On January 25, newspapers reported official statements regarding yet another delay in commissioning the Koodankulam plant. A widely published PTI report declared that India’s nuclear regulator has given its “nod to repeat the full systems test at the first unit of Koodankulam atomic power project in Tamil Nadu.” The media seemed satisfied with the statement. No questions were raised. The Hindu report referred to this “permission” as “some good news on the Koodankulam front” and said it raised expectations of an early commissioning.
The test itself would take a fortnight. Interpretation of its results can take another fortnight. This will delay the commissioning, not hasten it. But the delay is not the issue here. Any which way one sees it, the “permission” is not good news. For nuclear proponents, it represents yet another delay. For nuclear opponents worried about the lack of adequate safeguards and due diligence in Koodankulam , the “permission” raises disturbing questions.
Even a child will tell you that you need to repeat a test only if you have failed in the first instance. NPCIL’s desire to gloss over its failure and make it seem as if the “permission” was a hard-won victory is understandable. But why is the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board playing ball? Why is it referring to the decision as a permission rather than an order? What were the circumstances that led to NPCIL failing the first test?
The nuclear establishment has a way with words. By using cryptic and vague one-liners to dress the truth, it lulls some into a false sense of security even while others panic, and rumours begin to take root.
Of all the pronouncements from the establishment, Atomic Energy Commission chairperson RK Sinha’s statement earlier this month offers some glimpses of the truth. Speaking to reporters in New Delhi, Sinha had said “Essentially there are some system parameters like flow, pressure, temperature that need to be maintained within particular values.”
Piece this information together with bits from other statements that appeared in the media, and the following picture emerges. During the first hydro test conducted last December, certain valves did not behave the way the manufacturer claimed they would. These valves were opened up, repaired, and some “minor” components replaced.
The fact that brand new valves – more than one – were malfunctioning raises questions about the quality of the equipment. And, the identification of these defective valves at this late pre-commissioning stage suggests that quality assurance of individual components was deficient. Taken together, this indicates grave problems with both the supplier and the buyer.
An ongoing investigation into corruption in the Russian nuclear establishment gives a new twist to the tale. In February 2012, KGB’s successor Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested Sergei Shutov, the procurement director of Rosatom subsidiary Zio-Podolsk, on charges of corruption and fraud. Zio-Podolsk, a machine works company, is the sole supplier of steam generators and certain other key components for Russian nuclear reactors worldwide. The FSB has charged Shutov with sourcing sub-standard steel blanks. According to the Russian media agency Rosbalt, equipment manufactured with cheap Ukrainian steel is suspected to have been used in nuclear reactors built by the Russians in Bulgaria, Iran, China and India.
It is not immediately clear whether the valves in question were Russian-made or locally sourced. If the valves or components that went into their manufacture were supplied by Zio-Podolsk, NPCIL needs to reveal that and explain itself. India’s nuclear establishment has chosen to keep the facts of the Russian investigation under wraps, despite its obvious ramifications on the safety of the Koodankulam plant. The Government ought to have ordered an enquiry into the components supplied by Zio-Podolsk. Instead, the PMO has been busy assuring the Russians that India will cover the costs of any mishap at the K-plant.
Curiously, the Zio-Podolsk corruption scandal appears only in the Russian media as Rosbalt’s official releases. Not one mainstream English media in the world seems to have covered it.
A similar media silence is noticed around yet another disturbing fact that was revealed in a PTI article based on statements by unnamed DAE sources in July 2011. The Koodankulam plant was expected to be commissioned in March 2009. The awkwardly worded PTI article attributes the delay to the fact that “The designers discovered that several km of power and control cables in the reactor were ‘missed’ after the completion of double containment of the reactor.” The sources are reported to have said that “although major equipment were received from Russia well in time, difficulties were experienced in receiving the material in sequential order.” Therefore, domes first, cables later.
Quoting PTI sources, the article says the problem was rectified after the cables – meant for power supply to instrumentation in different buildings – were incorporated “by making new opening in the containment domes (breaking open the concrete walls) and was sealed again bringing the cables from the switch yard to inside.”
A repeat of the full systems hydro test is highly irregular. But breaking open and resealing the containment dome may be unprecedented in nuclear history. Clearly, it is not public protests that are holding up the commissioning. Indeed, of the 13 years since the agreement was renegotiated with the new Russian republic in 1998, work on site was stopped by protesters for only six months.
Since March 2012, the State Government has deployed aggressive gun-toting cops to ensure that work at the plant proceeds unhindered. Caught between a government that has criminalised local expressions against nuclear power, and a tight-lipped nuclear establishment, it is a frightening time to be living near Koodankulam. Many nuclear proponents have argued for transparency. There is no better time for transparency than now. AERB’s terse explanations, combined with rumours doing the rounds and disturbing allegations of corruption in the Russian side are doing nothing to calm frayed nerves.
The nuclear establishment has some explaining to do. The data from the first hydro test, minus the confidential trade secrets, should be made available for independent and public scrutiny. The reports identifying the root cause of the failure should be shared. The truth about the containment dome and the delayed cables, and the ramifications of breaking open and resealing the dome needs to be told. The steps taken, if any, to identify Zio-Podolsk components and verify their quality should be made public.
In the stand-off between Koodankulam residents and a Government intent on showing it still retains the upper hand, a hurried commissioning of the nuclear plant will only end up further eroding public confidence and jeopardising safety due diligence.