EVEN AS ramifications of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act 2010 were being debated at the national level, TEHELKA’s reporters fanned out to Kalpakkam, Kudankulam, Jaduguda and Tarapur (issues dated 11, 18 and 25 September) in a unique initiative to study the ground realities of nuclear power plants (NPPs) and uranium mines in India. What emerged, unfortunately, was a picture of callous disregard for human safety and, in the case of the proposed site at Jaitapur, of lack of concern for traditional livelihoods — all in the name of national interest. The string of lapses and a lackadaisical approach towards safety augurs ill for the seven plants that will become operational over the next six years.
After the legwork, it’s time to fix accountability. What exactly are India’s existing safety guidelines relating to functioning of nuclear power plants and mining of radioactive material? If rules have been breached in the past, what hope is there that any regulations will be followed in the future? Especially as a number of plants will rapidly come up in the next decade.
The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is the apex body to which the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and research centres like Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Environment Survey Laboratory (ESL) and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) report. All these bodies are not independent of each other. Hence, if one is at fault, the reviewing body could turn a blind eye since both belong to the same brotherhood. There is no independent reviewing body that can question their functioning. This co-dependency of existing organisations leads to a conflict of interest. With chilling results, such as:
RULE IGCAR is responsible for developing fast breeder reactor technology. On the ‘Health and Safety’ page of its website, it instructs that occupational radiation exposure limits has to be at an average of 20 mSv (millisievert is the unit of radiation absorbed by the human body) per year, averaged over a period of five years, but not more than 50 mSv in a single year to the whole body. This, IGCAR says, is the permissible limit.
REALITY TEHELKA found out the following five cases where scientists and workers were exposed to high- level radiation at the Kalpakkam plant situated on the Coromandel Coast 80 km south of Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
1995: Dayanidhi and Khandhasamy, workers at the plant, were tested for gamma radiation levels (that causes organ failure and cancer) in the medical centre inside the plant. It was found to be 50 times more than normal in the Kalpakkam plant.
26 MARCH 1999: There was a heavy water leak (heavy water is used as a coolant in NPPs and contains tritium, a radioactive substance) in the K5 unit of the Madras Atomic Power Station II. At least seven people were exposed to a radiation dose well above the permissible limit.
30 MAY 2001: S Sivakumar, a worker, suffered internal contamination after his neoprene glove (waterproof gloves that can have layers of insulated material) got punctured. His body absorbed plutonium which emits alpha rays that get deposited in his bones and teeth. These rays cause bone cancer.
7 JULY 2002: Selvakumar, a worker, burned his left hand after he picked up a radioactive substance, copresspring.
21 JANUARY 2003: TEHELKA accessed a confidential letter (BARCFEA/ 03/03/131 dated 24 January 2003) written to the Director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). The letter written by the general secretary of the BARC Facilities Employees’ Association recounted in detail a significant nuclear accident that took place on 21 January 2003 at the Kalpakkam Atomic Reprocessing Plant. According to the letter, a scientist, Srinivasa Raju, was exposed to high-level gamma radiation while working on an unknown solution, which he collected from a low-level radioactive waste tank.
RULE According to AERB regulations, the mill waste after solid-liquid separation is sent to a tailings pond (dumping ground for waste in the liquid form from the mine) where the solid part containing radium settles down. Due care should be taken for the retention of radioactivity within the pond by providing impermeable lining over it.
REALITY TEHELKA found the local community living near the tailings pond in Jaduguda most susceptible to illnesses arising from exposure to radioactive and other toxic substances. In the past four years, there have been as many reported incidents of tailings pipes carrying the waste bursting, sending the toxic wastes into villages — on 10 April 2007, 16 August 2008 and 21 February 2008. As several organisations have reiterated often, the water from these tailings, leaking steadily into streams, joins Subarnrekha River, leaving a trail of toxicity. On 25 December 2006, the tailing dam itself broke, a nightmarish situation for villages in the path of the toxic flood.
RULE AERB standards say a Nuclear Power Plant should be sited in a relatively lowpopulation zone with the area around the plant divided in three zones (Exclusion Zone, Sterilised Zone and Emergency Planning Zone). An exclusion zone of 1.5 km radius is established around the plant and no public habitation is permitted in the area. The sterilised zone, on the other hand, covers the exclusion zone in a 5-km radius since this area has the potential for extensive contamination in case of a severe accident.
REALITY TEHELKA found about 30,000 people living in five villages in the so-called sterilised zone in Kalpakkam. There is also a DAE township that houses permanent staff of the plant. This populace also includes migrant workers and locals.
DAE medical officer Dr Vijaya said that the number of cancer cases in the township is around 244 over a 10-year period. Local activists contest the figure and say that the official list excludes many deaths. Despite studies by internationally recognised professionals, DAE officials maintain that the radiation levels emitted are too low to cause problems.
RULE AERB lays down very strict guidelines on management of waste water from uranium mines. It emphasises that there should be sumps (basins) sufficient to store mine water without any overflow.
REALITY In the Banduhurang opencast mine in Jaduguda (the only region in India with productive uranium mines), TEHELKA found that the water from the mine is allowed to flow beyond the sump to marshes. This was despite the fact that these marshes also connected to streams used by villagers for bathing and washing purposes.
RULE Open-cast mines should be fenced and guarded by CISF personnel round the clock, according to Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL) guidelines. They should be well-engineered and designed taking all possible measures to save the public from any radiation exposure.
REALITY TEHELKA found no fencing around the UCIL open-cast mine nor any CISF personnel guarding it. Women and children were seen collecting firewood dangerously close to these ponds.
RULE AERB rules says control measures should be taken to reduce the spread of radioactivity through air, water and by contamination from waste rock piles, ore stock points, crushers, ore transport surface, tailings dams and discharge points for final effluents.
REALITY At several places in Jaduguda, the trucks carrying uranium ore left a trail of toxic dust which could be seen settling in small heaps on the road. At Banduhurang, debris from the mine was dumped on the outskirts of villages bordering the mine.