Leak In Kakrapar Nuclear Plant: Can We Rely On Official Assurances?

Image: DNA

On the morning of Friday the March11, 2016, the fifth anniversary of the nuclear accident in Fukushima, the Unit-1 of the the Kakrapar nuclear power plant in Gujarat underwent a serious accident. All we know through the media, based on the press statement issued by the plant operatror, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), is that there was a leak in the Primary Heat Transport System (PHTS) of the reactor. The initial statement from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), responsible for monitoring and regulating nuclear safety in India, also assured the public that there is no release of radiation.
Complete secrecy enhances the danger, reduces public confidence
Since Friday, there are no new communique's from the authorities. The radiation measurements inside and outside the reactor have not been made public, the condition (health) of the workers who were exposed to the heavy water leak and taken to the clinic inside the plant, as the media reports suggested, is also not known. The mainstream media has not bothered to ask further questions.
As eminent nuclear physicist Dr. Surendra Gadekar, who is based near the Kakrapar reactor in Surat district and has closely watched the several accidents that the plant has undergone since its commissioning in 1993 suggests, directly leaking the story to the media about the mishap might have been the NPCIL's way to pre-empt any further questions and/or criticism.
In standard practices followed all over the world, the plant operator should have taken the local district administration into confidence, put in place a system of relaying every single update and information, to avoid panic and speculation and to ensure safe evacuation if necessary.
An on-site emergency on the plant was announced only on the late evening on Friday, which itself raises many questions. Speaking to this author, Manoj Mishra, who was a worker in the plant and blew the whistle in 1994 when the same reactor underwent a serious accient after being flooded, said that it was only after the workers, a local contractor and people around the plant started talking about the accident by the afternoon of Friday, that the NPCIL issued the press statement and admitted there was an emergency.
The Indian nuclear establishment operates in complete insulation from any public scrutiny. The 1962 Atomic Energy Act gives it the right to reject any questioning citing 'national security' reasons. It has been a long-standing demand from citizens groups' (with an understanding of issues relating to atomic and nuclear energy) that the Department of Atomic Energy must be more open about its civilian reactors.
Former regulator raises alarm

The former chief of the AERB, Dr. A Gopalakrishnan, however, has spoken up and said that the reality of the accident in Kakrapar might be more serious than what the government is making publicly known. He has underlined that the NPCIL has not even been able to identify the exact source and location of the leak and on the basis of the publicly available facts, it is difficult to believe that the leak has not led to radiation release:
“…the DAE officials have no clue as to where exactly the PHT leak is located and how big is the rate of irradiated heavy water that is leaking into the reactor containment . However, some reports indicate that the containment has been vented to the atmosphere at least once , if not more times , which I suspect indicates a tendency for pressure build up in that closed space due to release of hot heavy water and steam into the containment housing . If this is true, the leak is not small , but moderately large , and still continuing. No one confirms that any one has entered the containment (in protective clothing) for a quick physical assessment of the situation, perhaps it is not safe to do so because of the high radiation fields inside . When NPCIL officials state that the reactor cooling is maintained , I believe what they may be doing is to allow the heavy water or light water stored in the emergency cooling tanks to run once-through the system and continue to pour through the leak into the containment floor through the break .

As Dr. Gopalakrishnan has argued in his statement, India urgently needs to put all plans to set up further nuclear plants on hold, as the country's nuclear regulator is not independent and efficient

All this points to the likelihood that what Kakrapar Unit-1 is undergoing is a small Loss-of-Coolant Accident (LOCA) that is in progress. It is most likely that one or more pressure tubes (PT) in the reactor (which contain the fuel bundles) have cracked open , leaking hot primary system heavy-water coolant into the containment housing . The reactor cooling is said to be maintained which , in view of the PT breach , can only be by supply of heavy water or light water from the storage tanks of the emergency cooling systems .
While it may perhaps ensure bulk coolant temperatures in the PHT system to be well under control , it could still mean fuel centreline temperatures in the channel which may have a breach could be quite high . The seriousness of the accident and the potential high risks to the plant and personnel in the near vicinity are yet to be assessed , because NPCIL and AERB do not yet know where the location of the leak is or how to initiate actions to stop it. ” (Read Dr. Gopalakrishnan's full statement here) 

 Even the current AERB Chief has admitted that “the magnitude of the coolant system failure is significant.
Heavy water leaks are not new for the Indian reactors. Indian nuclear plants use heavy water as coolant and there are been leaks in most plants in India. And as the eminent nuclear physicist in Princeton University Dr. M V Ramana suggests, over a period of time, the heavy water becomes radioactive because some of the heavy hydrogen absorbs neutrons to become tritium.
What does a Loss-Of-Coolant-Accident (LOCA) mean?
A substantial loss of coolant is the maximum/most serious situation that a nuclear plant can face. This might lead to meltdown, as it happened in Fukushima where the coolant system was crippled by massive earthquake and tsunami. The reasons to trigger a disruption of cooling for an atomic plant can be anything from a natural calamity to human error. But once the crucial cooling for the reactor core – where nuclear fission takes place at extremely high temperatures – stops, what follows is a nightmarish scenario.
An instructive case is the ongoing accident in Fukushima where horror continues to unfold even after five years. The molten fuel – extremely hot and highly radioactive – is still lying in the three reactors. When the Japanese government says the situation is “under control”, what it means is that the plant operator is blindly pumping thousands of litres of water into the reactor building on a daily basis to keep it cool.
The reactors release around 100 tonnes of highly toxic residual water every day. Since March 2011, this water is being stored in huge tanks which have occupied the entire area near the plant. Most of these tanks are now leaking, and the Tokyo Electric Power Company is often found stealthily passing contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. Tonnes of spent fuel lying atop these damaged reactors are still being taken out.
Nuclear Accidents: The Damage Is Irreversible

The 20-km area surrounding the crippled power plant in Fukushima remains devoid of inhabitants since people were evacuated after the accident. The area will likely be uninhabitable for centuries, much like the 30-km zone around Chernobyl which is still out of human reach 30 years after the accident.
The evacuation zone around Fukushima has several cities, now turned completely into ghost towns. There are schools, offices, shops and houses, but no human beings. More than nine million bags of highly contaminated radioactive waste are lying around at 1,14,700 interim storage sites in Fukushima, with no disposal plan in sight.
Close to two lakh people from the area continue to live in temporary housings. TEPCO and the government have been found using every possible trick to minimise the number of people entitled to compensation. Their lives remain shattered, livelihoods lost, and they are even facing social ostracism as there is a real risk of them contracting radiation-borne diseases even after several years. There is documented proof that this constant fear has psychologically affected Fukushima residents.
The Fukushima accident has also exposed the nexus of corporates, media and politics in Japan. The façade of a happy life with nuclear energy, built carefully by the authorities and making the local community dependent on the nuclear power company for jobs and civic facilities, has a notorious name in Japan – "nuclear village".
The track record of India's nuclear power program when it comes to safety, has been far from satisfactory, despite the tall claims of the nuclear establishment.
We need a moratorium
As Dr. Gopalakrishnan has argued in his statement, India urgently needs to put all plans to set up further nuclear plants on hold, as the country's nuclear regulator is not independent and efficient.  The nuclear suppliers are making every effort to ensure that they don't pay any liability in case of future accidents.Here is a detailed article that I wrote on the last anniversary of Bhopal, explaining why India is grossly unprepared for a nuclear accident.

On Kakrapar, we must ask the government of India to be transparent. When the Fukushima accident took place, India was the first country to declare the Fukushima reactors safe, even before the Japanese government. Even as the situation at the nuclear site took a turn for the worse on March 14, the chief of India’s nuclear establishment claimed in a press conference that no nuclear accident had occurred. We cannot rely on such false assurances in Kakrapar.

The author's article on Fukushima anniversary that appeared in Scroll 
 (The author is Senior Researcher, Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, CNDP)



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