Is The Reactor Pressure Vessel At Koodankulam Safe?
By VT Padmanabhan, R Ramesh & V Pugazhendi
14 August, 2012
The Obsolete Reactor Equipment at Kudamkulam- Corruption in the Indo-Russian deal and its Implications for india’s $100 billion nuclear commerce
Till the Indo-US nuclear deal was signed, there was only one atomic enclave in India. All the reactors run on indigenous fuel were dual-purpose. They were generating electricity and also plutonium for the weapon program. Weapon enclaves in all the nations with bombs are secretive. India cannot be an exception. As part of the deal, all the indigenous reactors and also the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) under construction at Kalpakkam have been kept outside the IAEA safeguards. All the imported reactors including those at Kudankulam and the ones that are under construction will be under IAEA safeguards. The plutonium generated from safeguarded reactors cannot be diverted for non-civilian purposes.
The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) behaves like a military outfit with no transparency and accountability. This is because of the imaginary link with the bombs. NPCIL is a commercial venture of the Government of India with a mandate to produce electricity from fission of uranium atoms. Kudankulam nuclear power plant and all upcoming projects have no strategic significance. Not even a gram of plutonium generated at these sites can be diverted for bombs as these reactors are under IAEA safeguard. Meaning IAEA will be in-charge of the plutonium. Any claim of links with the nuclear weapons or any strategic role to KKNPP/ NPCIL is imaginary. It is high time that the civilian projects are treated as civilians.
Shailesh Gandhi, the Central Information Commissioner observed on an RTI petition on KKNPP: “The Respondent-public authority’s unwillingness to be transparent is likely to give citizens an impression that most decisions are taken in furtherance of corruption resulting in a serious trust deficit. This hampers the health of our democracy and the correctmethod to alter this perception is to become transparent. Such a move would only bring greater trust in the government and its functionaries, and hurt only the corrupt.”
Case study shows that the Reactor pressure vessel (RPV) a key equipment at Kudankulam, is obsolete and unsafe as per the standards prevalent since the 90’s. This old-design vessel may causes chronic outages and have higher risk for premature retirement and for accident like Chernobyl. Scheduled for commissioning in 2007, KKNPP has been delayed by 57 months, mainly due to the defects in the equipments. This is a simple case of a corrupt deal and collusion by suppliers, buyers and regulators. Besides the loss of public money, millions of people are under the threat of contamination in case of an accident.
As NPCIL is gearing up to import $ 100 billion worth nuclear hardware, it will be in the best of national interests to study the track record of the company and assess the strength and weakness of the current regulatory mechanism and the checks and balances.
The case study of KKNPP RPV
As all documentations on equipments of Kudamkulam project are classified as secret, it is difficult to assess the health of the reactor. RPV is the key equipment in a reactor. It is 11x5 meter cylinder with several weld joints. As it cannot be replaced, it determines the life of the reactor. Radiation from the reactor core causes premature ageing of the vessel known as embrittlement. Mostly the core region -the lower half of the vessel- is affected. Weld joints are more sensitive to radiation embrittlement. The pre-1990 vessels had weld joints in the core region. The modern vessels do not have weld joints in the core region. A brittle vessel can cause a catastrophic vessel failure and release of radioactivity as it happened in Chernobyl.
• The original design of the vessel did not have weld joints in the core region of the vessel
• AERB later on, approved with a different design which had weld joints in core region.
• This approval was apparently not known to the key people in NPCIL and AERB.
The vessel with beltline weld joints arrived on time, as scheduled in Jan 2005
After the vessel’s arrival, the project was modified.
The extensive mid-way modification may also be attributed to machine defects.
The project has been delayed by 57 months. Peoples’ blockade (2011-12) delayed it by 200 days.
AERB says that the documents like inspection reports which alone can assure the safety of the reactor plant are “proprietary”.
Russia may have several RPV materials of pre-1988 design, rendered surplus because of the post-Chernobyl cancellation of 30 VVER-1000 reactors under construction in USSR and Central Europe. These vessels would not qualify to be installed in Russia or Europe under their new safety codes. Other global manufacturers in the West will be facing a dumping problem.
This deal is the first of its kind of big imported reactors. Since KKNPP will be the precedent for other upcoming projects, they all will enjoy the veil of secrecy. This gives a handful of science managers an absolute freedom to sell off the national interests and safety concerns of 100 million people.
The cost of the next two Russian reactors that are being negotiated for the same site will be $8 billion. India is planning to import 10 such reactors during the 12th plan and 20 more during the next two decades. The nuclear business is all about this $ 100 billion. No bombs, no defense, no strategic interests. A $100 billion commerce is too mundane a matter to be left to a handful of nuclear physicists. For they often make simpler things more complicated.
According to the latest announcement, fuel loading in KKNPP-1 will be done by Sept 2012. With an unsafe vessel inside, operating the reactor will be risky. Commissioning this reactor without ascertaining the RPV integrity violates IAEA guidelines. After commissioning, inspection of the vessel will be impossible, because of radiation. This will be equivalent to destruction of the evidence of collusion and negligence of duties by AERB’s RPV safety experts.
What need be done?
1. The integrity of RPV till the end of its design life has to proven before commissioning the reactor as per the IAEA guidelines.
2. The existing procedure for buying and acceptance of equipments from abroad is not transparent. Lack of transparency and accountability will cause financial losses and in the case of a major accident, sow seeds of miseries for the millions. This is urgent because the nation is going to buy $ 100 billion worth nuclear hardware.
3. NPCIL is the custodian of the unsafeguarded reactors also. Since those are intended for non-commercial/strategic purposes, it will be better they are handed over to an appropriate company. This will make the nuclear scientists of NPCIL, more peaceful than they are now.
4. KKNPP RPV case study is the first instance of a multi-crore scam in a nuclear power project. KKNPP had leased 220 hectares of its land in the coastal zone for mining limestone for 8 years, even while the reactors were under construction, violating the condition for lease of land.
5. Since several such projects are in the pipeline, immediate actions will save our nuclear scientists from bigger scams and prevent the drain of our foreign exchange as well.
Note: This is the abridged version of a book which is under publication
Dr. V. Pugazhenthi is acclaimed for his rigorous and credible studies on health impact of radiation around Kalpakkam nuclear site. He is an activist belonging to the Doctors for Safer Environment
Dr. R. Ramesh a medical practitioner, who has written books on the geology of Kudankulam
VT Padmanabhan is a researcher in health effects of radiation. He has led epidemiological investigations among people exposed to high radiation in Kerala. He has also studied the occupational radiation hazards among workers of Indian Rare Earths, genetic effects of children exposed to MIC gases in Bhopal, health hazards to workers in a viscose rayon unit in Madhyapradesh and reduction of birth weight of babies near a beverage bottling plant in Kerala. He has visited several contaminated sites in Belarus and Japan and had extensive interactions with the survivors.His papers have been published in International Journal of Health Services, Journal of American Medical Association, International Perspectives in Public Health, the Lancet and Economic and Political Weekly. He is a member of the European Commission on Radiation Risk, an independent body of experts appointed by the Green MEPs in Europe.
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