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Are Indian nuclear weapons facilities safe?

Last updated on: April 12, 2011 14:25 IST

Parliament must insist that the government should direct its Department of Atomic Energy to immediately examine and make recommendations to the government on the structure of an independent surveillance and regulatory authority for the defence nuclear facilities, says Dr A Gopalakrishnan.

India has a declared nuclear weapons program and several associated nuclear installations like plutonium production reactors, spent-fuel reprocessing units, uranium enrichment and tritium separation plants, radioactive waste management plants, submarine test reactor facility, etc.

All these facilities have been kept outside the purview of International Atomic Energy Agency's Safeguards Agreement and their Additional Protocol. From the inception of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board in 1983, all these facilities were under its safety surveillance & regulation, even though the AERB is very much a captive organisation of the Department of Atomic Energy, reporting to the Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy.

But, on April 25, 2000, the then secretary, DAE had ordered that the regulatory and safety surveillance functions at BARC and its facilities, which were exercised till then by the AERB, will thereafter be carried out through an 'Internal Safety Committee Structure' to be constituted by the director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. The structure, membership or functioning of this committee is not known. This status of safety administration of the defence nuclear facilities is totally unsatisfactory because the safety evaluation and regulation is done by the same management which is responsible for operation and maintenance of these facilities, and there is no independence of regulation or any transparency of their actions.

Besides, the entire process of operation, maintenance and safety management of these weapons facilities is kept secret under the Official Secrets Act. Under the circumstances, it is easy for the government to cut corners in safety implementation, when faced with the exigencies of weapons production. No one outside the facility will know about such by-passing of safety principles and procedures, and none from within the DAE system will dare to openly question these serious lapses for fear of being accused of violating the stringent Official Secrets Act.

As a consequence, for the last 11 years, AERB has no knowledge of or control over the hazardous nuclear facilities and their activities in the extensive BARC Complex in Trombay, on the outskirts of Mumbai, or BARC's extensive and potentially dangerous operations at Kalpakkam near Chennai, or at Mysore, or elsewhere. This is a serious lacuna, especially in today's context where the prime minister has ordered a safety audit of only the nuclear power plants, but not of the country's weapons establishments, many of which are next door to some of India's most populous cities.

There are several highly hazardous nuclear installations which come within the ambit of 'weapons facilities', any one of which could cause a major accident with extraordinary impact on the lives of large populations around these facilities, besides damage to the environment. Examples of such facilities include: the BARC complex, containing the 40 megawatt-thermal (MWt) CIRUS reactor (under shutdown?) and the 100 MWt Dhruva reactor as well as large amounts of high-grade liquid radioactive waste material stocks; an old spent-fuel reprocessing plant, an enrichment plant and a fuel fabrication unit, as well as a tritium separation unit at Trombay, the uranium enrichment plant near Mysore, the submarine test reactor facility and the KARP plutonium extraction plant in Kalpakkam; the plutonium plant, the radioactive waste immobilisation plant, and an Away From Reactor Spent-Fuel Storage Facility holding enormous quantities of spent-fuel from the entire life of the GE boiling-water reactors (BWRs), all at Tarapur.

Besides these, there are several pressurized heavy-water reactors (PHWRs) which India has kept outside the IAEA safeguards, perhaps because we need the plutonium from their spent-fuel for the strategic programs. Whether DAE has yet designated such reactors as weapons-related facilities and taken them away from AERB purview is unclear.

In this context, it is worth examining how the advanced western countries like the US have handled the safety surveillance and regulation of their defence nuclear facilities. Since the inception of the US nuclear weapons complexes during World War II and their expansion during the Cold War era, these had been managed separately from the power reactor stations, under strict secrecy. The US Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies, were managing these weapon facilities, without independent external oversight, within the executive branch.

This past US situation is a parallel to the one prevailing today in India, with the DAE carrying on with a weapons program without any independent overview. The nuclear arms race and the sense of urgency about maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent legitimised secretive operations in the US weapons complex in the past, and gave rise to a higher priority for weapons production needs over concerns for the safety of workers and the general public.

In India too, I am afraid a similar lop-sided priority is existing today, with public and worker safety relegated to a much lower level of importance than nuclear weaponisation.

The Three-Mile Island accident of 1979 in the US and the more devastating accident at the Chernobyl plant in 1986 drastically changed the perception of the general public and the US Congress towards the rather relaxed approach of the DoE regarding the safety overview of military nuclear activities. This eventually led to the creation of the Defence Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent executive-branch organisation, by the US Congress in 1988 to provide technical oversight of the DoE's defence nuclear facilities, in order to protect the health and safety of the public and workers. The board was charged with identifying potential safety threats posed by the facilities, elevating such issues to the highest levels of authority, and informing the public.

In creating the DNFSB, or the 'Board' as it is often referred to, one aim of the US Congress was to provide an expert body to act as an adviser to DoE on establishing, and operating in accordance with standards comparable to those that prevailed in the US commercial nuclear power industry. Congress also provided the DNFSB with a variety of powers to carry out its oversight mission, chief among them being the power to issue formal recommendations to the secretary, DOE. Interestingly, the secretary is not required to accept these recommendations, but he is required to answer them.

It is interesting to note the qualification for membership of the DNFSB, as given in the US Atomic Energy Act 1954 (Chapter-21, Section-311). To quote, "The Board shall be composed of five members appointed from civilian life by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, from among United States citizens who are respected experts in the field of nuclear safety with a demonstrated competence and knowledge relevant to the independent investigative and oversight functions of the Board. If political affiliations are involved, not more than three members of the Board shall belong to the same political party."

Among the functions of the Board, the following task is included: "The Board shall investigate any event or practice at a DoE defence nuclear facility which the Board determines has adversely affected, or may adversely affect, public health and safety."

The Board is also authorised to establish reporting requirements for the secretary of energy which shall be binding upon the secretary. The information which the Board may require the secretary of energy to report under this subsection may include any information designated as classified information, or any information designated as safeguards information and protected from disclosure under the US Atomic Energy Act.

After the receipt of any recommendations by the secretary of energy from the Board, the Board promptly shall make such recommendations available to the public in the Department of Energy's regional public reading rooms and shall publish in the federal register such recommendations and a request for the submission to the Board of public comments on such recommendations. Interested persons shall have 30 days after the date of the publication of such notice in which to submit comments, data, views, or arguments to the Board concerning the recommendations.

The secretary of energy shall transmit to the Board, in writing, a statement on whether the secretary accepts or rejects, in whole or in part, the recommendations submitted to him by the Board, a description of the actions to be taken in response to the recommendations, and his views on such recommendations. The secretary of energy shall transmit his response to the Board within 45 days after the date of the publication, under subsection (a), of the notice with respect to such recommendations or within such additional period, not to exceed 45 days, as the Board may grant.

At the same time as the secretary of energy transmits his response to the Board's recommendations, the secretary shall publish such response, together with a request for public comment on his response, in the federal register. Interested persons shall have 30 days after the date of the publication of the secretary of energy's response in which to submit comments, data, views, or arguments to the Board concerning the secretary's response. The Board may subsequently hold hearings for the purpose of obtaining public comments on DNFSB's recommendations and the secretary of energy's response.

From the above details, it is evident that the United States, a much more well-informed State when it comes to nuclear power and weapon technologies compared to India, has not only felt the strong need to institute a mechanism for independent safety overview and regulation of their military nuclear facilities, but also felt it is only proper to keep the public informed of the progress of that oversight function. Compare that with the shameful secrecy with which the UPA government and its DAE are hiding behind the Official Secrets Act, and most likely endangering the lives of workers and the public associated with and living near the civilian and defence nuclear installations in India.

Parliament must insist that the government should direct its DAE to immediately examine and make recommendations to the government on the structure of an independent surveillance and regulatory authority for the defence nuclear facilities, outside the administrative control of the DAE, so that transparency and public confidence in safety can be brought about.

The DAE alone may not be competent enough to make an unbiased and comprehensive recommendation in this regard. They must, therefore, be asked to have wider consultations and seek and use expert help from within the country, but from outside the DAE. The final recommendations of the DAE in this matter should be subjected to scrutiny by a team of senior national experts, before a new regulatory structure is put in place for the defence installations, under an appropriate Act of Parliament.

Dr A Gopalakrishnan is former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.

Dr A Gopalakrishnan