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Home > Environment, Health and Social Justice > India: Some Questions Raised by the Contamination Incident at Kaiga Nuclear (...)

India: Some Questions Raised by the Contamination Incident at Kaiga Nuclear Power Plant

by Surendra Gadekar, 30 November 2009

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The contamination of at least 55 workers at the Kaiga nuclear power plant is a personal tragedy for them and their families. Everyone of us who have been opposing this dangerous and unforgiving technology, are sympathetic to their plight and wish them a speedy recovery and no long term health costs due to this incident/accident.

The incident does raise some serious questions regarding safety practices at nuclear installations in the country. The explanations offered by various functionaries in the nuclear establishment have been rather inadequate and sometimes fanciful.

It needs to be noted that nuclear power plants have been under a state of “high alert” ever since the arrest of Mr David Coleman Headley and Mr Tahawwur Rana on suspicions of terrorist activity. Newspaper reports have spoken of nuclear power plants being mentioned in the papers found during interrogation of these two. Supposedly, security has been “beefed up.” So it is all the more surprising that anyone can “cause mischief” by adulterating drinking water at a cooler with tritium.

The official explanation of a “disgruntled” employee causing “mischief” raises more questions than it answers.

Firstly, if some “insiders” are so callous as to indulge in an attempt to cause serious bodily harm to random fellow workers, does it not say something on the process of recruitment itself and also on the level of employee job satisfaction within the nuclear power corporation? What is to prevent more “disgruntled” elements from sabotaging vital reactor safety systems and putting the public and surrounding countryside at grave risk? If the heightened security system is so lax as to allow such shenanigans, how can the public have trust in their abilities to provide vital fool-proof security. An “accident” whether caused by a natural calamity, or by operator error, or by instrument or design failure or through a deliberate act of sabotage can cause serious damage whose effects would last a long, long time to come.

Secondly, heavy water is expensive. It costs well over Rs 20000 to produce a liter. The fact that such precious materials are easily available to any mischievous insider, does throw a light on the culture of casual disregard for waste and corruption in the organisation. Heavy water gets tritiated only after use in the reactor either as moderator or coolant. The fact that this heavy water was not inside the reactor indicates that it had been stored on the premises after use perhaps for purification/up-gradation prior to reuse. There is no need to use reactor premises as storage space for used heavy water.

Newspaper reports of Dr Kakodkar’s explanation have not been very clear as to how tritium contaminated a drinking water cooler. There has been a mention of “tritium vials” having been added to the cooler. If this be true, it would be even more worrying since although heavy water is expensive, its cost is peanuts compared to the cost of producing tritium. Estimates of these costs vary from $30,000 per gram in Canada to $100,000 per gram in the United States. If purified tritium vials which are a vital component of thermonuclear weapon systems, are available to any disgruntled element we have indeed a much larger problem on our hands.

The authorities both nuclear and civil have acted true to form. They probably have a written format for such emergencies. The first step is to attempt to suppress all information if possible. So although the ‘incident’ took place on the 25th of November, it was only on the 28th that newspapers and television media got hold of the story. My guess is that since a lot of people needed hospitalization, it became impossible to continue efforts at entirely suppressing the story. The second step is to immediately ‘allay’ public fears. How much tritium activity was found in the urine samples taken from the affected workers. Not one concrete number, just that it was ‘mild’, people have been treated and were now back at work. However, an extensive Google search, revealed that 53 out of the 55 people admitted had been discharged so presumably two were probably more heavily contaminated. Third step: confusion through inadequate and sometimes misleading information. So how many people were hospitalized? Numbers in various newspapers vary from “about 30” to “about 55”. There is of course the confusion about how the mischief maker was able to get access to either tritiated heavy water or the tritium vials.

The ill effects of radioactivity of Tritium have always been underestimated by the radiation community. That is because it has a ‘short’ biological half life inside the body. Half of it is out within ten to twelve days of ingestion. However, Tritium is a dangerous toxin because it is chemically identical to hydrogen and hence is part of water and can go anywhere in the body. Let us not forget that the human body is over 70 percent just water. Secondly, tritium can sometimes get bound to organic molecules and spend much longer time in the body. Thirdly it can cross the placental border and severely affect growth and development of babies in the womb. This is why it is the most likely suspect in the spate of congenital deformities observed around CANDU type nuclear power plants and other military nuclear facilities that use tritium to produce thermonuclear bombs.

Another pet sentence from the nuclear establishment is that all such accidents are studied and their “lessons learnt.” Unfortunately, this incident gives a lie to such facile sloganeering. In 1991 on July 27th , something very similar took place at the Heavy water plant run by the Department of Atomic Energy at Rawatbhata in Rajasthan. There drums of tritiated heavy water were stored in a room that needed a whitewash. Outside labourers were hired to do the whitewash and found that the taps were (as usual) not working. They mixed the lime with the water in the drums, did the whitewash, then cleaned their brushes and faces with the same water and went away. All this without any supervision from plant authorities. It was only later when the radiation counters started screaming that these worthies surmised that their rooms had the costliest whitewash in history and instituted a search for the ‘errant’ labourers who of course hearing of the hullabaloo decided to remain incognito and suffer the injuries to their health in silence. Since they were only “casual” outside labourers and since the incident did not cause any ripple in the English language media, the nuclear establishment was able to laugh the matter off.

With the proposed nuclear expansion very much in the cards, such incidents are bound to become a regular feature in the future.