Leaks at India's nuclear-power plants: cause for concern?

Even the country's safest reactors don't meet international standards, according to its atomic regulations agency

Kakrapara Atomic Power Station (KAPS), in the western city of Surat, is India's well-groomed nuclear workhorse. Huge concrete domes enclose its two reactors, which generate a surplus of power for the country. And when it comes to controlling radiation leakage, KAPS is "our best station," says S.P. Sukhatme, chairman of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).

That, it turns out, is bad news. KAPS may be India's prized nuclear plant, but radiation emitted from its reactors is three times as much as the international norm, says Mr. Sukhatme.

It's a shocking admission that puts the rest of the country's nuclear-power plants in grave perspective. "The main implication is that other nuclear-power plants are much worse than even Kakrapar," says Suren Gadekar, considered to be India's top antinuclear activist.

Four months ago, world leaders fretted about the possibility of two nuclear-weapons rivals, India and Pakistan, approaching the brink of war. That problem apparently on hold, India's nuclear scientists say the country could still face an equally devastating nuclear catastrophe – without a shot being fired.

This time, the threat is not Pakistan or terrorists, but India's power plants themselves. Some scientists say that the plants are so poorly built and maintained, a Chernobyl-style disaster may be just a matter of time.

"The fact that India's nuclear regulator acknowledges that reactors in India are not operated to the standards of reactors in the US and Europe is not much of a surprise," says Christopher Sherry, research director of the Safe Energy Communication Council in Washington. "But it is very disturbing."

India tested its first nuclear device in May 1974. In 1998, the country successfully conducted five underground nuclear tests, heralding its entry into ga select group of countries capable of waging nuclear war.

Today, the country has 14 nuclear power reactors including two at KAPS. Most are modeled after a design first built in Shippingport, Penn. in 1957, and considered by experts to be the most cost-effective way to produce electricity through nuclear energy.

However only three of those nuclear reactors fall under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) standards. The rest – which were built with local technology – are accountable only to national standards set by the AERB.

This February, Sukhatme asked the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd – a government-owned manufacturer of nuclear plants – to plug leakage of water contaminated with tritium, a highly radioactive substance, from reactors. "There is a clear need for reducing the exposure to workers," he says.

Also earlier this year, the AERB ordered the closure of India's first nuclear plant in the state of Rajasthan. The reactor that put India on the nuclear world map developed a series of defects, starting with "turbine-blade failures." Gradually the reactor was wrecked by "cracks in the end-shields, a leak in the calandria overpressure relief device, a leak in many tubes in the moderator heat exchanger."

While the government releases no information about leaks or accidents at its nuclear power plants, Dhirendra Sharma, a scientist who has written extensively on India's atomic-power projects, has compiled figures based on his own reporting. "An estimated 300 incidents of a serious nature have occurred, causing radiation leaks and physical damage to workers," he says. "These have so far remained official secrets."

According to critics like Mr. Gadekar, India's nuclear-power program has always been secretive because politicians use it as a cover for the country's weapons program. "Right from Jawaharlal Nehru [India's first prime minister] onward, our leaders have always claimed that the nuclear-power program is a 'peaceful' program, whereas the weapons implications were always there in the background," says Gadekar. "As a result, secrecy has become a way of life for these people."

The chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar, has repeatedly asserted that his group is doing what it can to ensure that the country's power plants are safe. Still, leaks continues to raise serious questions about safety.

Part of the problem, says N.M. Sampathkumar Iyangar, a former manufacturer of nuclear reactor components, is that well-connected manufacturers are able to cut deals with politicians in India's Department of Energy, often selling defective parts, which are then used to build reactors.

But others, like Dr. Kakodkar, say the real problem is that new technology designed to upgrade safety at power plants is too expensive for developing countries like India. According to Kakodkar, India should not be held accountable to international standards until the international community helps make such technology available to developing countries.

"Safety and technology cannot be divorced," he says.

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