Koodankulam project buried under a heap of lies


Reactor buildings at the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project site in Tamil Nadu

By Sam Rajappa

V. S. Naipaul in his Area of Darkness observed: "No civilization was so little equipped to cope with the outside world, no country was so easily raided and plundered, and learned so little from its disasters." In the year 1988, nuclear regulatory bodies of countries operating Soviet Union-built VVER nuclear power plants found the need to fit many new safety systems in almost all areas.  Convinced that upgrading to the new safety standards would render the plants uncompetitive, the manufacturers abandoned the idea. Unmindful of its poor safety standards, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi entered into an agreement with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov for two VVER power units of 1,000 MW each in the autumn of 1989.  It was touted as a real bargain India had struck.  With the fall of the Soviet Union and reunification of Germany, all VVER reactors in East Germany, Greifswald units 1 to 5, were shut down as they were not compliant with the stricter West German safety standards.  Unit 6 of Greifswald, which was completed by then, was never operated, and work on units 7 and 8 of Greifswald which were under different stages of completion, was stopped. Russia never fulfilled its promise of securing the British and the US regulatory authorities’ certification for the VVER reactors.

Erstwhile East Germany was not the only country to give up VVER reactors. Russia itself suspended construction of units 5 and 6 of the Balakovo nuclear power plant.  It shut down units 1 and 2 of the Novovoronezh plant and modernised the third unit. Iran cancelled the fourth unit of the Bushehr plant.  Bulgaria decommissioned all six units of the Kozloduy plant. In Finland, where two VVER units were being planned at Loviisa, the containment structures were changed completely. Slovakia suspended construction of units 3 and 4 of the Mochovec project. Hungary, which contracted for four VVER units for its Paks plant, cancelled two. Ukraine cancelled units 5 and 6 of the Rivne plant and unit 6 of the South Ukraine nuclear power plant.

China, where Russia installed two 1,000 MW VVER reactors at the Tianwan nuclear power plant, raised more than 3,000 queries and made the suppliers improve incrementally without altering the basic design of the units. The reactors are housed in a confinement shell capable of withstanding a hit by an aircraft weighing 20 tonnes. Other important safety features include an emergency core cooling system and core confinement system. While the reactor and turbo-generators are of Russian design, the control room was designed and built by an international consortium, thereby making the Tianwan plant meet international safety standards. The plant has 94 per cent of its systems automated so that it can control itself under most situations.  Only five operators are needed in the control room.  The International Atomic Energy Agency has declared the Tianwan plant as the safest nuclear power plant in the world.

In contrast, Rosatam, the Russian nuclear energy corporation, through its subsidiary Atomstroyexport, procured crucial steam generators and equipment, safety systems and reactor parts from another government-owned machine building company called ZiO Podolsk for the Koodankulam and similar plants being set up in other countries. In February 2012, Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, successor to KGB, arrested Sergei Shutov, procurement director of Zio Podolsk, on charges of corruption and fraud, and sourcing sub-standard steel blankets from Ukraine instead of the prescribed quality steel.  On 17 July  2011, the containment building of the Leningrad NPP-2 reactor that was under construction collapsed exposing the crumbling of steel structures supplied by ZiO Podolsk. There could be a large number of equipment, components and materials, besides the ones which failed during the pre-commissioning tests in Koodankulam, whose deficiencies and defects are dormant today, but could cause catastrophic failure when the reactor is operated for some time under high temperature, pressure, high neutron irradiation and thermal stress. Such materials could have been installed within the pressure vessel itself which is now closed and sealed in preparation for the reactor start-up. Once the reactor is made critical, that is nuclear reactions are initiated, and taken up gradually to generate power, these components and materials will become highly radioactive in an environment where they cannot be tested for quality or performance or even become inaccessible for close visual examination. ZiO Podolsk claimed in a statement, "Our Indian partners (NPCIL) have not raised any question about the quality of products supplied by us."

The People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy asked the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited for a list of equipment and parts supplied by ZiO Podolsk to the Koodankulam plant under RTI on 28 January this year. It replied tersely on 20 February, saying: "No information regarding any investigation against ZiO Podolsk is available to NPCIL." Corruption in any field is to be avoided, but when it involves the nuclear industry, the risks are high enough to result in another Fukushima. According to Russia’s official national daily, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, "In the past six months alone, removed from their posts on suspicion of corruption and other abuse were heads of 12 Rosatom enterprises." Against this background, India sent a delegation of the DAE, led by special secretary A Joshi, last summer.  After a visit to ZiO Podolsk’s machine building plant, Joshi observed on 24 July 2012: "Excellent presentation and representation of the plant, everything is wonderful.  We really liked what we saw." This was five months after the arrest of Shutov charged with embezzlement of budget funds.

Total lack of transparency from which the nuclear establishment in India is suffering prevents the public from knowing the real story. Nuclear technology is the most dangerous means of producing energy with a serious potential for catastrophic accidents causing severe damage to life and property.  VVER reactors are relatively new and untested.  The reactor manufacturer in Russia has consistently opposed even minimum liability in case of an accident due to manufacturing defect. Koodankulam is India’s first 1000 MW nuclear reactor and we do not have the experience to handle such a mega plant.  Units 1 and 2 with a combined installed capacity of 2000 MW represent about 40 per cent of the capacity of all existing nuclear power plants in the country and call for the highest level of safety and security.  These 100 per cent imported reactors are also the country’s first pressurised light water reactors.  Our nuclear scientists and engineers have expertise and experience in Boiling Water Reactors and Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors which have completely different design, safety and fuel features and response to meet accidents.

The International Convention on Nuclear Safety, which India has ratified, mandates that "each contracting party shall take appropriate steps to ensure an effective separation between the functions of the regulatory body and those of any other body concerned with the promotion or utilisation of nuclear energy." AERB is not an independent entity.  It acts as a rubber-stamp of the Atomic Energy Commission, chaired by the secretary of the DAE. It is subservient to those whom it is required to regulate and control in the interest of public safety. In Koodankulam, the AERB has demonstrated its subservience by allowing the NPCL to go ahead with fuel loading without implementing the 17 safety measures recommended by the post-Fukushima task force appointed by the Government of India. The captive AERB makes the overall safety management of atomic energy in the country a complete farce. (The Statesman/ANN)


The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of The Statesman Print Journalism School

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...