj, an investigating officer for the Karwar police department, the district in which the Kaiga power plant is located, told IPS.

He claimed that the perpetrators, including senior scientists “have hoodwinked a policing system that lacks trained human resources and infrastructure for scientific investigations.”

“We have just recommended the case to the Corp of Detectives (an arm of the federal central bureau of investigations) for a thorough investigation,” Nagaraj added.

However, no concrete evidence has yet emerged from these investigations, nor have the employees been compensated for the many costly health complications arising as a result of the episode.

Given that tritium is a radioactive substance that greatly increases the risk of cancer, the apathy on the part of government officials is particularly noteworthy.

At the time of the incident, seven of the contaminated employees were admitted to the Primary Health Care facility managed by the NPCIL, rather than being taken to the local public hospital. A further 79 employees were given diuretics according to standard procedure.

According to the Indian national disaster management authority’s guidelines, a disaster in a nuclear establishment is defined as a situation in which “the dimension of an emergency situation grows to such an extent that the impact of the hazard is beyond the coping capability of the local community and/or the concerned local authority.”

However, the AERB did not deem the health risks to 86 workers to be an official ‘disaster’ and the incident remains shrouded in secrecy, leading many experts to believe that the regulatory body’s lack of autonomy from the nuclear establishment is a cause of grave concern.

“The incident does not portend serious health hazards as the traces of tritium are within the prescribed limits of the AERB,” stated the NPCIL response to a ‘right to information’ application filed by IPS.

“(Furthermore) the contaminated drinking water cooler was immediately sealed and put out of service; there was no radioactivity released into the environment,” it concluded.

The AERB press release at the time added, “Only two of the employees who were treated with diuretics were left with tritium traces in their body that can cause radiation exposure in excess of AERB specified limits of 30 millisieverts (mSv); but the rest of the employees have been attending to duty ever since.”

This analysis failed to mention that tritium absorbed by body tissues cannot be discharged through diuretics, and creates a high hazard of cancer.

Though IPS has made repeated efforts to gain access to the Kaiga power plant over the last 12 months, the NPCIL is yet to allow us inside.

J.K. Singh, the public relations officer of the plant, refused IPS’s request for entry, claiming that journalists require written permission from the corporate communications department of the NPCIL.

If this is the level of accountability in India’s nuclear establishments, it is difficult to imagine how the government will handle possible nuclear catastrophes on the scale of this year’s Fukushima incident in Japan, the U.S.’s Three Mile Island accident in 1979 or the 1986 Chernobyl tragedy in Ukraine.

“The nuclear establishment in India does not fit the term ‘public servant’, as it should,” M.V. Ramana, an anti-nuclear activist at Princeton University, told IPS.

“It doesn’t act as though the public is its master. I think its lack of accountability can lead to hazardous outcomes,” he added.

“If the contaminated water leaked into underground aquifers in a biodiversity hotspot it could become an unmitigated disaster,” a senior police official for the Karwar district police told IPS.

Currently, many aspects of India’s nuclear power establishment leave cause for concern: Design flaws, contamination incidents, possible radiation, a lack of solid infrastructure to cope with nuclear disasters, ill prepared health care infrastructure, ill-informed communities, inadequate forensic teams, lax investigating agencies, the location of nuclear power plants in seismically active zones and in thickly populated coastal areas are all recipes for disaster. Udaya Kumar, coordinator of the National Alliance of Anti-nuclear Movements (NAAM) – a group that is stiffly opposing the establishment of the Koodankulam nuclear plant in a fishing village in the tsunami- prone coast of the Southeastern state of Tamil Nadu – is concerned about India’s negligent attitude about liability in the industry.

He pointed out that the recently ratified Nuclear Liability Act failed to increase the existing cap on liability, thereby protecting investors and corporations while shifting the burden of compensation for potential disasters onto the taxpayer.

While the disaster in Fukushima triggered a wave of anti-nuclear commitments by governments around the world from Germany to Italy to Sweden, India has gone the opposite route. In fact, on the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised to push ahead with the nuclear power program just as before.

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