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    South Asia
     Mar 17, 2011

Japan's nuclear disaster spooks India
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE - The nuclear disaster looming at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan in the wake of Friday's devastating earthquake and tsunami has sparked debate over the safety of India's nuclear drive. While the government has gone into overdrive to allay public apprehensions over the safety of Indian reactors, several experts and activists remain unconvinced.

India has seven nuclear plants with 20 nuclear reactors. These are located at Kaiga in Karnatakal; Kalpakkam and Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu; Tarapur in Maharashtra; Kakrapur in Gujarat; Narora in Uttar Pradesh; and Rawatbhatta in Rajasthan. Like the Fukushima plant, several Indian plants sit on the coast.

Several of the top brass of India's nuclear establishment have come out in defense of the nuclear reactors. "All our plants have been tested to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis. Our plants

are safe," declared Srikumar Banerjee, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

Seeking to reassure the country, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told parliament on Monday that an "immediate technical review of all safety systems in nuclear power plants" would be carried out to ensure that they would be able to "withstand the impact of large natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes".

Nuclear experts are underlining that the type of reactors in India and Japan and the environment in which they operate are different; hence similar scenarios are unlikely.

Unlike Japan's nuclear plants which are located in highly seismic areas (Fukushima is located in Zone 5) most of India's nuclear plants are situated in the moderately seismic Zone 3. The Narora plant is the only one located in Zone 4. Officials rule out the possibility of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake striking Indian nuclear plants since none of them are located in the highly seismic Himalayan region.

Besides, Indian nuclear plant structures, systems and equipment are designed to withstand the maximum possible earthquake at their location, says Shashikant Dharne, joint director at the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC).

Indeed quakes and tsunamis have done little damage to nuclear reactors in India. The Narora plant has not been damaged in the several tremors it has experienced in the past 21 years it has been in operation, including one of 6.3 magnitude.

When an earthquake of 6.7 magnitude hit Gujarat in 2001, operations at the Kakrapur plant went on uninterrupted. When the 2004 tsunami battered the Tamil Nadu coast, the Kalpakkam nuclear power plant's grounds were flooded, and the reactor went through an automatic shutdown process and did not operate for a few days. According to P K Iyengar, former chairman of the AEC, the decision to install its electrical systems 17 meters above the ground, prevented damage to the reactor.

"Indian reactors are inherently safer as they use natural uranium as fuel as against enriched uranium that the Japanese reactors use," says Pallava Bagla, a science journalist with NDTV. They also "use a double containment as against the single containment used in Japan". Besides, the reactor design "allows for cooling using convection currents even in a state of station blackout - when all power and backups fail," points out Om Pal Singh, an expert on nuclear design safety at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur.

Officials point out that 18 of India's 20 reactors are indigenously built, pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs) and only two - those at Tarapur - use boiling water reactors (BWRs) as did those in Fukushima. They admit that like the facility at Fukushima, the Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS) is an old plant. But TAPS was renovated and additional safety features consistent with latest safety standards were added, they argue.

Not everyone is convinced of the safety of India's nuclear reactors or of the country's preparedness to respond to a nuclear disaster.

Many fear that if Japan - a country known for its quiet efficiency and discipline as well as its immense expertise in earthquake and tsunami-resistant design - has not been able to prevent explosions in its nuclear facilities, there is little chance that India, which is notorious for its chaos and the low priority it accords to public safety, will be in a position to do so.

"We are most disorganized and unprepared to handle emergencies of any kind of even much less severity," A Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) told Asia Times Online. "The AERB's disaster preparedness oversight is mostly on paper and the drills they conduct once in a while are half-hearted efforts, which are a sham," he said.

India's nuclear top brass insist that safety audits of nuclear plants are taken seriously in the country. Nuclear plants need clearance from the AERB every five years and safety audits are mandatory for relicensing, Nuclear Power Corporation of India, Ltd (NPCIL) chairperson S K Jain told the media in the wake of the disaster in Japan.

However, a mandatory safety audit alone does not make reactors safe. Who conducts the audit is important. And in India, the body that does the audit is not autonomous. The AERB draws its personnel from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and reports to the AEC.

It "merely serves as a lapdog of the DAE and the Prime Minister's Office. With a captive AERB reporting to the DAE, overall nuclear safety management in India has been rendered worthless," Gopalakrishnan pointed out.

"The earthquake-resistant designs and tsunami abatement measures adopted in India's nuclear plants need a high-level, in-depth review by an independent expert group, consisting of experts outside of the DAE and the NPCIL," he said. "But there is practically no independent verification of data or design methodologies."

"This is no way to run a critical safety regulatory function," writes activist Prabir Purkayastha, describing the lack of a separation in the regulatory and operational functions in nuclear energy as the "single-biggest obstacle for a safe nuclear energy program in the country".

A culture of opacity surrounds India's nuclear establishment. It is not just the nuclear weapons program that is shrouded in secrecy. Little is known about the civilian nuclear program and the functioning of bodies like the AEC and the AERB. In the circumstances, the veracity of audits is hard to accept.

"Audits conducted in the past did reveal loopholes in safety measures at nuclear reactors but these findings were never made public," a senior official at the Kaiga nuclear plant told Asia Times. "Worse, there was little follow-up action."

Activists say they are not expecting anything to come of the prime minister's promised audit of nuclear reactors. "We can already predict the report - all we need to do is to listen what the nuclear establishment has been saying for the last few days and we will know what the report is likely to say," observes Purkayastha.

The explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant have revived opposition to the proposed nuclear plant - the world's largest - at Jaitapur in Maharashtra's Konkan region. While Jaitapur's proponents say it is in a seismically safe area - it is in Zone 3 - activists point out that it is located in a region that has been hit by three severe earthquakes of a magnitude exceeding 5 points over the past two decades, including one in 1993 that left almost 10,000 people dead.

Questions have also been raised over the safety of Jaitapur's reactors. India plans to purchase six European Power Reactors (EPRs) from the French company Areva for Jaitapur. The EPR is of unproven design and the first unit has already run into trouble with British and Finnish nuclear regulators drawing attention to serious design deficiencies in its control and safety systems.

Given that India built on its own 18 PHWRs, three generations of Indian engineers and scientists are familiar with PHWR technology. "The safest route is to consolidate and expand on our PHWR experience, import natural uranium and build more PHWRs," Gopalakrishnan said. Instead the government is purchasing French EPRs in Jaitapur, of which neither Indians nor the French, know much about.

"If a major accident occurs in a PHWR, we have Indian engineers and scientists who are totally familiar with the technology, who can jump in and rapidly bring the situation to normal. For Indian engineering teams to react in a similar timely and effective manner against an accident in one of the planned imported reactors will be next to impossible for at least few decades to come," Gopalakrishnan said.

In the next few years, India plans to spend billions of dollars on importing reactors. The explosions at Fukushima may compel the government to believe that this might not be the safest option.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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