Accident In Koodankulam, The Fate Of ‘Nuclear Nomads’ And The Perils Of Nuclear Power

Posted on May 22, 2014 in Environment, Specials, Staff Picks

By Dhriti Bhattacharyya:

“If the radiance of a thousand suns/were to burst into the sky/that would be like/the splendour of the Mighty One”. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the famous Project Manhattan uttered these verses from Bhagavad Gita as he witnessed the first ever atomic detonation on 16 th July, 1945. Barely three weeks did pass and on August 6th, mankind experienced the enormity of the nuclear power as 80 thousand people of Hiroshima died an instant death. Taming the power of thousand suns is not easy. The Three mile island accident happened in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986. We are still fresh with the memory of the Fukushima disaster of 2012. Indeed, there are many of them here and there on earth. Some reported, the rest are vaguely covered or not reported at all.

In the global nuclear power scenario, India, in spite of being a proud member of a club of nuclear weapon states where she rubs shoulders with countries like USA, Russia and England, has drawn many sceptic questions from the anti-nuclear activists. This is majorly due to its naive approach in handling serious issues, myopic planning, lack of accountability and a unique penchant for ‘cheap bargains’. The nuclear power industry in this country runs in a secretive mode of function and is perpetually safe guarded by the government in order to support the upbringing of this ‘blue-eyed-gem-of-a-boy’ in an otherwise mundane background.

The recent accident in Koodankulam nuclear power plant, which injured six people including workers and department personnel, appears to be a perfect combination of all the aforesaid ingredients and more, which made a lethal potion that has been vaguely reported by the authority as a mere ‘hot water spillage’. In the hullaballoo of the most expensive national election of the country, the incident was barely covered by mainstream media, bringing respite to the authority of KKNPP which for the last two decades is facing protests from local people and anti-nuclear campaigners who think the water discharged from the plant is a severe threat to the ecology and human existence of the nearby locality.

India procured the key components to build KKNPP unit I nuclear reactor from the Russian nuclear establishment ZiO-Podolsk, a machine works company, whose procurement director Sergei Shutov, in February, 2012, was arrested on charges of corruption and fraud. It was revealed that ZiO-Podolsk supplied equipment built with poor quality steel to set up nuclear reactors in countries like Bulgaria, China, Iran and India. The faulty and malfunctioning machines, supplied by ZiO-Podolsk, that are being used in KKNPP unit I, indeed resulted in failed attempt to clear the first hydro test last December. Whether the machine from where the ‘hot water spillage’ took place also inherits the same loss from its Russian ancestry is not known till now. But absence of a stern enquiry on faulty instruments points out to a general lack of consciousness from the authority.

Among the workers who have been hospitalized, three are reportedly contractual labors. Here comes another layer of this sordid picture. Recruiting semiskilled or unskilled manpower on a contractual basis to work in a high-risk and complex work environment, like nuclear power plants, might not be the wisest step, but the authorities are more than comfortable with this practice as hiring contract labors means getting ‘cheaper’ undocumented human resource with less responsibility attached. This practice is quite common in nuclear industry worldwide and these ‘nuclear nomads’, as they are known euphemistically, have become integrated part of a system that can’t be run without humans absorbing corroding radiation. The injured people in Koodankulam are few of such nuclear samurais who, while working with a suspected faulty machine in turbine building, got themselves burnt by ‘hot water’.

Now, in a nuclear plant, an accident brought about by either a technical or manual fault or at worst case by both even in a non-radioactive area can easily be translated into a bigger and devastating disaster in its radioactive counterpart. The infrastructure of KKNPP is suitably poor to complement the scene of such a misadventure. Astonishingly, there exists no hospital or medical treatment facility to handle radiation or burning injury, a set-up which has supposedly been made mandatory by The National Disaster Management Authority’s guidelines for any nuclear establishments. The injured workers were sent to hospital situated in Nagercoil, a town located 40 kms away from Koodankulam. The evidences are self-explanatory, also the silence of the authority. The website of National Power Corporation of India Limited shows no report of the accident and this comfortable numbness surely does not entitle them to be certified for honesty and transparency of the concerned system.

A lack of strict safety measurement and proper coordination inside the plant resulted in rupturing a reactor vessel in Chernobyl plant. Large geographical area covering western Soviet Russia and Europe got exposed to massive quantity of radioactive particles leading to a catastrophe which claimed thousands of lives directly or indirectly and enormous wealth and man power to manage the crisis. Manual and design deficiency of the plant that caused the Chernobyl disaster are not much different from the scenarios of plants run in India, and especially like one in Koodankulam, with regular faulty track record, seems to be a subject of serious concern.

Well, let us come to the basics. Why do few of the earthlings need to play a game of this enormously potent power-ball which would shatter the lives of thousand others who have no clue about it and literally have nothing to get from this out-of-proportion advancement of applied science? With ever growing voices against anti-nuclear movement worldwide, for the policy makers of India, it is a time to rethink the human face of its strategy of expanding the nuclear establishment in the country. The accident in KKNPP is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg in terms of lack of vision and competency to deal with such grave issues.

According to Greenpeace India, the government of the country has decided to build the world’s largest nuclear power plant in Maharashtra’s Jaitapur, a place known for being ecological hotspot and of high seismic activity. Rehabilitation of people for building any of the massive establishment is a very sensitive subject and in the context of building nuclear power plants, the long term damage faced by the environment and human life of that region has heightened the severity of the issue by several folds. As they say “with great power comes greater responsibility”, the nuclear power sector needs some very serious sessions of introspection.