A Nuclear Disaster Waiting to Happen
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) just released its report for the year ending March 2012 on the activities of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). The AERB was set up in 1983, under the Atomic Energy Act, to carry out regulatory and safety functions of India’s nuclear assets. The CAG’s inquiry was limited to the ability of the AERB to discharge its duties regarding radiation safety, emergency preparedness, liaison with other international nuclear safety bodies, and the regulatory system that exists in the country to enable the AERB to perform its functions more effectively.
The findings of the report were, to put it mildly, highly unsatisfactory – in a criteria set of eight parameters, the AERB failed in all of them. Admittedly, a large portion of the blame falls on the central government for reasons we will get into later. The CAG was given the usual bureaucrat-ese response expected, “While there were no specific assurances giving time-lines within which our recommendations would be acted upon, we were assured that these were being looked into.”
The fundamental failures of the AERB, and through them the Government of India, (GoI) were:
- No authority was given to AERB to create, modify, or discard rules on nuclear safety and security. Neither did the premier nuclear safety body in India have the power to decide on fines (a maximum of Rs. 500 under the Atomic Energy Act (AEA), 1962) or on their imposition.
- The AERB had failed to prepare a comprehensive nuclear safety policy despite being ordered to do so in 1983(!!) The body had failed to develop 27 out of the 168 safety documents required despite two review panels (Meckoni Committee in 1987 and Raja Ramanna Committee in 1997) demanding an expedition of the process.
- Licensing of radiological equipment was found to be deficient – for example, 91% of x-ray units in the country were found not be registered with the AERB. Furthermore, there was no clear framework for even the required paperwork. A sub-department, Directorate of Radiation Safety (DRS), had been ordered to be established for medical radiology by the Supreme Court in 2001 – only Kerala and Mizoram had complied.
- Rate of regulatory inspections for safety and compliance was abysmal – only 15% of industrial radiography and less than 3% of diagnostic radiology units were inspected.
- AERB was found not to even have a list of all radiological sources in the country; responsibility for radiological surveillance of nuclear plants lay with the operators (Nuclear Power Corporation of India, Ltd (NPCIL) or Bhavini) and AERB had no oversight. As a result, there was no mechanism to ensure that radiological waste had been actually and safely disposed.
- No emergency preparedness plan was formulated or conducted by AERB in case of reactor malfunction, floods, earthquake, terrorist attack, etc.
- Neither is there any formal procedure of decommissioning nuclear reactors in India nor does the AERB have any authority to create one. Decommissioning of reactors such as Purnima, Zerlina, and Cirus were most likely done on an ad hoc basis. Despite the publication of a safety manual by the AERB in 1999, no nuclear plant in India has a decommissioning plan. Furthermore, as the AEA does not contain provisions for decommissioning, such funds have not be provisioned for.
- While the AERB had maintained relations with the international nuclear community, it has been extremely slow in adopting safer benchmarks of operation. The AERB has not subjected itself to a peer review by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
In simple terms, these grievances mean that there is no proper framework established in India to build, operate, and maintain nuclear and radiological facilities, and if they existed, there is no oversight or verification. Thus, if there were a radiation leak at Kaiga, it would be up to NPCIL, the operator, to locate the problem, solve it, and do the requisite damage control – a tall order in a system that does not even have a framework to begin with.
While the CAG made recommendations to Parliament on what the AERB should do to immediately improve nuclear safety standards in India, they are nothing either Parliament, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), or the AERB have not heard before. The problem is even more fundamental and lies in the very structure of the nuclear conclave in India. As I had written in an article investigating the feasibility of privatisation of nuclear power in India, the GoI has conflated secrecy with security, and in the early days of the republic, centralised all powers, through the DAE, to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). As the CAG also pointed out, India’s nuclear hierarchy is a problem in more efficient and safer management of nuclear resources. While the CAG specifically mentioned that the AERB’s subservience to the DAE created “grave risks” and advocated that the AERB be designated as an independent body (an IAEA first principle of nuclear regulation) and given absolute authority over nuclear regulatory affairs, this sentiment can be taken further:
- Instead of reporting to the DAE, the AERB should report to a Subcommittee of Parliament for Energy
- Regarding military reactors, still under the DAE but subject to safety inspections by the AERB, a Subcommittee of Parliament for Defence can debrief the regulatory authority
- AERB opacity must also be diminished. Reports on all non-military nuclear and radiological units must be made public, bringing transparency not just at the institutional level but also at the unit level. It is a red herring that this will endanger national security, for India has already agreed, through the system of nuclear arrangements around the Indo-US nuclear deal, to IAEA monitoring of its civilian facilities.
These arguments are not new – many have been making similar demands since the mid-1990s, former AERB chairman A. Gopalakrishnan being one of them, along with many scientists such as Biswarup Banerjee and Nataraja Sarma. However, the GoI has not seen the need to act on any of these recommendations. This is a real pity because such reforms would have taken the wind out the anti-nuclear activists’ sails while simultaneously improving the country’s nuclear account-keeping and finally paving the way for a true nuclear renaissance in India.
To be fair, the absence of traditional nuclear book-keeping methods has not spelled disaster. Ad hoc or not, nuclear plants have been decommissioned uneventfully in India before. India has had relatively few nuclear accidents so far, none beyond Level 3 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). None of this, however, is an argument against making nuclear regulation stricter and more transparent for little extra cost. The creation of decommissioning and safety protocols by each nuclear power plant unnecessarily duplicates labour and costs. Furthermore, such open and objective standards would allow the expansion of the nuclear power industry to private and even international hands, bringing in more players and giving a much-needed boost to India’s energy production. The only ruffled feathers would be in the by-now-ossified bureaucratic fiefdoms under the existing hierarchy.
Appu Soman explains in his latest book how Indian policy-making as a certain through-the-looking-glass (as in Alice and Lewis Carroll) effect. His book restricted itself to foreign policy, but it is no stretch of the imagination to extend that descriptor to all elements of government “thinking” and policy in India. There is little downside to implementing nuclear reforms. For the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), now in power, it would merely mean a continuation of the course it had set for India with the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal. For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), nuclear reforms dovetail nicely with their image as nuclear hawks – what better way to cultivate that image further than by advocating nuclear reform? The country will certainly sleep easier, knowing that its nuclear assets are under tight watch. The anti-nuclear activists will see many of their demands met, perhaps even winning over a few minds. Ultimately, this might simply be what Dorothy Wainright (Yes, Prime Minister) calls a clash of the political “will” and the administrative “won’t,” a powerful force much underestimated in politics.
PS: For the record, I am deeply pro-nuclear, energy as well as weapons. But being pro-nuclear does not mean being pro-stupid, or turning a blind eye to genuine problems. India cannot go forward with its nuclear ambitions unless the issues the CAG raises are satisfactorily resolved.