Last week, a proposal by the Government of India to sell a 10% stake in the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, Ltd (NPCIL) and list the utilities company on the bourses was revealed. NPCIL’s worth is evaluated at Rs. 25,428 crores, with a turnover of Rs. 7,914 crores and a net profit of Rs. 1,906 crores last year. The largest nuclear power company in India (the GoI also owns Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd, or Bhavini, which is in charge of India’s fast reactors), NPCIL operates 21 reactors including the newly started facility and Kudankulam I and generates 5,780 MW of power, with five more reactors under construction that would provide an additional 3,800 MW. NPCIL generates 10 MW from windmills, also at Kudankulam.
Normally, this would be a moment of great expectations; the argument for a gradual privatisation of the nuclear energy sector is strong, and it may be hoped that a 10% divestment is the first step in such a direction. Yet, as is often the case in India, no good news comes untainted. The cause of concern in this case is the abysmal state of nuclear regulatory mechanisms in the country. Whether one calls it the arrogance of babudom, the conflation of secrecy and security, or pseudo-democracy, the functioning of India’s Atomic Energy Commission leaves even ardent supporters of nuclear power (such as myself) quite underwhelmed.
France obtains almost 80% of its electricity from nuclear power; the United States, though deriving a lesser percentage of overall electricity from nuclear power than France, nonetheless operated over 100 commercial reactors. The reliance of both these countries on nuclear power is based on the involvement of the private sector in the industry and good regulatory mechanisms. As in many sectors, private firms have shown greater efficiency in running utility companies, nuclear as well as with other fuels. However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (United States) and Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (France) work in close collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency‘s International Nuclear Safety Group and/or the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group to ensure effective safety precautions at every step of the nuclear energy generation process. These safety standards extend not just to nuclear power plant workers but also the citizenry in the immediate vicinity, comprising of safety gear, medical facilities, and even evacuation plans as a last resort.
For example, INSAG’s Basic Safety Principles for Nuclear Power Plants recommends that “emergency plans are prepared before the startup of the plant, and are exercised periodically to ensure that protection measures can be implemented in the event of an accident.” These measures are to be “taken on and off the site to protect the public from any serious releases of radioactive materials from the plant.” What the ASN and INSAG call ‘Defence in Depth’ is a policy that seeks to primarily prevent any accident, and failing that, to limit its consequences. Procedures have the three-stage goal of trying to compensate for human error and machine failure, containing damage to the plant itself, and protecting the nearby public and environment in a worst-case scenario.
Safety is not viewed in merely tactical terms but is also built into policy. INSAG’s Management of Operational Safety in Nuclear Power Plants states that a regulatory body must provide “critical self-assessment and correction.” The regulatory body must monitor facilities; it must take action if the safety management system is found to be inadequate or ineffective; it should strive to remain non-bureaucratic and technically competent, as well as ensure competence of workers at nuclear facilities; any safety policy must be clear, as must be the procedures it tries to institute. At a governmental level, another document, Safety Culture, asks, is the regulatory body satisfactory? Are there unnecessary impediments to its functioning? Does the body have an adequate budget that keeps up with inflation and allows it to hire the appropriate talent? Is there sufficient safety research? Are there effective collaborations with other bodies on safety? Is there undue influence on the regulatory body?
This brief overview of French and US safety standards indicates why they have not hesitated to open their industry to private players such as American Electric Power, Duke Energy, Southern Company, and others. France’s Areva, despite a large government share, has a number of minority partners, even international ones.
In India, the scene is dismal – a recent report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India found the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, India’s version of the ASN or NRC, to be an abject failure in its responsibilities. No authority was given to AERB to create, modify, or discard rules on nuclear safety and security; there was no comprehensive nuclear safety policy; licensing of radiological equipment was found to be deficient; regulatory inspections were not performed.
The recent demonstrations against the nuclear power plant coming up at Kudankulam have attracted much attention. The facility presently accommodates two Russian VVER-1000 reactors. This reactor has four layers of radioactive containment as well as a passive safety system, making it a fairly safe design. While the broad opposition of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy is nonsensical, one cannot but consider their case on grounds of an incompetent nuclear conclave in India – technology is, after all, only as good as the people operating it.
A recent RTI filed against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant reveals that no plans have been made in case of a Level 7 (on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale) accident. Furthermore, the NPP’s Emergency Preparedness Plan did not envisage any duties outside the plant and is hence an internal document of the NPCIL. Accordingly, no offsite emergency drills had been conducted – in fact, no evacuation has even been envisaged. In fact, beyond the 1.5-kms radius exclusion zone, the responsibility of relief in case of accident has been put on the district administration. This lackadaisical approach to safety violates not only INSAG guidelines but even common sense.
In terms of Corporate Social Responsibility, government sources say that the amount allocated for the surrounding areas has been paltry. V. Narayanasamy, Minister of State in the PMO, told Parliament earlier this year that a mere Rs. 11 crores had been released over four years, adequate only for a handful of classrooms and a computer laboratory to serve as a photo opportunity for the government and NPCIL. However, Narayanasamy also mentions an additional Rs. 500 crores that had been sanctioned for the improvement of the environs of the KKNPP but not a penny of this has yet been seen.
It is such carelessness that gives even the most vociferous advocate of nuclear power pause. Development is indeed important, but not at the risk of nuclear contamination. Such practices cannot be allowed as private operators, who can be expected to implement only the minimum legal requirements, enter the nuclear market. Most shocking is that this neglect of nuclear safety is not done to cut corners and save on costs as one might expect in a shady private operation; it is done out of sheer incompetence and lack of accountability. What is more, the cloak of secrecy that protects everything nuclear in India, be it a stationary requisition order or a bomb design, will dutifully conceal that which the public have a right to know. This is the danger of nuclear power in India – the management, not the technology. At this rate, India’s babus will certainly have India glowing, but it may be a radioactive glow.