Expressing doubts over the ongoing operational safety review by an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team at Rawatbhata Atomic Power Station in Rajasthan, anti-nuclear activists here have demanded “transparent and independent” inspection which can address the issues of vulnerability, unaccountability and secrecy plaguing the Indian nuclear industry.
Activists said at a Press conference here over the weekend that they had received information about the 12-member IAEA team raising serious safety issues, particularly non-availability of crucial auxiliary generators and use of obsolete equipment in the health physics unit to check radiation exposure to workers in the reactors. The team’s final report is not likely to be made public.
Those who addressed the Press conference included senior journalist Praful Bidwai, who writes on environmental and nuclear issues, scientist Sowmya Dutta, activist Kumar Sundaram and People’s Union for Civil Liberties general secretary Kavita Srivastava. The PUCL and the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament & Peace (CNDP) jointly organised the Press meet.
Raising the larger issues of nuclear safety vulnerabilities and lack of independent regulation of atomic power production in the country, the activists said the first-of-its-kind inspection must look into the tritium leak at Rawatbhata earlier this year, high occurrence of diseases in the power plant’s vicinity and lack of published data about radiation releases.
Mr. Bidwai pointed out that the IAEA team is visiting the Rawatbhata plant’s Units 3 and 4, whereas the tritium leaks took place in Unit 5 in June this year, in which 34 casual workers were exposed to high doses of tritium: “These casual workers, not given any health benefits, are the most vulnerable part of the nuclear industry.”
Independent observers have documented the facts about the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) seniors forcing the workers to operate in unsafe zones and intimidating them to hide radiation exposures from the media and the society at large, said the activists.
“In Rawatbhata, we have come to know that the contractual workers have been asked to take leave for next 15 days or work only in night shifts until the IAEA team is there. The Rawatbhata contractual workers have been struggling for [proper] wages, health benefits and independent radiation check-ups,” said Ms. Srivastava. Rawatbhata is situated in Chittorgarh district, 322 km from here.
Noted experts Sanghamitra Gadekar and Surendra Gadekar have carried out an independent health survey around Rawatbhata reactors revealing high occurrence of cancer, leukaemia and other diseases. “This study was published in a reputed and peer-reviewed medical journal but the NPCIL has callously ignored it,” said a statement issued by activists.
Besides, the Union Government has not done any independent safety review of its atomic power facilities after the nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan following the massive earthquake and tsunami on March 11 last year. Concerns have been expressed at the top level about the safety of nuclear plants in the country in the wake of the damage caused in Fukushima.
The NPCIL hastily carried out an internal safety review last year within three months and gave a “clean chit to itself”, alleged the activists. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), which has no independence and is due to be replaced by a new regulatory body currently under discussion in Parliament, has in the meanwhile given only very general recommendations on safety, they said.
Calling for a thorough safety review under independent experts, the activists requested the IAEA team to ask for a moratorium on new constructions and commissioning of nuclear reactors until such an independent review takes place. They said the people at the grassroots have raised serious safety issues in Koodankulam, Jaitapur, Mithivirdi, Chutka, Fatehabad, Kovvada, etc., where intense mass struggles are under way to oppose nuclear projects.
Rawatbhata atomic power station spokesperson D. Chanda, contacted by The Hindu , denied all the allegations and said the IAEA team, comprising experts from eight countries, was working in an “absolutely independent” manner and would submit its report to the international body which would share it with the NPCIL.
“The people who are out to defame the nuclear regulatory institutions are probably unaware that the IAEA mission is visiting India on the Union Government’s request. This is not a suo motu inspection. It will [just] look into our proven good practices and our adherence to safety standards,” said Mr. Chanda, adding that the plant is working within the limits laid down for it.
The IAEA team, comprising experts from the nuclear power plants of Canada, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Sweden, will stay at Rawatbhata till November 15. The experts have conducted plant tours and interacted with the personnel.
However, activists said the nuclear industry in India does not publish data about radiation releases in its nuclear facilities, nor does it carry out any periodic health survey of the population around its facilities. Despite the Government officially asking people living near Hyderabad’s Nuclear Fuel Complex not to drink ground water, no proper mechanism to ensure transparency on radiation health has been put in place and the establishment lives in complete denial of health hazards caused by radiation.
The Rawatbhata atomic power station — comprising eight units, including two units of 700 MW each under construction — is at present generating 1,140 MW power. The two units selected for the IAEA mission had earlier undergone peer review by the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) in 2003 and 2009.