Rethinking nuclear safety

The recent radioactive contamination case in New Delhi has once again highlighted the need for India to have a comprehensive nuclear safety policy. Even as India’s appetite for nuclear energy and nuclear commerce grows by  leaps and bounds, it is time for the government to publish a white paper consolidating the various policy measures regarding nuclear safety and clearly defining the role of various agencies in this regard.

The Atomic Energy Act, 1962 is a guiding legislation and has little to say in terms of implementation. Therefore there is a need for a comprehensive review of existing policies and standard operating procedures on nuclear safety. Any such review should take a holistic look at the five “faces” or central elements of nuclear safety most relevant to India—plant security, accident prevention and accident liability, waste disposal, radioactive emergency management, and public awareness. While a tremendous amount of legislation, regulation, activity and even acrimony has occurred over these issues in recent months, it is time to craft an umbrella nuclear safety policy that is in tune with Indian realities and challenges.

The security of nuclear installations in India has not been a source of major concern. The revelation of Pakistan’s plans to bomb the Trombay reactor in 1987 in the wake of Operation Brasstacks led to further strengthening of the reactors which are today among the country’s most hardened assets. While David Headley’s reconnaissance of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) created a minor stir, the possibility of a terrorist group to storm any of India’s currently operating plants to steal nuclear material or cause an accident is considered remote.

However, the safety of personnel working at these installations still remains a cause for concern. The contamination of a drinking water cooler at the Kaiga plant with Tritium in 2009 may have led to a major review of procedures but the culprit is yet to be caught. In January 2006, Karnataka police had uncovered a Lashkar-e-Taiba plot to carry out explosions at Kaiga. And groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which killed one scientist and injured three others in the 2005 attack at the Indian Institute of Science, continue to pose a threat to the physical security of nuclear plants’ personnel.

Preventing nuclear accidents is both a function of the design of reactors as well as their maintenance. Given the economics of nuclear energy production, it is important to balance the necessity of improving the efficiency of India’s reactors with the improved caution in their maintenance. A conscious effort is required to raise the capacity utilisation factor (CUF) of all the power plants to above 90 percent (the current CUF hovers around 60 percent) while continuing high standards of maintenance. Prevention and damage mitigation matters as much as liability compensation in the case of a nuclear accident. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is the government agency responsible for nuclear safety in India, overseeing all issues from planning to implementation.

However, the AERB is woefully under-staffed for the scope of the task it is about to undertake in the coming years as India builds 24-30 more reactors and scales up its nuclear power output by 14 times. The AERB has just 170 scientific and technical staff to monitor 17 nuclear power plants, over 5,000 medical, industrial and research units, five uranium mines and over 50,000 radiography units. In addition, this meagre staff is also charged with clearing over 80,000 permits annually for transportation of radioactive material within the country. There is a need to expand the strong human capital base for the nuclear industry in India, for instance, by recruiting personnel with a broader range of management experience.

The civil nuclear liability bill is now being revived amidst vocal calls of protest. Several mistakes were made with the bill from inception—from the way it was drafted to the way it was articulated. As a result, along with the largely political issue of the amount of compensation for a nuclear accident, legal and technical issues surrounding the liability also ended up becoming politicised. The government should clearly discuss the merits of acceding to the Vienna Convention on Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage and the Convention on Supplementary Compensation in the white paper. Benchmarking with liability legislation in other countries would also help give confidence to the public.

There exists ample coverage of radioactive waste disposal in law. The Atomic Energy (Safe Disposal of Radioactive Wastes) Rules, 1987 and the Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules, 2004 cover all types of radioactive waste – from medical to industrial. BARC is in the process of establishing an underground facility for waste storage. The real challenge then, lies in the implementation. The nuclear safety threat in India comes from mismanagement or neglect of radioactive sources rather than the malicious designs of non-state actors.

Unsurprisingly, the real priority is radioactive emergency management. The search and retrieval of orphan radioactive sources is currently carried out by specialised national emergency response teams and BARC while the responsibility of securing the sources lies with the AERB. The overlap in responsibilities of these agencies can be of concern especially if a contamination accident occurs not in New Delhi or Mumbai, but in a remote town in the hinterland. Indeed, capacity for radioactive accident management needs to be built on a larger scale in the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) some of whose units have been trained for protecting vital installations in the event of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare (and is among the most widely dispersed forces in the country), and even local police forces.

Better investment in terms of equipment is required for the nascent formations of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). As suggested by A N Prasad, former director of AERB, the police forces of all major cities must be provided radiation monitors. Equipping Indian sea-ports as well as land-ports with monitors to detect radioactive material in imports of scrap metal into India is an even more important priority.

Raising public awareness about nuclear safety issues is perhaps most important. India certainly has done better than most other nations in terms of including the basics of nuclear physics in school curriculum. All secondary school students in India are tested on the essentials of a nuclear power generation, which is no mean feat. And yet overall public awareness on nuclear issues remains low.

There is a need to balance the need for nuclear commerce and nuclear power generation with assuaging public anxiety about nuclear safety. For instance, all staff in any hospital with radiography—and not just the personnel operating the radiography machines—should be educated about radiation hazards and protection. Standard operating procedures for radioactive emergency management need to be laid down, with the health ministry at the helm.

A white paper consolidating these broad elements of nuclear safety could go a long way towards not just reassuring the people, but in convincing them about the need to take a well-informed approach to nuclear power in the country.