Using a PR campaign to fix safety problems
The Indian government’s confidential plans for responding to public anxieties about the Kudankulam reactors and others like them were put into motion shortly after an earthquake triggered a tsunami off the coast of Japan in March 2011, causing three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to melt down.
Within six weeks, the office of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent a series of memos containing key elements of a new public relations campaign to the key organizations pushing the Kudankulam project forward: the Atomic Energy Commission, which governs the Department of Atomic Energy that oversees training and research for both the civilian and military sector, and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd., which supervises the construction and operation of reactors. Inspectors in charge of safety and security at the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, supposedly an independent organization, received the same memorandums.
Officials were tasked with contacting journalists on an annotated list that described their politics, religion and affiliations, as well as their pliability, according to a copy of the messages obtained by the Center for Public Integrity from a former government official. These reporters and commentators were to be paid — out of the national coffers — to write and broadcast about the Indian civil nuclear sector’s culture of “unparalleled watchfulness,” a message dated July 2011 from the Department of Atomic Energy Secretariat, Anushakti Bhavan, Delhi, to the Principal Secretary for the Prime Minister, stated. It said the payments would be in exchange for accounts depicting India’s safety record as second to none and highlighting “the natural catastrophe that occurred in Japan,” rather than the underlying human failings and technological mistakes.
The Center could find no evidence that such payments were made, however, and India’s official spokesman at the Ministry of External Affairs, Vikas Swarup, declined any comment about them.
One of the memos suggested executives and scientists should “emphasize India’s resilience as compared to Japan,” and note that in India there had been “no Three Mile Island or Windscale,” referring to the 1979 meltdown of a reactor in Pennsylvania and a catastrophic fire at a British reactor in 1957. The Indian system was underpinned by “rigorous oversight,” another of the memos stated, according to copies seen by the Center. Critics should be described as “anti-national,” as Western nations “prompted agitation” inside the country to suit their own “economic and strategic objectives.” These hostile Western nations could also be referred to as “neo-colonial,” it said.
Srikumar Banerjee, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, subsequently appeared on channel NDTV in 2012 to say that “Kudankulam has one of the world’s safest nuclear reactors.” S.K. Jain, chief managing director at the state-owned nuclear corporation, reframed what happened at Fukushima. “There is no nuclear accident or incident,” he said, even as the situation was unfolding. “[Fukushima] is a well-planned emergency preparedness program … to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automated shutdown following a major earthquake.” He similarly emphasized there were “zero casualties.”
But Udayakumar and other residents described the official responses as “glib and misleading.” “No one died in Japan,” Udayakumar said, but a World Health Organization report that “everyone [here] read” predicted that girls living in areas worst affected had a 70% higher risk of developing thyroid cancer. If nuclear chiefs wanted ordinary people to feel reassured, he argued, they should openly discuss preparedness for a disaster like Fukushima, and conduct training workshops.
But the government’s detailed safety analyses have been kept secret. The plant operators argued they were commercially sensitive documents, explaining that their Russian partners demanded confidentiality. During a test run of the reactor in July 2011, the authorities instead published public service advertisements in local newspapers suggesting that villagers “cover their nose and mouth, after closing doors and windows, in case of a radioactive release,” according to a copy seen by the Center. A health ministry official conceded at a parliamentary hearing in 2010 that India was “nowhere” on the path to dealing with “nuclear and radiological emergencies” and that lack of preparedness at hospitals and other response systems would only ensure that “mortality and morbidity … could be on a very high scale.”
Facing increasingly volatile demonstrations, and pressure from right-to-information laws, the government finally released a 12-page summary of the atomic park’s emergency and security plan, which stated that at least three routes existed for possible evacuation, and that schools and other public structures had been designated as temporary shelters. It failed to mention, however, that one million people live within a 20 miles radius of the reactor, and did not explain how many shelters had been allocated for these residents.
There likewise was no mention that many of roads that evacuees would have to travel down were still hewn from mud, making them impassable after a downpour. There was no reference to the 30,000 people living within three miles of the plant, thousands of them within a zone that supposedly has been cleared, as safety laws requested. And it gave no indication that officials have yet to set aside any boats for a potential seaside evacuation of these villagers, as the state government confirmed to the Center, even though this method has been referred to in the plan as “preferential.”
Under a subheading, “Tsunami,” the document states: “Not significant.” Referring to seismic activity, it concludes: “No active fault within 5km.” But M.V. Ramana, a physicist at Princeton University’s Nuclear Futures Laboratory, said these conclusions reminded him of an assertion by the atomic energy department in 1986 that tsunamis did not occur in India. That was eighteen years before a tsunami, triggered by an earthquake, devastated India’s southern coast, killing an estimated 18,000 people and displacing another 600,000 while inundating homes in Idinthakarai village, twenty minutes from the new atomic park. Three miles of coastline to the west of Kudankulam were smashed by waves as high as 31 feet.
Villagers were also alarmed by disclosures of construction flaws at the plant, where operators repeatedly missed construction and budgetary deadlines. Soon after the double containment domes topping the first reactor in Kudankulam were finished, for example, contractors were forced to crack them open so they could rethread power and control cables that somehow had been left out by Indian engineers. According to a 2010 report from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board prepared for the Atomic Energy Commission, seen by the Center, the initial build, especially the wiring, did not match the specifications sent from Russia. The nuclear corporation said Russian manuals for the reactor’s control system had been delivered late, and said the engineers had been forced to improvise, as they were “unfamiliar with the system they were dealing with.”
Russian engineers subsequently told the Indian regulator and plant operators in 2012, in a note dated September 16, and seen by the Center, that the repairs were so poor that “magnetic interference” now hampered critical safety equipment in the reactor, rendering it ineffective. The Indian regulator, department of atomic energy and spokesman at the Ministry of External Affairs declined to comment on these conclusions, or to say whether the faults were ever fixed.
Then, on May 21, 2013, the Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee announced that officials at ZiO-Podolsk, a subsidiary of Rosatom, a state nuclear corporation, had deliberately substituted cheap, substandard steel to fashion components for nuclear reactors sold to India, Korea, Bulgaria and China. The Chinese authorities had triggered the committee’s inquiry after engineers found more than 3,000 inferior components at its Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant, on the Yellow Sea, in Jiangsu.
Activists in Kudankulam demanded to know what engineers at the atomic plant knew, submitting a Right to Information (RTI) request. The plant operators initially responded by stating that they had “no information regarding any investigation against [the Russian supplier].”
However, one of the Russian investigators told the Center in an interview in January that Indian officials had travelled to Russia for a three-day trip in July 2012, five months after an executive in ZiOPodolsk had been arrested in connection with the fraud. During this visit, the Indian delegation was briefed on the official inquiry. A document later released under Indian RTI laws named the officials as “Special Secretary Mr. A. P. Joshi, Deputy Secretary Mr. Ninian Kumar and the Manager of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Mr. Dzhogesh Pady,” confirming the account given by Russian investigators. According to an official on the Russian inquiry team, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the issue, Russian investigators “felt certain” that those under arrest in Russia had “Indian accomplices” who “were paid to conceal complaints on component failures.”
The Center put these allegations to plant operators, the Department of Atomic Energy and to the official government spokesman, but all declined to comment.
In January 2013, an internal Indian nuclear corporation report, seen by the Center, acknowledged that “engineers are still reviewing thousands of the components” sent by ZiO-Podolsk. But four months later, Nalinish Nagaich, the nuclear corporation’s executive director, claimed that only four faulty valves had been detected and replaced at the plant, according to media reports. Since then, and despite repeated requests for information by Indian scientists and local residents, the plant operators and their bosses at the Department of Atomic Energy have declined to talk about the investigation.
Warnings met by secrecy
A. Gopalakrishnan, a lanky, long-faced south Indian nuclear engineer, has spent his professional life posing awkward questions to industry colleagues, and as a result, he regards the problems at Kudankulam as systemic rather than isolated.
Educated in India, Gopal, as he is known, completed his doctorate at U.C.-Berkeley, before working on NASA projects and at the Argonne National Laboratory. He missed his homeland, however, and in 1976, two years after the Republic conducted its first nuclear tests, he returned to work on India’s covert civil and military nuclear program. He became chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board in 1993 and left his post in 1996 to embark on a teaching career, after warning his superiors, in a damning report, of 134 safety problems, some of them critical, at Indian nuclear installations, 95 of which were “top priority” — and some of which reached back to 1979 when they had been marked as requiring “urgent action.” His contract subsequently was not renewed, an unusual event. But he is still a powerful critic of India’s nuclear establishment and much-respected, remains close to his country’s nuclear researchers, engineers and scientists.
The construction problems at Kudankulam, he said in an interview in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, were “an astonishing if not disastrous miscalculation.” Reflecting on the wiring crisis that had knocked out safety systems, he said he worried that Indian technicians “will not hesitate from bending or breaking the rules to meet deadlines.” The subsequent scandal at the nuclear park involving ZiO-Podolsk was “the latest in a long line of crises that could have been learned from but instead have been buried.”
One of the first reactors Gopal comprehensively reviewed after becoming chairman of the regulatory board was at the Narora nuclear power station, 90 miles southeast of Delhi. There, on March 31, 1993, one of two Canadian-designed reactors began making rumbling noises. Seconds later, choking smoke clogged the control room, triggering panic, and the electricity failed. The reactor failed to shut down automatically, and when an engineer activated a manual override, he discovered its backup systems did not work.
R. Chidambaram, secretary to the Department of Atomic Energy that runs India’s nuclear project, told reporters that “there was no problem at Narora.” He added: “This kind of failure … has happened for the first time.” But Gopal learned that a turbine had lost some blades due to fatigue, and that the resulting shrapnel had clattered into others, rupturing a coolant pipe. The heating that followed sparked a fire fed by leaking lubricating oil, and flames chewed through four unshielded power cables, cutting off electricity, triggering the blackout. The electric cables were supposed to have been clad in fire-retardant insulation, a recommendation accepted globally after a blaze at the Brown’s Ferry nuclear reactor, on the Tennessee River in Alabama, in 1979. General Electric’s technicians had also warned manufacturers in India about the turbine blade flaws years earlier, with local supplier Bharat Heavy Electricals making drawings for new blades, designs that were rejected. A panel convened by the plant operator concluded, in a report submitted three months after the disaster, and seen by the Center, that a “catastrophic explosion and meltdown” had been narrowly avoided.
These were not isolated errors, according to a survey published in an academic journal in 2013. Conducted by M.V. Ramana, the Princeton physicist, and Carnegie Mellon mechanical engineer Ashwin Kumar, who analyzed data sent by India to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, they learned that a station known as RAPS 1, in the western desert state of Rajasthan, had been shut down twice in 1981 and once in 1982 because of vibrations caused by failing turbine blades — well before the Narora incident. Turbines at other reactors experienced vibrations from faulty blades, and in 1985, a reactor at a plant known as MAPS, 30km outside Chennai, India’s fifth largest city, was shut down repeatedly due to vibrations; it happened again in 1989 and 1990.
Then, on May 13, 1994, the inner containment dome at Kaiga nuclear power station, in the western state of Karnataka, crumbled, dropping 130 tons of concrete 90 feet. If the reactor’s control rods had been present they could have been destroyed, preventing the reactor from being regulated. It was the first incident of its kind anywhere in the world.
Gopal said his investigation showed the existence of a “corrupt nexus” of local builders and plant engineers that had used unsuitable materials to build the domes, without appropriate testing — a theme that would reoccur in Kudankulam in 2014. Gopal tried to establish a special inquiry into the causes but says he was discouraged from doing so.
A month later, in June 1994, the Kakrapar power station in India’s western state of Gujarat flooded when engineers opened a nearby dam after heavy monsoons. Although the nuclear corporation said that “nothing untoward happened,” Manoj Mishra, the head of a local trade union, said in an interview that managers had failed to install flood protection and that when it occurred his men watched as dozens of canisters of highly radioactive waste that were supposed to have been submerged in a pond floated away. No one would tell him how many canisters were missing.
Horrified, and ignored by his superiors, who had failed to notify the local authorities, as was required, Mishra wrote a letter revealing what had happened to the editor of the Gujarat Samachar, a large local newspaper, only for the corporation to fire him. Mishra fought the decision until 2013, when the Supreme Court finally dismissed his case. The court recognized that Mishra “can appropriately be described as a whistleblower for the system who has tried to highlight the malfunctioning of an important institution,” but added that, because he was “neither an engineer, nor an expert on the functioning of the Atomic Energy Plants,” the motive behind his revelations was not “in furtherance of public good.”
Ramana at Princeton was incredulous: “In what way is the education level of Manoj Mishra relevant to deciding if he was a whistleblower?” He added: “For Mishra to become an expert, he would necessarily have to have spent several years at the Department of Atomic Energy’s training school, during the course of which he would likely not just have learnt about nuclear reactor physics and engineering, but also become indoctrinated to trust authority and support … policies of secrecy unquestioningly.”
This troubling record on safety, oversight and accountability extends to facilities that support India’s nuclear weapons program. Gopal said he discovered during his tenure that the Dhruva reactor — which makes weapons-grade plutonium at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Trombay, a suburb of Mumbai — was allowed to run for almost one month with an emergency coolant valve fused shut. At the nearby CIRUS research reactor, which produced India’s weapons-grade plutonium for the country’s first nuclear explosion in 1974, an underground pipeline carrying radioactive fluids burst in 1991, “contaminating hundreds of tons of subsoil,” with cesium-137 and a cocktail of “other lethal isotopes,” Gopal said. A second leak, on May 14, 1992, in a waste treatment plant in the same complex, “contaminated the location,” he added. At fuel reprocessing and fabrication units, from Hyderabad in the South to Maharashtra in the West, there were “high levels of airborne radioactive dust.” He heard of “frequent minor explosions in active chemical reactors.”
Strolling down the beach from Idinthakarai village, towards Kudankulam power station, Dr. S.P. Udayakumar discusses the concerns of villagers who live there. Adrian Levy
Similar alarms have been sounded by Buddhi Kota Subbarao, a highly-decorated former Naval captain and electrical engineer working on submarine nuclear propulsion. In 1988, a year after retiring, he was arrested on his way to a presentation in the United States and charged with attempting to smuggle secrets out of the country. He subsequently spent twenty months in custody, during which he studied to become a lawyer, and then fought for five years to clear his name. The Supreme Court of India finally quashed all charges in 1993, and a former judge of the Supreme Court, Justice V.D. Tulzapurkar, who had not sat in on the case, wrote in support to local newspapers, warning that Subbarao had been subjected to a “miscarriage of justice” by nuclear officials keen to discredit a critic and salvage their own reputations.
Undaunted, in 1999 Subbarao published a report for a nonprofit group called Manushi that revealed how both the CIRUS and Dhruva reactors had contaminated soil, water and vegetation near their discharge lines with cesium-137, a radionuclide that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns significantly increases the risk of cancer. Some of the irradiated waste flowed through the plant’s storm drains and into a creek that runs into Mumbai’s port, poisoning fish and leaching into grassland nearby. He also said India had tolerated radiation levels at its nuclear facilities that exceeded limits set by international agencies.
After Gopal submitted his report criticizing the Department of Atomic Energy for tolerating safety practices “far below” international standards and outlining 95 “top priority” issues, he was let go, in his view, for “telling the truth too loudly.” However, he developed a following. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a citizens’ legal group, filed a public interest petition in the Bombay High Court to get Gopal’s report published, as did a second, pacifist organization based in Mumbai. His successor at the AERB, R. Chidambaram, declined to say if the critical flaws identified by Gopal had been fixed, and claimed that to publish information on this issue would “cause irreparable injury to the interests of the State and will be prejudicial to national security.” The Bombay High Court dismissed the petitions for the report’s release, and when an appeal was lodged in India’s Supreme Court, Gopal attached his name to it, warning that “serious nuclear accidents” could take place at some facilities if the issues he had identified were not remedied. In January 2004 the Supreme Court rejected the appeal, ruling that information concerning nuclear installations should remain secret.
Gopal said in the interview that secrecy and the absence of an independent nuclear regulator still create huge risks. At present, the chairman of the six-person board of regulators, the Atomic Energy Regulation Board, reports to the overall head of the Department of Atomic Energy that it is supposed to regulate, and to the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, the country’s apex policy making body on nuclear issues. Gopal said: “I cannot imagine a more subservient existence.”
The arrangement also makes American officials who help oversee the safety of nuclear reactors uneasy. According to a State Department cable obtained by Wikileaks, when Dale Klein, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Committee, met with Shyam Saran, the Indian prime minister’s special envoy, in November 2008, Klein stressed the need for “a strong, independent regulatory body.” But no change has occurred since then and in August 2012, India’s comptroller and auditor general similarly criticized the board for remaining “subordinate to the central government” and said “the failure to have an autonomous and empowered regulator is fraught with grave risks.”
The government proposed a reform bill in 2011 that created a Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority, but it still called for members to be appointed by those in power, and it still gives the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission a leading role in its operation. The Indian Parliament has not yet approved it, and in March the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a special statement reminding India that the new board’s regulatory independence should be enshrined in law and “separated from other entities having responsibilities or interests that could unduly influence its decision making.”
Experts in Australia, a key nuclear trading partner with India, are also worried. The Australian Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties recommended on September 8, 2015, that until this measure and other new safety and security practices are implemented, no Australian uranium should be sold to India. Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull responded in November, however, that sales would go ahead anyway.
Gopal’s view is that nothing has changed. If anything, the authorities and regulators have clammed up even more, he says. “No one seems to be worried, even though the government seems less and less interested in the public’s safety.”
The AERB, India’s regulator, the government’s official spokesman and the plant operators NPCIL were all asked for comment, as was the Department of Atomic Energy, but they all declined.
Adrian Levy is an investigative reporter and filmmaker whose work has appeared in the Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, and other publications. His most recent books are: The Meadow, about a 1995 terrorist kidnapping of Westerners in Kashmir, and The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
This is the second article in a four-part series about india’s civil and military nuclear program, co-published with the Huffington Post worldwide and Foreign Policy magazine in Washington, D.C. The other articles can be found here: https://www.publicintegrity.org/national-security/nuclear-waste