Nuclear Safety Questioned!
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Nuclear safety questioned!

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Nuclear safety questioned as India's auditor-general has found that the nation's nuclear watchdog is ineffective, mired in bureaucracy and negligent in monitoring safety!

Troubled Galaxy Destroyed Dreams, Chapter1

Palash Biswas

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India's auditor general recently highlighted serious safety concerns with the country's use of nuclear materials.The auditor general's report was critical of the lack of a radiation safety policy and that many facilities were unlicensed.It said the country's nuclear regulator did not have the authority for framing or revising the rules relating to nuclear safety. It also says there's no tool to stop radioactive material getting out of regulatory control.In one case a scrap worker died from exposure after pulling apart a discarded x-ray machine. India's nuclear industry, Australia's newest prospective uranium customer, has been slammed by its own auditor as dangerously unsafe, disorganised and, in many cases, completely unregulated.On the other hand,despite protests, the two units of the 1,000 MW Kudankulam nuclear project, built with Russian collaboration in Tamil Nadu, will be completed this financial year, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office V Narayanasamy said on Friday.He said efforts are being made to commission the first unit at the earliest.The commissioning of the first unit of the project was originally scheduled for December last year. The government Thursday denied that it sought to "appease" Russia by exempting it from any liability under the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, in the event of any accident at Kudankulam power plant in Tamil Nadu.According to an affidavit filed by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), granting waiver to Russia from any liability arising on account of any accident at the plant's Unit I and II was in reciprocation of the latter coming to India's aid when the international technology was denied in the wake of the 1974 Pokhran nuclear test.Russia said the cost of the next phase of the Kudankulam atomic project would escalate if it has to bear additional liabilities arising from a possible nuclear accident. With differences in perception over India's civil nuclear liability law, the negotiations on the units III and IV of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP) in Tamil Nadu have become a point of contention between Moscow and New Delhi.While Russia argues that the civil nuclear liability law should not apply to these units as the agreement on them predates the 2010 civil liability law, and could be seen as "grandfathered" by the original 1988 agreement, India has clearly stated that making an exception for Russia will amount to diluting its civil nuclear law which will encourage the US and France to seek similar exemptions, which it cannot afford.

"It is also denied that government of India signed the agreement with Russia (exempting it of any liability) in order to appease the later," Solicitor General Rohinton Nariman told an apex court bench of Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan and Justice Dipak Misra.

Mind you,Japan's new nuclear regulator will impose tighter safety standards for atomic plants, taking account of geological data in the earthquake-prone country, its head said on Thursday.Shuichi Tanaka, in an interview, also said his new body would have the authority to restart reactors idled since last year's Fukushima disaster once new safety standards were in place and met. Restarting such units is a key point in reducing the import bill for fossil fuels to produce electricity.Tanaka, head of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), said previous standards would prove irrelevant if a plant was struck by an earthquake or tsunami stronger than anticipated. The March 2011 calamity that wrecked the Fukushima station had highlighted the need to take full account of the latest geological data.

Atomic Energy Commission chairman R K Sinha has, while addressing a conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency at Vienna, declared that safety would be paramount and all the stakeholders would be taken into confidence in this regard. He expressed the commission's resolve to adhere to all the post-Fukushima safety standards in all nuclear power stations in the country. His declarations assume significance in the light of the ongoing agitation in Koodankulam. Unfortunately, the credibility of the nuclear establishment is not all that great that Sinha's statement alone is sufficient to allay fears. The agitation, not just in Koodankulam but elsewhere, too, is a pointer to the credibility crisis it suffers from.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has detected some serious organisational and operational flaws in India's nuclear safety regulation. One of the basic tenets of any regulatory mechanism is that it should be independent of the agency, whose functioning it is supposed to regulate. The government should also not be able to exercise any control over its functioning. The Independent Investigation Commission that went into the factors responsible for the Fukushima tragedy found the constraints under which the Japanese nuclear regulatory authority functioned as a major factor responsible for the calamity, though induced by a tsunami.

In India, the nuclear regulatory authority does not enjoy either autonomy or powers to exercise its functions. The independent regulator envisaged in the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, 2011, is not capable of addressing the needs identified by the CAG. In its present form, the NSRA does not ensure an effective separation between the regulatory authority and the nuclear establishment. The government should convince the people and Parliament by making the Department of Atomic Energy more accountable and transparent. This is necessary not only in the interest of the Koodankulam project but also in the interest of the use of nuclear energy for power generation and for strengthening the nation's security.

The Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill 2011

Highlights of the Bill


  • The Bill seeks to dissolve the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and replace it with the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA).     
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  • The NSRA shall regulate nuclear safety and activities related to nuclear material and facilities.  The government can exempt facilities from NSRA’s jurisdiction if they relate to national defence and security.


  • The Bill also establishes the Council of Nuclear Safety to review policies on nuclear safety.  The Council shall include the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.


  • The Chairperson of the NSRA will be on the search committee for the remaining members.  A member of the NSRA may be removed by the central government after providing him an opportunity to be heard.


  • An order of the NSRA can be appealed before the Appellate Authority, which would be set up by the Council ‘as and when required’.


  • The Bill penalises all violations with imprisonment for up to five years.

Key Issues and Analysis


  • The Council includes the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who also heads the department that controls nuclear plants.  This may lead to a conflict of interest.


  • The Chairperson of the NSRA will be on the search committee for other members.  This may affect the independence of other members.


  • The Bill allows the central government to regulate certain nuclear facilities on its own.  Such facilities would not be under any other independent regulatory authority.


  • The Bill permits the central government to establish other regulatory bodies for regulating exempted facilities or activities.  The extent of Parliamentary oversight over these bodies is not clear.


  • Members of the NSRA may be removed without a judicial inquiry.  The process differs from the procedure under other legislations.


  • The NSRA’s orders can be appealed before an Appellate Authority, which is not a standing body.  It is not clear how an appeal may be filed if the Appellate Authority is not constituted.


  • The penalty for all offences under the Bill is the same.  It is unclear whether the gravity of these offences is the same in all cases.

Meanwhile,The US wants India to persuade Iran to return to the negotiating table on its nuclear programme, the first time it has openly asked New Delhi to intercede with Tehran.Times of India reports.

Speaking to TOI ahead of his meetings with National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon and foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai in the US-India strategic security dialogue here, deputy secretary in the US State Department, William Burns, said, "We feel a great sense of urgency, an urgency widely shared in the international community. There is a great deal at stake here, given Iran's failure thus far to comply with its international obligations — the danger of increased tension, nuclear arms race in a region that already has more than its share of instability and which plays a very important role in the health of the global economy." He said the US hopes India would reinforce this message to the Iranian leadership.

Despite almost crippling sanctions against Iran's energy and finance sectors, all indications are that Iran's nuclear programme continues apace. Burns said the tough sanctions were necessary to bring Iran back to talks, insisting that diplomacy remained the US' preferred option. Unspoken is the fact that sanctions also serve to keep Israel's military option from taking off, which could trigger something far bigger than a regional conflict.

India's last nuclear weapons test was in 1998, but its civilian nuclear industry is growing rapidly, with the number of operating nuclear plants expected to rise from 20 to more than 60 during the next decade.

But India's comptroller and auditor-general, Vinod Rai, has found the body that oversees nuclear safety in India, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), is ineffective, mired in bureaucracy and negligent in monitoring safety.

Sixty per cent of regulatory inspection reports for operating nuclear power plants in India were either delayed - up to 153 days late - or not undertaken at all.

For power plants under construction, the number of regulatory inspections delayed or not done was 66 per cent. Smaller radiation facilities operate across the country with no licences and no oversight at all.

In many cases there are no rules for nuclear operators to follow. Despite an order from the government in 1983, the AERB has still not developed an overarching nuclear and radiation safety policy for India.

And even when laws do exist and are broken, the existing legislation gives the AERB almost no punitive power at all. In some cases, the fines for nuclear safety transgressions are as low as 500 rupees - less than $10.

India has had nuclear scares already. In 2010, a gamma irradiation machine containing Cobalt-60 was sold by Delhi University for scrap. Pulled apart, it unleashed a massive dose of radiation, killing one person and putting another six in hospital.

The Indian government has legislation before parliament to replace the AERB with a new body, the proposed Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority. But Prabir Purkayastha from the Delhi Science Forum said it was a ''very weak piece of legislation, that makes the regulator subservient to a group of ministers''.

Speaking at the fourth Nuclear Conclave organised by India Energy Forum in New Delhi, Narayanasamy said "vested interests" are spreading canards about the project, but the government and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) have reached out to the protesting people.

"The issues raised by them have been addressed comprehensively. The Tamil Nadu State expert committee concluded that the plant is safe. Work is now in full swing and all efforts are being made to commission the first unit at earliest," he said.

Allaying safety concerns, he said the nuclear plant has a seven-layer safety system. "I have visited the plant several times and am fully satisfied about all safety aspects."

He said that after completion of seven new projects under construction, the country will have 10,080 MW of nuclear capacity by 2017.

The minister also said that the winter session of parliament is expected to take up the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill.

On the Kudankulam reactors 3 and 4, Narayanasamy said the government was talking to the Russians about certain issues on which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had sought legal opinion.

India's first 1000 MW atomic power plant built with Russian collaboration at Kudankulam is just two steps away from going critical, a top official said today.

"We are on a very smooth path now. We have completed fuel loading and the nuclear regulator is carrying out a review," Shiv Abhilash Bhardwaj, Director (Technical), Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), said.

He was talking to reporters here on the sidelines of the India Energy Forum meet.

Bhardwaj said after the review by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), the NPCIL will be granted permission to close the reactor pressure vessel.

Loading of 163 bundles of enriched uranium fuel into the reactor began on September 19 and was completed on October 2.

"We have two more steps to attain first criticality. First the reactor will be closed after clearance from the AERB which will be followed by pressure tests," Bhardwaj said.

He said pressure and temperature inside the reactor would be increased artificially in a gradual manner to rule out any discrepancies.

"Once it is okay, we are ready to go critical," Bhardwaj said adding that utmost care is taken at every step as it is for the first time a 1000 MW reactor built with foreign collaboration is being commissioned in the country.

Asked whether the first unit of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project would be commissioned around the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin likely on November 1, he said, "We are not working on timelines. We are working on steps."

"Very shortly," he said when asked when the remaining steps in commissioning the plan would be completed.

Commissioning of the first unit of the Indo-Russian project was originally scheduled for December last year, but has been delayed due to protests.

As expected, nuclear negotiations took centre stage during Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s visit to Delhi. Much talk of cultural links owing to the English language, cricket, a Westminster style parliament was bandied about. While Australia insists on a multifaceted engagement to build deep interdependencies, India sees only its one point agenda in all of this and has held ties hostage to the supply of Uranium. While opinions in Delhi seem optimistic many factors point to need for a hard reality check.Abhijit Iyer-Mitra writes in  Eurasia Review.

To start off, Australia as of now has no capacity to supply India. Given its current commitments are backlogged, new mines in Olympic Dam (South Australia) were meant to generate the additional uranium that would feed India. Given that India’s much trumpeted nuclear reactor construction binge has fizzled out, the market pressures that would have spurred on Olympic dam’s expansion added to Australia’s own internal anti-nuclear sentiments means that this will probably not happen. What this means is that in the next five years we should not expect any shipments from Australia.

Logistical problems aside there are legal issues at work here which may ossify the relationship into its current lukewarm state. Australia in all its other nuclear supply agreements insists on a total separation of personnel – i.e. people working in civilian facilities fuelled by Australian uranium cannot be transferred to weapons facilities at any point of time – past present or future. Gillard it is reliably learnt insisted on this clause. Given that her minority government is dependent on the greens, who are already angered by the nuclear deal with India, there is only so much that they can be pushed around before things snap.

The India-US nuclear deal had one aspect of tacit proliferation built into its structure – the horizontal proliferation of knowledge from the civilian to the military. As a result while all kinds of water-tight restrictions were placed on the transfer of materials and power, none was placed on the movement of scientists. This of course was well known, since the point was to acquire French reprocessing technology – ostensibly for civilian purposes but then to duplicate the same to improve India’s reportedly dismal weapons material reprocessing.

Australia however will have none of this – and all indications are that their diplomats have smartened up to India’s negotiating tactics on this score. India’s sob story rests on the basis of acutely limited domain knowledge. That is to say since the pool of trained nuclear scientists is so small they have to do everything from running reactors, ensuring power output, reprocessing spent fuel, refining raw fuel, auditing their colleagues, and making bombs when they get some free time. Indian diplomats presumably will argue this exact story – and ask that Australia make concessions on this score. If it gets nasty the negotiating position will swing to the fact that Australia is providing us with raw material not technology and they should confine their overly long noses only to the safety and security of their produce.

India’s nuclear power failures warn against uranium exports, reports MV Ramana for the Satellite.Just read:

SELLING Australian uranium is reportedly at the top of Prime Minister Julia Gillard's priorities as she travels to India this week. Before she decides to do that, there are three facts she may want to consider.

First, despite all the hoopla about India's nuclear ambitions, nuclear energy is unlikely to contribute more than a few percent of the country's electricity capacity in the next several decades, if ever.

India's Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has always promised much and delivered little. In the early 1970s, for example, DAE projected that by 2000 there would be 43,000 MW of installed nuclear capacity. In 2000, that capacity was actually 2720 MW. Today, nuclear power constitutes barely 2% of the total electricity generation capacity.

There is at least one good technical reason why future targets are unlikely to be met: India is pursuing an unreliable technology. The DAE's plans involve constructing hundreds of fast breeder reactors. Fast breeder reactors are so-called because they are based on energetic (fast) neutrons and because they produce (breed) more fissile material than they consume.

In the early decades of nuclear power, many countries pursued breeder programs. But practically all of them have given up on breeder reactors as unsafe and uneconomical. Relying on a technology shown to be unreliable makes it likely that nuclear power will never become a major source of electricity in India.

The failure to meet targets is not a result of lack of money. DAE has always been lavishly funded. Its proposed budget for 2011-12 was roughly $A1.7 billion; in comparison, the proposed 2011-12 budget of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy was $A0.22 billion. It's testimony to the government's priorities.

To put that in perspective, the total generating capacity of renewable energy projects was 22,233 MW, whereas the installed capacity of nuclear power was 4780 MW. Though almost all of the growth in modern renewable energy capacity has been over the last two decades, they already generate more electricity (in GWh) than all reactors put together.

Second, there are reasons to be worried about the risk of severe accidents at Indian nuclear facilities. Among all electricity generating technologies, nuclear power alone comes with the possibility of catastrophic accidents, with consequences spreading out across space and time. Despite improvements in reactor technology, the probability of such catastrophic accidents remains stubbornly greater than zero. This poses extreme organisational demands, and these demands have unfortunately not been met.

Most nuclear facilities in the country have experienced small or large accidents. Fortunately, none of these has been catastrophic. Many of these were caused by inattention to recurring problems or other warnings; to the extent that those responsible for safety have tried to fix them, they have not always been successful.

Compounding this state of affairs is the absurd confidence DAE leaders have publicly expressed - and have likely internalised - in the safety of nuclear facilities in the country. This has often taken the form of asserting that the probability of a nuclear accident in India is zero, something that was frequently heard in the aftermath of Fukushima.

Worse, on March 15, 2011, the Chairman of NPCIL reassured the public saying, "there is no nuclear accident or incident in Japan's Fukushima plants. It is a well planned emergency preparedness programme which the nuclear operators of the Tokyo Electric Power Company are carrying out to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automatic shutdown following a major earthquake."

Such denial would be laughable, but when the person opining is in charge of India's power reactor fleet, it ceases to be amusing. It is well worth noting by anyone planning to supply uranium, especially Australia, given that Australian uranium was used as fuel at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors.

Third, a large majority of the Indian public, particularly those living near proposed nuclear facilities, learned the obvious lesson from Fukushima: nuclear reactors are hazardous, and communities living near nuclear facilities would be the worst affected in the event of an accident. This is why there are ongoing protests at all new sites selected for nuclear plants. The protracted and intense protests over commissioning of the Koodankulam reactors in Tamil Nadu is just the most spectacular of these.

The risk of catastrophic accidents means that the pursuit of nuclear power is justified only if it is done democratically with the informed consent of the potentially affected populations. What the ongoing protests over Koodankulam and other reactor sites tells us is that these populations are not consenting to be subject to this risk.

They deserve to be listened to, including by Prime Minister Gillard.

MV Ramana

Program on Science and Global Security, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University

Disclosure Statement

MV Ramana does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Centre on Thursday justified in the Supreme Court waiver of the nuclear liability agreement with Russia for the Kudankulam plant in Tamil Nadu and said it was a policy decision taken at a time when no other country came forward to sustain India’s nuclear capabilities.The Hindu reports.

Making this submission before a Bench of Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra, Solicitor General Rohinton Nariman denied the allegation of Prashant Bhushan, counsel for petitioners, that the Government had signed the agreement to appease Russia.

Mr. Nariman said: “It was a major policy decision by the Government of India considering the prevailing circumstances at the time. It is stated that after the 1974 peaceful nuclear experiment at Pokhran, India was placed under international sanctions for all nuclear-related supplies. We continued our indigenous efforts in developing nuclear energy, however, we were subjected to an international technology denial regime. Under these circumstances, it was the erstwhile USSR, which had come forward and had offered to supply large capacity VVER 1000 MWe to India. This was a huge step in sustaining our civilian nuclear capabilities.”

Denying the allegation that in view of the nuclear liability waiver safety considerations had been compromised, counsel said the Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL), in the case of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP), “has taken all mandatory licences and clearance from all the requisite statutory authorities.”

“Apart from these clearances, the KKNPP has been reviewed by an expert group constituted by the Government of India for the ‘safety of Kudankulam nuclear power plant and impact of its operation on the surroundings’, which was headed by Dr. A.E. Muthunayagam.”

Mr. Nariman said, “This expert group, in its report of December 2011, has observed: ‘From the exhaustive analysis given above it is concluded that there need to be absolutely no concern among the public living around KKNPP and the operation of the nuclear power station would not certainly give rise to any deleterious effects among people’.”

He said three villages were within the Sterile Zone of the KKNPP — Kudankulam, Vijayapathi (Idinthakarai) and Irrukkandurai. “As per 2001 census, the population residing within the SZ consisting of these three villages is approximately 23,960 and not 40,000 as alleged by the petitioner. The population residing within SZ has been taken care of while preparation of the Emergency Preparedness Plan of the KKNPP site.” He denied that the KKNPP suffered from any issue that need to be resolved before the plant could be commissioned and sought dismissal of the petitions which raised safety concern of the plant.

Transparency in nuclear safety regulation

A Gopalakrishnan | Agency: DNA | Thursday, February 2, 2012

Background: The Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill, 2011, is being discussed by the parliamentary committee on science, technology, environment and forests. The government intends to replace the current nuclear safety regulator, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), with the proposed NSRA, ostensibly being created to strengthenimplementationof nuclear safety. Meanwhile, hearing a public interest petition on nuclear issues in the Supreme Court on December 5, 2011, Chief Justice SH Kapadia is reported to have said, “Have a public debate. Come out with a concrete solution till Parliament considers the [NSRA] Bill and suggest a regulatory model or framework and then we can consider” (The Hindu, December 5). Adjourning the case for a month, the court told the petitioners that they could suggest some regulatory models, independent of the government, adopted in countries like the US, France, the UK and Canada, which it would then ‘recommend’ to the government. (The Indian Express, December 6).
To create wider public understanding of nuclear safety regulation in some developed countries, and to initiate informed debate along the lines suggested by the Supreme Court, I had published the following three articles in DNA: ‘Nuclear Safety Regulator: The US Model’ (December 13); ‘The Success of French Nuclear Safety Regulation’ (December 19); and ‘Lessons from Canada on Nuclear Safety’ (December 19). One could gather a glimpse of the salient best practices of the developed world’s nuclear regulators from these three articles. A common emphasis noticeable in these practices is the matter of openness and transparency in safety regulation. In this article, I propose to bring out the stark contrast between the world’s best practices of nuclear transparency and what the government of India is proposing to implement through the current bill.
NSRA should oversee only civilian facilities: When it comes to transparency and openness of safety regulation and the applicability, if any, of the Official Secrets Act, civilian and military nuclear facilities and programmes will necessarily have to be dealt with differently. Combining these two types of facilities and programmes under the same regulatory act will sharply cut down the transparency of regulation of the civilian sector.
Primarily for this reason, all countries which have civilian and military nuclear facilities handle their nuclear safety regulation process for each of these two types strictly under separate legislations, through the creation of separate regulatory authorities.
The NSRA Bill is silent on the specific nuclear facilities and programmes over which the new authority would exercise control. Currently, the AERB has jurisdiction over only civilian facilities and programmes. These shall be formally brought under the NSRA. To accomplish this, a new section, 18(1)(e), shall be included in the bill to read: “All facilities and programmes currently under the purview of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board shall be transferred to the jurisdiction of the authority and deemed to be governed by this act.” Also, section 25 of the bill provides for creating new regulatory bodies, under which a new regulatory body shallbe created without delay to oversee solely the safety of military nuclear installations and programmes and existing military facilities shall be placed under that future regulatory agency.
Contrast in regulatory transparency
In the NSRA Bill, the only mention of transparency is in section 20(2)(c) which states: “The authority shall ensure transparency by systematic public outreach on matters relating to nuclear safety without disclosing sensitive information and compromising confidentiality of commercially sensitive information of technology holders.” At least, as a minimum, the principal means by which the authority is to “ensure transparency and public outreach” could have been briefly spelt out as guidance, upon which operational rules can then be framed later.
In contrast, the French TSN Act on Transparency, under which the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) is created, has its entire Title III consisting of 10 articles, arranged in three chapters, devoted to information exchange with the public on nuclear safety. The US and Canadian practices on transparency in nuclear safety regulation are similarly enacted so that these practices of transparency are mandatoryunder law.

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