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Nuclear power: The missing safety audits

Following the Fukushima incident, almost all countries with operating nuclear power stations or plants under construction have taken a decision to pause and take required corrective steps.

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Nuclear power: The missing safety audits
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Following the Fukushima incident, almost all countries with operating nuclear power stations or plants under construction have taken a decision to pause, evaluate their nuclear programmes and systems, and take required corrective steps.

Not to be left behind, Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh has also ordered the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) to go through a limited safety audit of our nuclear power stations. In the light of the past history and the lack of independence of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), there is a need to assess whether the safety audits conducted so far have helped allay public fears.

Europe has 143 nuclear power plants in 14 countries. The European Union has decided to conduct “stress tests” on all the reactors in a joint and well-coordinated manner, which be completed only by end-2011. France, the world’s second largest nuclear energy producer, will also conduct checks, and the French prime minister, Francois Fillon, has announced that detailed reports of the safety evaluations will be made public. Russian premier Vladimir Putin has asked agencies concerned in Russia to “carry out an analysis of the current condition of the atomic sector and re-examine the plans for future development.” South Korea operates 21 nuclear reactors and South Korean president Lee Myung-bak has similarly ordered a safety check of the country’s nuclear reactors.

India’s three safety audits
I am personally aware of three previous nuclear safety audits conducted in India. The first audit was ordered by then prime minister Morarji Desai in 1979, soon after the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident in the US. DAE formed a small, senior-level apex committee to do this job and came out with a report that identified serious deficiencies needing immediate correction. However, the DAE management classified this report as ‘Top Secret’ and shelved it. No action was taken on the committee’s findings.

In April 1986, the Chernobyl accident occurred, which was much more devastating than the TMI accident. Tne PM Rajiv Gandhi promptly asked the DAE to assess the safety of India’s installations. Another DAE committee was formed, and another safety audit report was written. DAE again marked this report as ‘Top Secret’, and AERB took no action.

After I took over as AERB chairman in June 1993, officials told me about the earlier safety audit reports. I insisted and got these reports from the DAE. Upon reviewing them, I was appalled at the clearly dangerous lack of safety in the various hazardous nuclear installations at that time due to unattended safety problems accumulated over the previous 15 or so years, while the DAE continued to operate these installations at extremely high risk to the public. It should also be noted that the AERB was created in 1983 to “independently” regulate nuclear safety, and this subservient organisation had remained a silent and inactive spectator for 12 years on the face of these serious safety deficiencies.

In view of all these concerns, in July 1995, I decided that the AERB must carry out an overall safety assessment of all DAE facilities. Accordingly, I started the 1995 AERB safety audit, including data analysis from more than 700 relevant DAE documents and which took four months to complete. From this audit, the AERB prepared a report titled ‘Safety Issues in DAE Installations’, which detailed about 130 individual safety issues on which corrective actions were called for, of which 95 were of top safety significance. This document was discussed and approved by the AERB Board at its 46th meeting on November 7, 1995, and then submitted to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). While the AERB itself had given the report the lowest classification of ‘Confidential’, the very next day the then secretary, DAE, over-ruled the AERB and promptly classified the report as ‘Top Secret’. To date, no details are known about concrete corrective actions taken, if any, on each of these recommendations.

Post-Fukushima nuclear safety audit
On March 14, 2011, the prime minister told parliament: “The DAE and its agencies including the NPCIL have been instructed to undertake an immediate technical review of all safety systems of our nuclear power plants, particularly with a view to ensuring that they would be able to withstand the impact of large natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes.”

But, even before this review started, our nuclear chiefs have already begun issuing comments. The chairman and managing director of NPCIL promptly announced that there will be no slowing down of the power program because of the safety audit called for by the PM. The AEC chairman stated that Indian power reactors are 100% safe! With all this premature nudging and pre-conditions from high officials, one wonders what position the safety audit committees under them will dare to take in the coming days!

In fact, NPCIL had constituted four task forces to conduct a post-Fukushima safety evaluation and they gave their recommendations by April 13, 2011. A task that more advanced European teams are expected to take nine months to complete, NPCIL says it has already done in one month! The advice from the safety committee constituted by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is still awaited.

Where do we go from here?
The people of India face a serious dilemma. The Fukushima incident has clearly brought out the reality that a nation far more technologically capable, better organised, and disciplined than India is today suffering seriously from a nuclear catastrophe. Out of sheer arrogance and ignorance, the government of India and its nuclear agencies do not wish to pause and debate the issues, but would rather move on in a hurry after a sham of a safety audit, which is conducted by a captive regulatory agency, as they have done three times in the past.

This simply cannot be allowed to pass
As a minimum, we, the people, must demand the government acts positively on the following four legitimate demands:
1) With the advice and participation of national experts, the government must urgently draft a suitable act to create an independent Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, which shall have statutory authority. The act and its rules should spell out the procedures and practices to be followed by the AERB to maintain total independence of action and to ensure full transparency and active communication with the public.
2) The nuclear safety audit reports from 1979, 1986, and 1995 and a detailed action taken report corresponding to each of these audits must be submitted to parliament and made publicly available through the websites of the DAE and NPCIL. The same shall also be done in the case of the current post-Fukushima safety audit report ordered by the PM.
3) As a country ambitious of setting up a large nuclear power sector, we need to start effectively using the well-established, independent safety review processes available through the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even the most advanced countries use these IAEA assessments, which are carried out by teams of senior international experts drawn from different countries, on a case-to-case basis. One of these IAEA safety services is the OSART (operational safety review team) evaluation, an impartial and in-depth safety review assistance which has been effectively used by 32 countries over the past 27 years. The IAEA OSART team can also accommodate one or two AERB experts and the joint review can cover areas such as reactor operation & maintenance, radiation protection practices, training of personnel, emergency planning and preparedness, safety culture, etc. Such an OSART review will be fully unbiased, technically comprehensive and instil a lot more public confidence than a review conducted solely by a captive and relatively inexperienced AERB or through a peer review by the World Association of Nuclear Operators, a fraternal partner of NPCIL whose past opinions are mostly found to be biased in favour of NPCIL.
4) And last, but most important, the PM must realise that there is absolutely no clarity or public confidence in the opaque nuclear power policy he is presently following. The PM has not provided any detailed justification for the unilateral promises he had made to import about 40,000 MWe foreign nuclear reactors by 2020, which appears to be at the heart of this baseless revised policy. It is, therefore, imperative that the government should place before parliament a white paper on the details and justification of the current Indian nuclear power policy. Until this policy is debated widely in various forums and approved by parliament, no new nuclear power projects or reactor import decisions shall be initiated.

The author is a former chairman
 of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Government of India

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