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India's Worst Radiation Accident

A valve failure at Kalpakkam, which left six workers with a heavy dose of radiation, raises serious safety questions over our atomic plants

India's Worst Radiation Accident
Pallava Bagla
India's Worst Radiation Accident
Six months ago, six workers at the Kalpakkam Reprocessing Plant (KARP) were exposed to a severe dose of radiation. Over three months later, in May, BFEA, the employees association of this BARC facility, gave a strike notice. Scarcely a month after that, the president of the association was transferred. Now, the "strategic" nuclear establishment of the country is finally admitting to a major accident at KARP. B. Bhattacharjee, director of BARC (the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre), told Outlook: "This is the worst accident in radiation exposure in the history of nuclear India."

The incident on January 21, which led to the indefinite shutting down of the plant, raises serious questions over the safety of the production of potential weapons-grade plutonium at KARP, and also the safety of workers and human habitations around Kalpakkam. Concerned members of the scientific community feel that if safety issues aren't quickly addressed and made transparent, Kalpakkam may be a mini-Chernobyl in the making.

It is not difficult to see why. Kalpakkam, 70 km from Chennai, is home to a host of Department of Atomic Energy-run installations—like the Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) with two Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors; the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) that conducts research on Fast Breeder Reactor technology; and BARC facilities, including reprocessing plants like KARP.

Reprocessing plants use chemical processes to extract uranium and plutonium from "spent fuel" that has been irradiated in nuclear reactors. In the process, they produce large amounts of radioactive waste, which is usually classified into low, medium and high-level wastes depending on the radioactivity concentration. On January 21 this year, due to a valve failure, high-level waste entered a tank designed for low-level waste. This resulted in six workers receiving extraordinarily high doses of radiation. BARC authorities confirmed the incident took place when scientific officer Sridharan, scientific assistant B.P. Singh and tradesman Srinivasa Raju entered the Waste Tank Farm area.

The BARC director, Bhattacharjee, told Outlook that "some (of the workers) were not even wearing badges and one of them was a woman". Workers in radiation zones wear badges to monitor their total exposure. He admitted that the radiation doses were higher than the maximum allowed annual dose, but lower than the maximum allowed lifetime dose. But he refused to specify the exact doses.

According to K.S. Parthasarathy, secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the annual effective dose to individual workers shall not exceed thirty millisievert (30 mSv), and the cumulative dose shall not exceed 100 mSv in any five-year period. A new monitoring mechanism came about post-Pokhran, in April 2000, when the government decided that the regulatory and safety functions at BARC and all BARC facilities would henceforth be carried out through an Internal Safety Committee Structure. It was reasoned that "in a strategic weapons programme we have to maintain secrecy and safety".

The BARC safety committee apparently decided that the reprocessing plant in Kalpakkam be shut down indefinitely following the January 21 incident. However, according to the BFEA, the plant continued to function after the incident. Post-accident, in a letter to the director, the BFEA expressed serious concerns and set forth a list of 10 safety-related demands. It said KARP does not even have a full-time trained safety officer, and demanded the appointment of one.

The BFEA letter also recounts the previous two major incidents at the KARP facility, in which workers were overexposed to radiation, in December 2002 and May 2001, both in the Plutonium Reconversion Area, and how higher officials had always cited emergency as a reason for the Health Physics Department not following safety procedures.Finally, it warned that "if the plant continues to be operated in the same fashion, it will be clear invitation of more serious accidents like criticality which is the only accident yet to happen in KARP."

The association letter claims: "Srinivasa Raju was asked to sample a solution whose history is not known. The areas did not have any monitors. The last survey date in that area is not known. No survey was done in the area by the Health Physics Department before starting the work." The association apparently later found out from the Health Physics Department personnel that Raju and Sridharan had received a dose of "42,000 millirem", or 420 mSv. Other workers reportedly received overexposures in the range of 280 mSv. All of them grossly exceed the AERB-recommended limits, both annual and cumulative. According to Bhattacharjee, who rushed to Kalpakkam to reassure agitated workers, "The six workers will be kept away from radiation zones and given other tasks at the plant for a year or two. Otherwise there's no problem to their health."

However, M.V. Ramana, research staff member at the Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, and co-editor of Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream, points out: "The United Nations Scientific Commission on the Effects of Atomic Radiation estimated in its 2000 report that for an acute dose of 1 Sv the increased risk of death from solid cancers is 9% in men and 13% in women, and about 1% increased risk of leukaemia mortality. Thus, a person exposed to 280 mSv would have an increased cancer mortality risk of about 3%. This is in addition to the increased cancer risk from radiation doses through their working careers." S. Basu, the BARC in-charge at the Kalpakkam facility, however, was matter-of-fact on the issue: "If you accepted atomic energy, you cannot shy away from radioactivity. In a radioactive area, you are bound to get some radiation exposure."

One of the key association demands was the installation of area gamma monitors that would warn workers of potential radiation exposure. Naresh K. Bansal, head, waste management division, BARC, offers the excuse: "We were in the process of installing these when the unfortunate incident occurred." Since KARP became operational in September 1998, it is clear that authorities have been lax about safety and occupational health.

Because BARC authorities had not acted upon the safety-related demands presented in the January 24 letter, the BFEA issued a strike call and started a tools-down, pen-down strike from the night shift of February 16. BARC authorities relented and accepted eight of the 10 demands, but according to the association it didn't act on them. On May 12, BFEA president R.K. Shenoi explained that they had no option but to resort to work-to-rule.

On June 5, Shenoi found himself transferred to NRG Facilities, Tarapur. "We had to transfer him because he was furthering his own interests and fomenting trouble," says Bhattacharjee. The 40-day work-to-rule agitation culminated in an indefinite fast on June 23. Following the transfer of Shenoi and memos being served to others for participating in the strike, the employees have been in disarray.

An association office-bearer told Outlook that BARC authorities were clearly misleading the nation in saying that the entire KARP facility had been shut down for six months, for "what would be the point of striking work when the plant was shut down?". BARC apparently wanted normal operations to continue even after the January 21 incident. Says Ramana, "The accident became public only because of the insensitivity of the authorities to the legitimate health and safety concerns of the workers."

However, Bhattacharjee contends that the basic issue was actually an industrial dispute."We recently promoted 30 helpers to tradesman category and 30 more were demanding a similar promotion." Why then was the crisis triggered by the January 21 accident is anybody's guess. All the BARC officials Outlook spoke to insist the January 21 operation took place in an auxiliary area, not in the main plant. Says Bansal: "The Waste Tank Farm is not a much frequented area. We hold few operations there." Why should an accident in an auxiliary area paralyse work in the entire plant? BARC authorities blame the association's intransigence.

One of the primary functions of KARP is producing plutonium for the Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) at IGCAR. This plutonium can also be used to make nuclear weapons; hence the strategic shroud over its activities. Bansal admits that the "shutdown" does affect the production and supply of fuel to the FBR. And the losses could run to crores. When would KARP resume operations? "The loss is invaluable. The safety committee last met on July 10. In a few weeks, we hope to be operational after ensuring that all safety procedures are stabilised," says Bhattacharjee.

In the rush to produce plutonium, possibly for its weapons programme, safety norms have been flouted. If not checked, a bomb could be ticking.
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