It was August 6. The Department of Atomic Energy had decided to utlilise the organisational skills of the Press Information Bureau in a damage-control exercise of unprecedented proportions following Outlook’s expose of the worst radiation exposure. in the history of DAE. The irony of it being Hiroshima Day was lost both on the organisers and the 65-odd journalists – hundred if you included the camera crew of TV channels – who were taken in a convoy of 10 vans from Chennai to Kalpakkam.
I rode in the company of Frontline’s T.S. Subramaniam, Newstoday’s Babu Jayakumar who had run a series of five follow-up stories to the Outlook investigation in the Chennai-based eveninger, a UNI reporter, and Daniel Chellappa, technical liaison officer of Indira Gandhi Centre of Atomic Research. TSS, as he is better known, talked of how this was probably his 65th visit to the DAE establishment in Kalpakkam. "I make a routine visit at least once a month. I have been to all the DAE and NPCIL institutions in the country," he told us casually.
After bypassing Mahabalipuram, as we veered left from the smooth tarmac of the privately-built East Coast Road into a bumpy road that led to the DAE-controlled areas, Jayakumar asked Chellappa why the path was so narrow and pot-holed. "This comes under the local panchayat’s control. They have to lay the road." Jayakumar wondered why the DAE, which was flush with funds, could not lay a nice road. He then pointed to all the high-tension wires that we saw on either side carrying the electricity produced in Kalpakkam by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited and explained that not a unit of electricity was provided to the villages that surround Kalpakkam. Jayakumar’s series in Newstoday also discussed of how the nuclear establishment in Kalpakkam had not socially helped the surrounding villages in any way. "They are not even employed to cut grass inside the DAE complex."
At the gates of the complex, mediapersons, many of whom treated the trip like a picnic, gulped down packets of Frooti as CISF personnel frisked us and our vehicles and took away the cell phones. The morning newspapers and previous day’s TV reports had flashed the news of pesticides in bottled drinks; reason why we were perhaps provided Frooti. But for journalists anything free is edible. There was no scope for the international media to be present. The one-page PIB invite had underlined in bold at the bottom: ‘Foreigners will not be allowed inside the complex’.
On reaching the Indira Gandhi Centre of Atomic Research, the director of the KARP facility S. Basu welcomed the mediapersons and directed us to the auditorium. The day began with a briefing by the BARC director B.Bhattacharjee who was flanked by IGCAR director S.B.Bhoje, KARP director S. Basu, MAPS station director T.S. Rajendran, and director of Health, Safety and Environment Group V. Venkat Raj, seated on the dais. Bhattacharjee began with an introduction on why India needed nuclear energy and power, and how radiation comes in different forms, how each human being carried radiation on his/ her body etc.
Then, he came to narrating the ‘incident’, and kept referring to it as an ‘accident’ initially, inadvertently though, and used the two terms interchangeably. All this was being recorded on tape and by several TV cameras. Given that BARC’s media head had clarified in his letter to Outlook, that we had offered a "composite quote" and that the director had never referred to the January 21 happening as an "accident", this was Outlook’s first victory, so to speak.
The director went on to explain the technical difference between an ‘accident’ and ‘incident’. According to International Atomic Energy Association, what falls under Level 4 on a scale of 10 is termed ‘incident’, and anything above is an ‘accident’. Chernobyl was rated 7 and the Three Mile Island accident 5. Bhatttacharjee rated the KARP incident at 2.
What it really means is that when a mishap affects only the personnel of the given plant, then it qualifies as an incident. If the mishap affects the larger environment and the general public in the surrounding areas, it is termed an accident. However, Bhattacharjee had not dwelt upon these nuances while talking me on phone from Mumbai over the phone on the night of July 15.
On how he would characterise the January 21 mishap, he repeatedly referred to it as a "the worst accident of radiation exposure in the history of DAE", a fact that was claimed by the BARC Facilities Employees’ Association as early as January 24, three days after the incident had occurred. It, however, took six months for the BARC establishment to admit the same. The briefing that lasted some 20 minutes was followed by a visit to the Waste Tank Farm (WTF) and the place where the "valve leak" took place.
We were also taken to the SSTK-3 (stainless steel tank-3), which on the day of the incident contained highly radioactivity waste, while the group of six workers who handled the solution were, according to the director, under the impression that it contained low-level radioactive water. Why did they have such a wrong impression? Operations in the WTF, an auxiliary area, are rare and the last time SSTK-3 was approached was "more than a year ago" according to Bhattacharjee. So the workers, in the words of the BARC director, "were over-enthusiastic and there was an error of judgement." In all, there are 14 underground tanks, nine made of carbon steel and five of stainless steel; and each can hold up to three lakh litres of radioactive waste classified as high level and low level. What was meant to be transferred to SSTK-1 was instead transferred to SSTK-3, and hence the subsequent "valve failure" theory.
But the BFEA letter dated January 24 indicates that the workers were not "over-enthusiastic", but were merely executing what they had been asked to do: "On January 21… an employee Srinivasa Raju was sent for sampling SSTK-3 in the WTF area. He was told he is to sample a solution whose history is not known. The area was not having any monitors. The last survey date in the area is not known. No survey was done by the Health Physics [department] in the area before starting the work. After sampling, the sample was brought by hand to the Process Control Lab at around 12 hours. As soon as the sample was kept in a tray in the Process Control Lab, the area gamma monitor started giving visual alarm. The audio alarm was not working… Had there been an area gamma monitor [in the WTF] the entire episode could have been avoided. The plant management is at fault for not ensuring an area gamma monitor in the workplace."
The only outcome of the visit of 65-odd journalists was that each of us got a new pair of gloves, socks, shoes and shoe-covers. The cheap plastic shoes were orange or chocolate brown, the socks and shoe-cover were yellow. We also sported white doctor-type coats and thus paid our tribute to Telugu cinema heroes of the 1980s. We were provided a fresh set of all these at two entry-points: when we entered the chamber which had the valve that apparently leaked, and while we entered the WTF area where SSTK-3 was marked off with the words ‘Contaminated Area’. If we include the Press Information Bureau personnel and other officials who joined the media team, a minimum of 80 x 2 = 160 pairs of gloves, socks, shoes and shoe-covers had been newly procured to impress the media. At each opportunity, I tried interacting with the employees – mostly scientific assistants – who took us on the guided tour. All of them gave me a knowing smile on learning that I was the Outlook reporter. "So, you are Anand," a scientific assistant who helped me sport a TLD badge said. Another senior officer even told me: "Your report was a good one. Only the repercussions are bad."
At the Waste Tank Farm – an area some 200 m away from the main reprocessing unit (into which we were not taken) – we were guided by Chief Superintendent of the plant K.V.Mahudeesvaran. He confirmed that area gamma monitors, which seemed as fresh as our rubber gloves and plastic boots, had been installed only after the January 21 incident. I asked for the specific month and he said "sometime in February-March". None of the BARC top brass came to the WTF with us.
On exiting KARP, I interacted with a group of workers who were milling around. As they spoke to me there were wary of the watchful eyes of the vigilance staff. The senior officers who accompanied me also tried dissuading me from talking to the employees, but left me alone when I insisted. From among the workers, both blue collar and lower-grade scientific assistants, one of them told me that the monitors inside had all been pre-programmed to indicate lower levels of radiation than what existed. "You would not have got any dangerous dose, but certainly not as minimal as they made you think. You were, after all, visiting the contaminated area." Another worker, a scientific assistant, said: "Keep visiting once a month. At least then, they will be careful about safety. We will get new shoes, new gloves etc." Recalling an earlier incident of 30 May 2001, the BFEA had claimed: "One of the neoprene gloves got punctured and one of the workers Sivakumar got internal contamination".
After this exercise, the question-answer session began. And here, Bhattacharjee repeatedly referred to the exposure incident as "the worst in the four-decade DAE experience" but only in a relative sense, meaning it was not the worst in the world.
During the visit I managed to access the names of the other three victims. Besides the earlier-named Srinivasa Raju, Sridharan and B.P.Singh, the other three were Prabha Devi, Srinivas and Ganapathi.
KARP hopes to become functional in a few weeks, but on safety issues and transparency BARC, and India, have a long way to go.