Accident Sites – radiation, cancer, blindness, tardiness, cover-ups. The lessons from the Kalpakkam nuclear facility

BY KUNAL MAJUMDER. From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 36, Dated September 11, 2010

In the end, loud voices were all that mattered. After three months of extended discussions, legislators in the Indian Parliament yelled their assent. The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010 was a legislation.As India charts its journey towards extended nuclear commerce — the legislation allows India to trade with global private firms in nuclear technology — we highlight key coordinates on the Indian nuclear map as we seek to understand how ready we are to embrace nuclear energy.

Last week’s story, Nuclear energy. Ministries warn they are far from ready, 4 September, laid bare the backroom machinations as the government worked to ensure that the Parliament cleared the draft Nuclear Liability legislation. Amidst the loud public din, voices of government officials warning that they were ill-equipped to deal with nuclear accidents were drowned out. When the legislation was finally passed in the Rajya Sabha, Minister of State for Science and Technology Prithviraj Chavan, attempting to take dissenters on board, declared, “This is not final… We will take care of every single suggestion. If required, the Bill will be changed for the better.”

This week, TEHELKA travels to Kalpakkam and Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu where two nuclear plants are located.

IN AN inconspicuous corner of the Department of Atomic Energy’s (DAE) website is a large map that could easily belong in a student’s science textbook. On the map that captures atomic energy establishments in India, it isn’t difficult to find Kalpakkam. Located around 70 km from Tamil Nadu’s capital, Chennai, Kalpakkam plays host to seven nuclear organisations — from the Madras Atomic Power Station that generates nuclear energy to the Kalpakkam Atomic Reprocessing Plant that reprocesses spent fuel from the reactors for reuse in other nuclear programmes. But there is yet another reason to accord Kalpakkam a special place on the Indian nuclear map. The two pressurised heavy water reactors installed at Kalpakkam were developed indigenously. Commercial operation at the atomic power plant began way back in 1984 and 1986; and currently the plant produces 440MW of electricity from the two reactors. Plans for an additional 500MW capacity are on the anvil.

Further south, about 700 km from Kalpakkam, is Kudankulam. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited is in the process of constructing two 1,000MW capacity reactors here. Kudankulam reactors, being built with the support of the Russian nuclear vendor company, Atomstroyexport, will be India’s first collaboration with an international player when it begins operations in March 2011. The atomic power plants at Kalpakkam and Kudankulam then present two distinct coordinates within the Indian nuclear energy spectrum — a predominantly indigenous-technology powered Kalpakkam power plant versus a power plant that will bring on board collaboration with a foreign player.

And yet as TEHELKA found when it travelled to both places, the anxieties and the pain in the voices of the people living around these plants did not differ. If at Kalpakkam, whispers of nuclear incidents and accidents at the various nuclear facilities were very audible, at Kudankulam, it was the apprehension of an impending disaster that rang clear.

TEHELKA ACCESSED a confidential letter (BARCFEA/ 03/03/131 dated 24 January 2003) written to the Director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), the Mumbai-based organisation that oversees operations at the Kalpakkam Fuel Reprocessing Plant. The letter written by the general secretary of the BARC Facilities Employees’ Association recounted in detail a significant nuclear accident that took place on 21 January 2003 at the Kalpakkam Atomic Reprocessing Plant. According to the letter, a scientist, Srinivasa Raju, was asked to collect a sample of an unknown solution from a low-level radioactive waste tank. The tank had not been fitted with a gamma monitor that would raise an alarm in case of high radiation levels. Around 12 pm, Raju carried the sample to an internal laboratory by hand and left it in a tray for testing. The laboratory’s gamma monitor immediately began emitting visual alarms in response to the high-radiation level of the solution. It took the workers two hours to notice the radiation monitors. By the time, the source of the alarm was located, Raju had been working with the solution for nearly an hour. Besides Raju, five others, including a woman, had also been exposed to high levels of radiation. BARC officials acknowledged the event eight months later, and finally on 6 August 2003, B Bhattacharjee, then director of BARC, termed it “the worst accident in India’s nuclear history”.

When we asked about the six people, including Raju, who were exposed to high levels of radiation, there were no easy answers. “One of them died,” said Dr A Vijaya, medical superintendent of the DAE established hospital in Kalpakkam, only to quickly add, “but not due to radiation. The rest are fine.” Deflecting queries about their whereabouts, Dr Vijaya directed us to the fuel reprocessing plant officials. Repeated attempts to contact the reprocessing plant officials proved futile.

Yet another Confidential letter reveals more cases of radiation exposure (see box). In an off-hand dismissal of accident claims by workers at the plant, Dr Vasudev Rao, Director, Chemical Group, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research in Kalpakkam said the Indian nuclear industry had a zero-tolerance policy towards radiation exposure. “Because of our clean track record, even small instances are blown out of proportion by the media and common people,” said Dr Rao.

Outside the facility too, there are enough voices that speak of radiation effects. Since plant operations began in the early 1980s, incidents of cancer and auto-immune thyroid diseases in the surrounding villages have increased. Five km south of the Kalpakkam nuclear facility, at Sadraskuppam village, we met with Rajesh (name changed), a contract worker at the nuclear facility. Rajesh’s three-year-old daughter, Abhi has been diagnosed with retinoblastoma, or cancer of eyes, and doctors have just confirmed the eventuality of her death.

“I want to donate her organs. But my wife is far too emotional and won’t hear of it,” he says. Rajesh earns 300 daily — a sum that is hardly enough to pay for an operation that could have possibly saved his daughter’s life.

A second-generation plant worker, Rajesh tells us emphatically that doctors treating his daughter at the Aarvind Eye Hospital in Madurai unequivocally confirm that radiation from the nuclear plant is responsible for her condition. Their advice is clear — move out of the area. Something that Rajesh cannot afford to do. “I have four young children who depend on me. How will I feed them if I don’t work here?” asks Rajesh. Point out the obvious irony and Rajesh turns away. Rajesh’s story is by no means an isolated one. An estimated 30,000 workers live in the five villages that fall within the 5 km radius from the plant, besides a DAE township that accommodates permanent plant workers. Ask for statistics on cancer-related deaths among workers and the local public health centre refuses our requests on grounds classifying the information as sensitive. The DAE medical officer, Dr Vijaya, claims that the number of cancer cases in the township is an insignificant 244 over a 10-year period. Local activists contest the figure and say that the official list excludes many deaths. The cause of death is often changed to keep numbers down. Activists and DAE officials also do not see eye-to-eye on the causes of diseases that are prevalent here. Despite studies by internationally recognised professionals, DAE officials maintain that the radiation levels emitted are too low to cause problems.

NONE OF these debates were taken on board by the parliamentary committee that visited the facility on 7 July this year while the nuclear liability legislation was under consideration. Over a few hours, committee members led by T Subbarami Reddy met officials from different facilities and local politicians and concluded that the facility was equipped to handle accidents and that people faced no problems in the area. “We are shocked. They didn’t even enter the villages. They accepted the version of the DAE officials and the politicians,” says Dr V Pugazhenthi, a physician who has been practising in the area for the past 20 years. Understandably, the doctor is a strong critic of the plant’s unsafe practices.

In Kudankulam, months away from the start of the operations, there is no sign of debate. Villagers allege that the mandated public hearings, one possible space for debate, were held 87 km from the plant site. Says AS Ravi, a local leader, “We went in huge numbers despite the obvious problem of distance. Nothing mattered though. In the end, our villages didn’t even figure on their map.” Adds Dr SP Udayakumar, another activist, “People here are bracing for the radiation effects once the plant operations begin in March 2011. Though officially, there has been no intimation, 30,000 villagers have been asked to leave once the plant is functional.”

In the end, for the villagers of Kudankulam, there is only one relevant question left to ask. In broken Hindi, an old banana vendor yells, “If Manmohan Singh thinks nuclear energy is good, why doesn’t he build a plant at 10 Janpath?” One suggestion that Prithviraj Chavan is not going to take on board.

> 1995 Dayanidhi and Khandhasamy record 50 times more than normal gamma radiation levels in Kalpakkam
> 26 MARCH 1999 Heavy water leak in the K5 unit of MAPS II. At least seven people received a full radiation dose
> 30 MAY 2001 S Sivakumar, a worker, suffers internal contamination after a neoprene glove is punctured
> 7 JULY 2002 Selvakumar, a worker, burns his left hand after he picks up a radioactive substance
> 19 DECEMBER 2002 Madhusoodanan and Rajan fail to follow safety procedures; suffer internal contamination


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