On 14 May, six workers from the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) were hospitalised after being injured in the workplace. “While carrying out maintenance work on a valve in Turbine Building of Unit 1… there was an incident of hot water spillage from the valve in which three departmental personnel and three contractor personnel sustained injuries,” KKNPP Site Director R S Sundar told PTI.
Coming less than a week after the Supreme Court declared that it was satisfied with KKNPP’s safety and emergency response, the incident raises doubt not only about the plant’s safety and its operator’s ability to handle emergencies, but also about the Supreme Court’s own appreciation of the hazards and how they play out.
Wednesday’s accident did not involve radiation. Burns and broken bones are common workplace injuries. It is precisely the commonplace nature of this incident and how it was handled that expose how the Koodankulam set-up has all the ingredients required to bungle the handling of major emergencies. These ingredients are: poor and non-transparent communication, lack of emergency response infrastructure, non-compliance with operating procedures, lack of quality assurance of equipment and personnel.
KKNPP spokespersons were difficult to get to, tight-fisted with information and replete with euphemisms that clouded the picture. Describing hot water release from a high-pressure heater inlet in a nuclear plant as a “spillage” is an understatement. Telling reporters that the injured workers were in “conscious condition” reveals nothing about the seriousness of their injuries.
The burnt workers are reportedly undergoing treatment in a speciality hospital in Nagercoil, 30 km away. That hospital specialises in fixing broken bones, not burns. There are no hospitals with a dedicated burns ward in the three districts adjoining Koodankulam.
The accident itself could have happened due to worker error, substandard equipment or both. The relationship between the use of cheaper, inadequately trained contract workers and increased workplace hazards is well established. So the contractualisation of labour inside nuclear plants should be a matter of concern. Safety depends not only on the integrity of machines, but also the skill of the mechanics.
In this instance, even the integrity of the equipment was in question. KKNPP has never adequately defended allegations about the substandard quality of equipment, including crucial valves and re-heaters, supplied to the plant by Russian company Zio Podolsk.
At the end of the day, negligence, human error and corruption can defeat the best defences technology has to offer and conspire to concoct disasters even from “small incidents.”
The author is a writer and volunteer with the Chennai Solidarity Group for Koodankulam Struggle