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What the accident at the Koodankulam nuclear plant tells us about its disastrous state

The accident last week, involving six scalded workmen, cannot be dismissed as a minor incident. Can an establishment and medical infrastructure incapable of handling six burn injuries be reasonably expected to handle a full-scale radiological disaster?

By Nityanand Jayaraman | Grist Media –

(Photo credit: Reuters)

For the operators of the Koodankulam nuclear power plant (KKNPP) and India’s secretive nucleocracy, the accident couldn’t have come at a better time. On 14 May, 2014, six workers were injured under still unclear circumstances and had to be hospitalized. Thankfully for Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), the media’s preoccupation with the national elections took the spotlight off the accident and its ramifications after a day’s superficial coverage.

When I first got word of the accident, it was 1:50pm on Wednesday, 14 May. I received a terse text message on my cellphone: “Accident at the Koodankulam nuclear power plant 1. Six workers injured. Admitted to hospital.” I set about trying to confirm this news. Confirmation eventually came, but what I learnt and how I learnt it left me in little doubt that the KKNPP setup was not prepared to handle a disaster, and that its communications strategy is itself a disaster. Also, coming as it did less than a week after the Supreme Court declared that it was satisfied with KKNPP’s safety and emergency response, the incident raises doubts not only about the plant’s safety and its operator’s ability to handle emergencies, but also about the Supreme Court’s own appreciation of the hazards and how they play out.

The first information about the accident did not come from NPCIL. All I had was an unconfirmed report. At that time, even the almighty Google News’ search engine could offer no confirmation. NPCIL’s website was silent on the incident. At the time of writing, NPCIL’s website still has no mention of the accident or the fate of the six injured workers. NPCIL staff at Koodankulam remain as cagey today as they were immediately after the incident.

So I called up friends who were part of the ongoing agitation against this plant. They too had heard the news. But official statements from KKNPP’s operator – the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) – were conflicting, they said.

I spoke to V. Pushparayan, a senior activist from the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) and AAP Lok Sabha candidate from Tamil Nadu’s southern coastal district of Thoothukudi. “First, they said six people were injured and needed only first aid. Then they said they are being treated at the township hospital and that they actually were able to walk by themselves,” Pushparayan said. “I don’t think they are telling the whole truth. People from Koottapully who have shops in Anjugramam called up to say they saw six ambulances rushing by in the general direction of Nagercoil [a town more than 30 km by bad roads from the plant]. That was about 45 minutes ago. And just about 15 minutes back, Mildred called to say she saw three ambulances at Myladi speeding towards Nagercoil. We don’t know what happened to the other three vehicles.” Anjugramam and Myladi are small towns that lie on the Koodankulam-Nagercoil road.

Another friend called by 2.30 pm to say that the injured six had been admitted to a Kumar Hospital. S.P. Udayakumar, another PMANE leader, a Nagercoil native and AAP candidate from that town, was in Chennai when I called him. He was unaware of any Kumar Hospital in Nagercoil. A quick internet search revealed a Krishna Kumar Orthopedic Hospital in Nagercoil. The telephone numbers on the website did not work. I did not want to disturb the KKNPP station director as he was likely to be busy handling the situation. But soon I was left with no choice. NPCIL’s website, then and at the time of writing this, had no news about the incident. Neither was there any point person at KKNPP who could be called in the event of such emergencies.

It was now well past 3 p.m. By this time, rumors were flying thick and fast. I hesitantly called R.S. Sundar, KKNPP’s site director. Sundar wasted a good five minutes of his valuable time explaining why he would neither confirm nor deny my question on whether an incident happened, and whether the injured were at Krishna Kumar Hospital. He finally palmed me off to a landline phone number. He could have done that at the outset if that is indeed the established protocol. Or was there even a protocol, I wondered.

Thankfully, the landline number, which was answered by a person who identified himself as “PA to Director,” yielded more information. “This is only a preliminary report,” he cautioned me. “Today, three department personnel and three contract workers sustained injuries in Unit 1, Turbine building due to spillage of hot water while working on the HP [High Pressure] heater inlet. That is the technical term – HP heater inlet. The injured persons were [treated] at the First Aid Centre and then taken to our hospital at Anu Vijay Township. From there, they have been referred to a specialty Hospital at Nagercoil. All injured persons are in conscious condition.”

Deny. Downplay. Delude

“Hot water spillage”? “Conscious condition”? What meaning do these phrases convey, and to what end? Describing the ejection of a jet of hot water or a burst of steam from a high-pressure heater inlet in a nuclear plant as a “spillage” is an understatement. And telling reporters that the injured workers are in “conscious condition” reveals nothing about the seriousness of their injuries and leaves the public no better informed about the prognosis for the injured personnel.

Globally, the nuclear industry has a curious choice of words and a penchant to euphemize. That is why an atom bomb is called a ‘nuclear device’, an explosion a ‘detonation’, and the Fukushima disaster a ‘Level 7 nuclear event’. The case at hand is no exception.

Wednesday’s accident did not involve radiation. Burns and broken bones are common workplace injuries. It is precisely the commonplace nature of this incident and how it was handled that expose how the Koodankulam setup has all the ingredients required to bungle the handling of major emergencies. These ingredients are: poor, non-transparent and dishonest communications; lack of emergency response infrastructure; non-compliance with operating procedures; and lack of quality assurance of equipment and personnel.

It is now more than 24 hours at the time of writing since the incident happened. I spoke to the PA to the Station Director again. “Any updates since yesterday on the incident or the status of the workers?” I asked. There was none. “Whatever we forwarded to you yesterday, that is all the information we have. There is no further update,” he said politely.

The cloak-and-dagger treatment of a common workplace hazard hints at a pathology; disclosure and transparency are viewed as a problem.  Most of the incidents, even serious ones involving radiation exposure, within Indian nuclear establishments go unreported – some forever, some for months or years. On January 21, 2003, six workers at Kalpakkam Atomic Reprocessing Plant, 70 km from Chennai, were exposed to heavy doses of radiation exceeding annual permissible limits. The incident did not come to light until June 2003, more than six months later when trade unions upset about lax safety conditions and the management’s lackadaisical attitude struck work. Strangely, the nuclear establishment is such that even trade unions wait six months to make public such issues of common concern.

A Minor Incident?

In the current instance, KKNPP management has admitted that the burnt workers are undergoing treatment in a specialty hospital in Nagercoil. This is a town about 30 km as the crow flies, and nearly 40 km if you were to take the pot-holed road from Koodankulam – at least an hour away even for a speeding ambulance.

The specialty hospital at Nagercoil specializes in orthopedic surgery and trauma care. The injured workers are reportedly suffering from burns. Indeed, it was brought to the Supreme Court’s notice that nowhere in the three districts contiguous to Koodankulam is there a facility to treat burns or radiation injury. “The National Disaster Management Authority’s guidelines for nuclear establishments mandate the availability of adequate medical treatment facilities in the vicinity of the plants and hospitals capable of handling radiation injuries just outside the 16 km zone,” says G. Sundar Rajan, the petitioner in all cases challenging the Koodankulam plant in the Supreme Court.

KKNPP’s director clarified to the media that construction of a super-specialty hospital close to the plant has been completed, but it is not yet functional because equipment is still being procured. When questioned, local people say that the hospital building is nowhere close to ready for occupation.

The current instance, involving six scalded workmen, cannot be dismissed as a minor incident. Can an establishment and a medical infrastructure that is incapable of handling six burn injuries be reasonably expected to handle a full-scale radiological disaster?

Curiously, the Supreme Court, with its faith that nothing bad will happen until everything is eventually in place, declared that it is satisfied that there has been no laxity by the nuclear establishment in implementing its various directives to ensure safe operation and timely and appropriate response to emergencies.

Must be the Workers’ Fault

The “hot water” accident could have happened due to worker error, substandard equipment or both. In the absence of any information from the authorities, some cautious speculation on the generalities may not hurt.

I spoke to Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Board, for clarification. “I suppose you realize that this is not a radiation incident,” he remarked. “But that said, the profile of the workers who were injured is curious – three department personnel and three contract workers.” Contract workers are unskilled or semi-skilled workers who are not necessarily trained for the jobs that they are asked to do. “They are usually brought in to lift this or turn that. This is not peculiar to Koodankulam. I have seen it in many other places. They do it to save money by not employing staff,” he explained.

The relationship between the use of cheaper, though inadequately trained, contract workers and increased workplace hazards and compromised worker safety is well established. Although the current incident occurred in a non-radiation area, it is not inconceivable that in complex systems like nuclear power plants, radiological emergencies can be triggered and/or damage exacerbated by human error – often by inadequately trained or untrained humans – working in non-radiation areas.

The deployment of casual labor in hazardous and high-radiation areas is an attractive option also because contract workers are a nomadic lot. The outcome of workplace exposure among these nuclear “gypsies” need not, cannot, be monitored. The absence of evidence is therefore used to suggest the absence of a problem.

In post-disaster Fukushima, numerous reports surfaced about the deployment of untrained daily wage labor picked up from labor lines in Tokyo and elsewhere for hazardous clean-up work, often involving dangerous levels of exposure. This, it turns out, is nothing new. A 1999 report in Los Angeles Times following the Tokaimura nuclear accident in Japan cites data from Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission which revealed that 89 percent of Japanese people employed in the nuclear industry work for subcontractors. “It is these employees who receive more than 90% of all radiation exposure,” according to the Los Angeles Times article.

Interestingly, just about a year ago, I was interviewing Mani, a 20-something fisherman from Panaiyur Chinnakuppam – a village about 20 km from the Kalpakkam nuclear plant – about what he thought about the coal-fired power plant coming up in Cheyyur near his village. I asked him what he thought about the promoters’ claim that the plant would be safe. He laughed away the question. “I used to work in Kalpakkam [nuclear complex] doing odd jobs. My mother kept nagging me to quit the job,” he recalled. “One day, a few of us were asked to do some work at a site. We were working there dressed in the clothes we wore from home. I got scared when I saw the supervisors who were giving us instructions wearing protective clothing. I never went back after that day.”

The contractualization of labor inside nuclear plants should be, but is not, a matter of concern. Safety depends not only on the integrity of machines but also the skill of mechanics. This is a consideration that has slipped the attention of all those who have given Koodankulam a clean chit.

Shoddy Equipment and Corrupt Deals

In January 2013, RK Sinha, chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission, clarified the reasons why KKNPP Unit 1 had failed a pre-commissioning performance test the previous month. Rumors were already doing the rounds by then in Idinthakarai and among anti-nuclear activists that there was something wrong with certain heavy-duty valves in the plant. Sinha’s statement offered some glimpses of the truth: “Essentially there are some system parameters like flow, pressure, temperature that need to be maintained within particular values.”

Taken together with other statements that appeared in the media, the following picture emerges. During the first hydro test conducted last December, certain valves did not behave the way the manufacturer claimed they would. These valves were opened up, repaired, and some “minor” components replaced.

An ongoing investigation into corruption in the Russian nuclear establishment gives a new twist to the tale. In February 2012, the KGB’s successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested Sergei Shutov, the procurement director of Rosatom subsidiary ZiO-Podolsk, on charges of corruption and fraud. ZiO-Podolsk, a machine works company, is the sole supplier of steam generators and certain other key components for Russian nuclear reactors worldwide. The FSB has charged Shutov with sourcing sub-standard steel blanks. According to the Russian media agency Rosbalt, equipment manufactured with cheap Ukrainian steel was used in nuclear reactors built by the Russians in Bulgaria, Iran, China and India.

It is now an admitted fact that ZiO-Podolsk supplied equipment such as steam generator, cation and anion filters, mechanical filters, moisture separators and re-heaters, among other equipment, to KKNPP’s Unit 1.

While the nuclear establishment in China, Bulgaria and Iran have ordered investigations and summoned the Russians to clarify, the Indian nuclear establishment has done nothing more than conduct an enquiry of itself by itself. KKNPP has never adequately defended allegations about the substandard quality of equipment, including crucial valves and re-heaters, supplied to the plant by ZiO-Podolsk.

The Supreme Court, it appears, has issued its orders solely on faith – faith in the ability of the authorities; faith that the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board will find in itself the power to be an independent regulator; faith in the technology that has reportedly been deployed.

At the end of the day, though, a lot can go wrong – negligence, human error and corruption can defeat the best defenses technology has to offer and conspire to concoct disaster even from “small incidents.”

Nityanand Jayaraman is a writer and volunteer with Chennai Solidarity Group for Koodankulam Struggle.

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Udayakumar Demands Probe into Koodankulam Accident

By Express News Service – CHENNAI

Published: 15th May 2014 08:12 AM


Joining issue with Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) officials over a ‘boiler room incident’ that occurred on Wednesday, activist S P Udayakumar wondered how it could be called a minor accident. “From what we have been hearing, both from inside the plant and from various sources, some of the workers are so badly injured that the bones on their forearms are visible,” he said. “How can they say that this is nothing?” he asked, while on a visit to Chennai.

But he doesn’t blame them entirely. “This is the language nuclear authorities all over the world speak. Their attitude of concealment is the one they foster and this worries us. Both the plant and the Atomic Energy Department do not seem to want to inspire confidence in people by telling us exactly what happened,” he said.

“We will insist on a scientific committee to probe the accident and protest till a white paper is published,” he added.

While the fate of the injured had added to the worry lines of the protestors at Idinthakarai, Udayakumar maintained that India’s nuclear policy bothers him more at the moment.

“This simply affirms our belief that substandard products and inefficient expertise has been used in constructing the plant. And for a densely populated country like India, we cannot afford to have these kind of nuclear accidents,” he said.

His political affiliations with the Aam Aadmi Party aside, Udayakumar said they would approach both Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa as well as  “whoever formed the next government at the Centre” to stop the commissioning of the third and fourth reactors. “We will take this up before Parliament and try to get the existing nuclear policy repealed,” Udayakumar said.



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Mukesh Ambani’s son allegedly kills 2 in a car accident. Media blacks out the news #WTFnews
Is Mukesh Ambani and family above the law? His son, Akash Ambani, allegedly kills two with his Aston Martin car running over them fully drunk. Arnab Goswami; Rajdeep Sardesi and Barkha Dutt shamelessly blanks out news! How can they when their boss’s son is allegedly involved? Neither is Kejriwal’s AAP or Anna’s India Against Corruption raking up the issue. Or for that fact, the Congress, the BJP or another political party in the country.
Zee News and DNA carried the news but it was deleted later but Google Search still carries their headlines and readers comments.  A Reliance employee now media reports apparently paid to own up the accident.
“A Reliance spokesman said a chauffeur was at the wheel and that the car was on a routine maintenance spin early on Sunday as it had not been used the previous day.. But one of the occupants of a car hit by the speeding Aston Martin told Mirror that she saw a young man in the driving seat and that he didn’t look like a chauffeur.. Bansilal Joshi, 55, a Reliance driver, presented himself at the Gamdevi police station,nearly 12 hours after the accident that left two other cars — an Audi and a Hyundai Elantra — badly smashed and eight people injured. He claimed responsibility for the crash..”
TV 9:
Mukesh Ambani might own the mass media but he doesn’t own social media.Join the campaign. Retweet and republish this news. Force mass media to carry the news and seek justice for the victims.
(Arunbha Sakia in Newslaundry) An Aston Martin Rapide – “a four-door high-performance sport saloon” -rammed into two cars late Saturday night, December 7, 2013 at Peddar Road in Mumbai, transforming itself from a Rs 3.5 crore-worth luxury sports car into ugly metal scrap. What has followed since has ranged from subtle innuendos to outright allegations against some of the most powerful and rich of Mumbai – and India.
A black Aston Martin Rapide (MH-O1-BK99) – driven at a very high speed according to eyewitnesses – rammed into an Audi (MH14-DN-6666) from behind as reported here. As a result of the impact, the Audi, driven by Foram Ruparel, a resident of Ghatkopar area, jumped the divider on the road and hit a private bus coming from the opposite direction. The Aston Martin, then hit a Hyundai Elantra belonging to Vikram Mishra. In the ensuing chaos, the driver of the Aston Martin managed to flee in one of the two SUVs which were trailing it. A hit-and-run case like this is pretty routine nowadays in Delhi and Mumbai. However, what is not routine – and has been very conveniently overlooked by many in the media – was the fact that the Aston Martin was registered in the name of Reliance Ports and Terminals Limited which is owned by Mukesh Ambani.
Foram Ruparel, who was driving the Audi, lodged a complaint. Bansilal Joshi, 55, a driver employed with Reliance, presented himself at the Gamdevi police station on Sunday afternoon – December 8, 2013 – and accepted responsibility for the accident. This was almost 12 hours after the accident. However, as word spread, witnesses have started popping up with their version of events. A version of events, which makes this entire episode seem uncannily similar to the plot of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger where the protagonist, Balram, who works as a driver for a rich family, is made to own up to a very similar car accident his boss’s wife is involved in.
One of the occupants of a car hit by the speeding Aston Martin was quoted by Mumbai Mirror – one of the very few media outlets to have covered the story in detail – as saying that she saw a young man in the driver’s seat. Another witness, not willing to be named, told Newslaundry that the person helped out of the Aston Martin after it finally came to a standstill

“was a young guy and not a moustached old man as everyone is being made to believe”.

In a telephonic conversation with Newslaundry, Varish Mishra, who was in the Elantra which was pulverised in the accident and which had a pregnant lady as one of its occupants said, “the Aston Martin continued to travel on three wheels for a long time and came to a halt more than 400 metres away from the original spot of accident, so you can imagine its speed”.
The media’s rather cautious and measured approach to the story, particularly in light of its aggressive coverage of other recent hit and run cases, is difficult not to notice. Hindustan Times’ report on the accident says that the driver worked for a “private firm” and never once mentions the car’s Reliance affiliation. The Times of India which published a story on December 9, 2013 with the headline –

“Reliance employee takes responsibility for accident involving Aston Martin” has removed the report from its website without any corrigendum. While Google still contains the link to the story, clicking on it leads to a dead link. On the evening on December 11, 2013, TOI published an edited version of the same report on its site without any mention of Reliance, choosing to call it “a national-level firm”.

We tried contacting TOI for an explanation for this editorial decision, but received no response. Times Now, which is based out of Mumbai, has totally ignored the story as well. DNA has also removed their news report on the incident.
We SMSed Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN on December 11, 2013 to ask why the channel had not yet reported on the incident. He informed us that they would be carrying the report that evening. The report was also carried on December 11, 2013 at 7.30pm on Reliance Group has investments in Network 18.
The facts as reported in the news are as follows. Reliance Industries has released a statement that the driver was out at 1.30 a.m. all by himself for a test run. The Aston Martin which was on a test drive, manned by a driver, was trailed by two SUVs – one of which whisked the driver away after the accident. Eyewitnesses claim to have seen a young, clean-shaven, portly man being helped out of the damaged Aston Martin. The man who presented himself in the police station is 55 years old and has a moustache. The only resemblance he has to the eyewitness’ description of the fleeing driver is his hefty build.
The Mumbai Police has been trying to gather forensic evidence – which will be a difficult task, considering more than five people handled the car after the accident – and hasn’t made any arrests. What is curious is that most media houses have chosen not to report on the incident and why the ones that did do so, have removed the reports since.
Dear Sir!,
This story of a Reliance Ashton Martin Rapide car crash appears to be a classic case study of confirming the PUCL assertion. Accordingly the Press Council has to institute an independent enquiry to ascertain into the reason why these articles have been deleted without a formal retraction by such media agencies viz. to determine what kind of pressures led to these deletion
– was it the inducement of money
– was it political pressure
– was it the effect of both – inducement of money and political pressure


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