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Nuclear fault lines run deep

Last updated on: April 12, 2011 08:06 IST

Image: The atomic power plant in Tarapur
Latha Jishnu

The slow-moving disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan that is spreading a cloud of anxiety across the world has forced most nations to either suspend or review their nuclear power programmes, but not India.

In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the huge Daiichi power complex of the Tokyo Electric Power Company, two things have happened: a series of disclosures that have exposed more of the nuclear industry's dark secrets, not least in Japan, and a rethink by several countries and utilities that had planned new projects.

Switzerland has suspended plans to build and replace plants. Germany, which had approved delaying decommissioning of its 17 plants, has put that on hold, and China has suspended approval for all new nuclear power plants.

Its initial response to the earth-tsunami catastrophe in Japan had been a firm "no rethink". Analysts believe the turnabout signals a move to tighten safety and risk-assessment norms for new projects. The most dramatic impact has been in the United States, with NRG Energy saying its plans to build two big reactors at its Texas plant could be delayed, or cancelled.

India, on the other hand, appears cocky. Officials say the country will push ahead with its ambitious expansion agenda, including the much-opposed Jaitapur and Mithi Virdi nuclear power complexes in Maharashtra and Gujarat, respectively.

Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Sri Kumar Banerjee is categorical that there will be no pullback from the proposed projects since none of these, he says, are in danger from either earthquakes or tsunamis. As for technology worries, there would be a "review" of the French company Areva's controversial European Pressurised reactor, six of which are planned in Jaitapur.

This would make for the world's largest nuclear energy complex with 10,000 MWe generation capacity. To give a comparison, the Fukushima Daiichi plant's six reactors have a total capacity of 4,696 MWe, and at the time of the calamity only three were operational.

Currently, work is under way on six projects in India: two Russian-built light water VVER reactors at Kudankulam (1,000 MWe each), and two pairs of indigenously developed pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWR) of 700 Mwe each in Rawatbhata, Rajasthan, and Kakrapar in Gujarat.

But more bold, and marking a sharp turn in the country's nuclear programme, are the big nuclear power-generating parks in five locations, all coming up with foreign technology.

This is a clear worry for the experts. "Fukushima shows accidents at one reactor can affect other reactors and associated facilities, such as spent fuel pools," points out physicist M V Ramana, who is with the Programme on Science and Global Security at Princeton University, US.

"If one reactor has an accident and spews radioactive materials, raising radiation levels, it prevents workers from approaching nearby reactors." AEC say sthere will be no change in the planned structure of these new parks. Instead, there is to be a safety audit of the 19 projects India's sole nuclear generator, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, operates.

So far, no clear answers are forthcoming on what this entails. Sudhinder Thakur, distinguished scientist and fellow at NPCIL, told Down To Earth, "NPCIL engineers have commenced work on 'scenario building' exercises for each of the different technologies we have for our reactors."

Two of these reactors, Tarapur I and 2, are the same GE boiling water reactors as at Daiichi, but of older vintage; the rest are pressurised heavy water reactor that use natural uranium.

According to Banerjee, however, the safety audit would consist of subjecting the current facilities to different levels of seismic loading. Although each plant has been designed on the basis of the fault lines of the site, "we need to know how it functions in an off-normal situation," he said in a TV interview, adding, "Not that this hasn't been done before".

What AEC, the umbrella organisation for all things nuclear, and its constituent organisations do, however, remains shrouded in secrecy. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, tasked with ensuring the safe operation of nuclear installations, is notoriously secretive? Although one of its primary functions is to "take such steps as are necessary to keep the public informed on major issues of radiological safety significance".

Instead, it has invoked the draconian Official Secrets Act and national security concerns at all times to avoid providing information on accidents or even on disaster management plans. The disaster management plan for the Kakrapar plant, which was revealed accidentally, showed only chaos would ensue because the strategy was to drive evacuees from villages and towns further away to come to the plant first and then cross the single bridge near the reactors to move away.

The only glimmer of hope for a more rational approach has come from A Gopalakrishnan,former AERB chairperson (1993-96) who has battled the establishment to make the regulator independent and more transparent. The problem is, AERB is a subordinate organisation of the Department of Atomic Energy, which makes it answerable to AEC whose chairperson is also DAE secretary.

That's why very few of the "incidents" and accidents (see 'Close calls') that have occurred in NPCIL plants are known to the public. In 1995, AERB did a safety audit and identified 134 problems, of which 95 were listed as top priority.

These problems had been identified by DAE much earlier (in 1979 and 1987) as issues calling for urgent action. Attempts by civil society organisations to make the report public as a people's right to know, were squelched by then DAE secretary R Chidambaram who cited national security for keeping it classified.He also invoked the OSA.

The public interest litigation was finally thrown out by the Supreme Court, which accepted the DAE's stance that the AERB report would reveal sensitive data to the "enemy".

Although AERB said subsequently that 119 of the 134 safety issues had been resolved, there is no knowing if all the high priority issues had been tackled. Significantly, the Gopalakrishnan report had noted serious deficiencies in the core cooling systems, the same problem that has made Fukushima a nightmare for the Japanese and the world.

But Thakur maintains there should be no worries on this score. Important modifications have been made to install passive heat exchanges systems that are not dependent on a power source or instrumentation systems to cool the reactors. In other words, unlike Daiichi where all three stages of the cooling system failed, NPCIL's plants will get a grace period.

"Safety is accorded highest priority. Tarapur 2 completed 590 days of continuous operation when it was shut down for refuelling on March 4, 2011. Such a performance is possible only with very high levels of safety," he declares.

It is likely that NPCIL has learned some lessons from its past slip-ups, the most serious of which was the 1993 fire in Narora Unit-1 which brought the reactor core very close to a partial meltdown.

But what India is not geared for is the kind of seamless operation to protect citizens that was evident in Fukushima. Not only did the authorities evacuate 200,000 people in a 20 km radius of the stricken reactors, they also had them tested for radioactivity and isolated in case of exposure.

Close calls

March 1993: Fire in Narora Atomic Power Station brought reactor core very close to partial fuel meltdown. Inclusion of a fourth level of safety protection saved the day. Similar fires had occurred in Rawatbhata and Kakrapar plants. The 1993 fire occurred when two steam turbine blades broke. The blade fault had been detected by turbine designer GEC of the UK, which had given revised bladedesign to the Indian manufacturer who, in turn, prepared drawings for new blades. DAE did nothing.

May 1994: The Kaiga project was delayed because the containment dome collapsed during construction owing to design deficiencies and lack of quality control. AERB had ordered stress tests in each reactor before start-up and complete simulator installation for operator training. The conditions were not met.

June 1994: Floodwater entered the condenser pit and the turbine building basements in theKakrapar reactor in absence of sealing arrangements. Similar flooding had occurred twice at other stations.


Is India ready for a Japan-like catastrophe?

Image: he Fukushima nuclear plant in Fukushima prefecture in northeastern Japan is pictured in a 2008 file photo
Ruhi Kandhari

India is constructing six nuclear power plants two each at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu, Kakrapar in Gujarat, and Rawatbhata in Rajasthan. Together, they will generate 4,800 MWe of power, states the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board's website. This is a big leap towards enhancing the country's nuclear stature. But is the country equipped to face a nuclear radiation disaster?

To manage nuclear and radiological emergencies the National Disaster Management Authority(NDMA) framed guidelines that were notified in February 2009. The guidelines mention a thorough "gap analysis" in management plans.

A vital gap is lack of resources for disaster response. For instance, to evacuate people from affected areas district authorities need adequate vehicles, shelters, monitoring instruments and personal protective gear. A very small percentage of these are available, the guidelines state.

"To handle any nuclear or radiological emergency, the foremost requirement is availability of instruments for radiation detection and monitoring," it says. It also mentions that the 18 emergency response centres established by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) are inadequate.

There is not much by way of medical preparedness. Timely and effective medical response is important to minimise deaths and also alleviate the fear and sufferings of

those affected. But since there are very few radiation-related incidents, doctors who can treat them are only a few.

"NDMA has asked state governments and medical colleges to offer such courses. At present, only very few doctors can handle radiation sickness," says B Bhattacharjee, member, National disaster Management Authority and former director of BARC. "India has a long way to go in nuclear disaster preparedness," he adds.

The guidelines also point out that there is an "urgent need" to strengthen there regulatory and security aspects of radioactive material. Apart from nuclear power reactors, radioactive material is used in research, medicine, agriculture and industries. Such use can cause disaster.

"While using radioactive material in areas other than nuclear power reactors, chances of a disaster are minute, but not zero," says M C Abani, nuclear specialist, NDMA.

This is the reason every state must be prepared for a disaster. "When radioactive material was found in a scrap market in Delhi's Mayapuri area, lack of preparedness led to panic and death of one person," says Abani.

When faced with natural disasters Medical preparedness, evacuation plan and resources are crucial requirements to contain the impacts of not just nuclear but all kinds of natural disasters. But nothing much has been initiated in this direction.

Natural and manmade disasters have killed innumerable people in independent India. Thousands have lost their families and homes.

But formulation of a sound plan to manage disasters has never been a priority for the government. Preparedness and mitigation of disaster remains mostly on paper, says a senior official at the NDMA who did not want to be named. After a super cyclone hit Odisha on October 29, 1999, the government asked a high-powered committee to review existing arrangements for preparedness and mitigation of natural disasters.

The day India was celebrating its 51st Republic Day, Gujarat witnessed an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale. It killed 20,000 people. This elicited a chapter on disaster management in the 10th five-year plan. Then again, an undersea mega-thrust earthquake in 2004 triggered a series of tsunamis killing over 200,000 people in the eastern coast of south India. The Central government promptly formed the Disaster Management Act in 2005. But more needs to be done.

A detailed micro-level action plan needs to be formed for help to reach the site of disaster on time. Government created disaster management authorities at national, state and district levels NDMA, State Disaster Management Authority and District Disaster Management Authority.

But as many as 11 states, including Chhattisgarh, Haryana,Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, have still not constituted them. Those that did, cared little to make them functional. Similarly, very few DDMAs have been constituted yet.

These authorities are required to make plans that can work as the "basis to mitigate any disaster in India. They also detail the vulnerability of areas to different forms of disasters, and define roles and responsibilities of departments in the state government," says Santosh Kumar, professor at the National Institute of Disaster Management, Delhi.

"States that suffered disasters, like Odisha, Gujarat and Bihar, have readied some action plan. Rest even the most vulnerable ones are unprepared," says the NDMA official.

Recognising the negligible preparedness, NDMA tied up with the United Nations Development Programme to form disaster management systems at state and district levels. The strategy paper for the UNDP project states: "SDMAs, despite beingthe most important policy making bodies, do not have adequate technical assistance and human resources."

"Disaster management plans should be made after assessing a state's vulnerability," NDMA's guidelines state. An important tool to understand disasters is the Hazard Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (HRVA). It is important for policy makers and administrators for making crucial decisions.

But a technical consultant on emergencies with the NDMA says, "Most of the government's plans are shoddy as they are not based on detailed analyses such as HRVA. State governments shy away from carrying out HRVA because it is an expensive study".

Till date, only Gujarat has undertaken HRVA before formulating its disaster management plan. It has prepared a composite risk atlas for the state. The Delhi government invited consultants to carry out HRVA in July 2008, but has made no progress on it.

The country's preparedness for disasters can be gauged from the mock drills conducted from time to time. A deputy superintendent of police was killed in a mock drill conducted by the NDMA in Kerala in January this year.

"Drills are conducted not to make people aware of the hazards and learn how to react. They are just false alarms that only create panic," says a disaster emergency expert. In December 2006, a participant in a mock drill in Delhi was crushed under a fire tender. "If adeath can happen in a mock drill, one can well imagine the situation of an actual emergency," he adds.

Japan's nuclear liability law makes the operator of nuclear facilities entirely responsible for the damage caused in the event of a disaster. However, if the accident is caused by natural disasters like tsunami, it is the Japanese government's responsibility to pay for it. This clause has cleared the Tokyo Electric Power Company of all liabilities in case of the Fukushima power plant. In India, liability of a nuclear radiation disaster due to natural calamity lies with the Central government.

The incident in Japan has now triggered concerns over India's nuclear liability law that was passed by Parliament in 2010. An important exemption has been awarded to operators under the Act. "It implies that in the unfortunate event of a natural disaster leading to a nuclear incident in India, government, and not the operator of the plant, would be liable to pay compensation," says public interest lawyer Rajeev Dhawan.


Home truths: Buildings in India rarely follow quake codes

Image: Evacuated employees are pictured near toppled tanks a brewery in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture
Photographs: Kyodo/Reuters Arun Bhandari

About a week after the Tohoku quake rocked Japan, India's Ministry of Home Affairs issued letters to all states reminding them to follow the National Building Code that details the construction of earthquake-resistant buildings.

Although the subsequent tsunami caused severe damage and killed thousands of people in the densely populated northern Japan, the damage to buildings from earthquakes was limited.

The island nation faces frequent earthquakes and has some of the world's most stringent construction codes so strict that builders find it challenging to meet the standards. Most guidelines came into being following the 1995 Kobe earthquake in which 6,500 people were killed due to building collapse.

India also has standards and regulations in place to ensure that buildings in seismic zones remain safe. Almost 57 per cent of the country falls under high seismic zone. But Arun Bapat, seismologist in Pune, says very few buildings in the country comply with the Indian Standard Code of NBC that lays out guidelines for quake-resistant buildings.

Delhi, for instance, faces major risks as it falls under seismic zone IV the maximum is V and has one of the highest urban densities in the country. But it seems the government is yet to take the threat seriously, Bapat adds.

There is no check on high-rise buildings in Delhi and nearby regions. A major quake in the Himachal-Uttarakhand region can cause considerable damage to buildings over 17 metres tall in Delhi, he warns.

Studies show Delhi may face earthquakes of magnitude 6.5 or more in the next 50 years. But hardly any building in the region is ready to face the disaster; their design or materials used do not comply with the IS Code, Bapat says.

A study by the Building Materials and Technology Promotion Council in New Delhi also shows that non-engineered buildings and poor construction materials are major causes of building collapse. Hence the design and quality of construction material should be of concern while constructing quake-resistant structures, the study cautions.

"Usually, government buildings comply with IS Code but private builders fail to do so," says A K Jain, former planning commissioner at Delhi Development Authority. The architects' and builders' lobby is busy getting occupancy certificate without paying due consideration to the building design and construction.

So there are casualty risks, Jain says. Communities should be made aware about building safety standards and there should be strict regulatory check on construction practices, he adds.

Even if IS code is followed, Bapat thinks, the existing guidelines are inadequate to safeguard against major earthquakes. During a tremor, there is sudden horizontal and vertical movement of the ground.

While existing guidelines safeguard against vertical jerking of a building, horizontal movement of earth can cause a ripple of one building collapsing over the other. Bapat calls for introducing surface wave mitigation guidelines in the IS Code and making the IS code mandatory in the building completion certificate to survive a Tohoku-like quake in India.

For quake-resistance

Principles as per the Indian Standard 1893 of the National Building Code

* Tall overhead tanks and heavy reinforced concrete slanting roof be avoided. Use light-weight and prefabricated building materials

* Openings be properly designed to balance brick and concrete load

* Keep the plan symmetric, possibly rectangular to avoid deformation

* Avoid long cantiliver, heavy suspended parts inside buildings

* Have stable foundation, ductile structure through adequate use of steel in column and beam

* Keep gaps near joints

* Ask for more safety measures if house is in seismic zone II, III, IV or V