The NPCIL’s evasiveness suggests that something is fishy behind the high walls

Dubious The government has maintained unusual silence over people’s apprehensions over the plant

When members of India’s nuclear establishment say something, it is best to take it with a pinch of salt. When they refuse to say something, it is time to start worrying. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India’s (NPCIL) refusal to divulge information regarding the quantity of diesel purchased at Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP) and the functioning of Unit 1’s steam generators has triggered a wave of concern among activists, local residents and experts. Uneasy questions about the damaged and poor quality of components, including the steam generators, in Koodankulam’s Units 1 and 2, have resurfaced.

It is not just the safety, but the very viability of Units 1 and 2 to produce electricity consistently and sustainably that is being questioned.

Mindless of the seriousness of allegations and speculations doing the rounds, the NPCIL continues to rely on its time-tested divulge-nothing approach to public relations.

Of five questions asked in an RTI application relating to KNPP’s steam generators and diesel purchases, three were dismissed on impossibly serious sounding grounds.

One question sought the dates and quantity of purchase of diesel at the KNPP in June. To this, the NPCIL responds: “The purchase of diesel is for operation of some of the plant’s auxiliary equipment like auxiliary boiler. The quantity of diesel consumed for the operation of these equipment will ultimately divulge the design details of these individual equipment and hence would entail to breach (sic) of commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, and could harm the competitive position of the third party.” This is nonsense, unless disclosing the fuel efficiency of a car is tantamount to divulging the car manufacturer’s trade secrets.

Fortunately, for the government of India and its diplomatic relationship with Russian Federation (the unnamed “third party”), the NPCIL’s spiel about commercial confidence and trade secrets is a smokescreen. All the information about the purchase of diesel and other items at all its plants is published and updated weekly by the NPCIL on its own website.

The NPCIL’s own data suggests that KNPP purchased more than Rs 28 crore worth of diesel — about 51 lakh litres between June 2013 and August 2014.

By itself, the figure may have escaped notice. But since attaining criticality in July 2013, the authorities at the KNPP have managed to draw attention to the ever elusive promise of power from the nuclear plant through their periodic and upbeat updates about crossing endless milestones.

Set against the reality of continued load-shedding in Tamil Nadu, these updates have only fuelled scepticism about the plant’s promises of delivering power and whether the plant is safe.

Speculation is rampant among local residents and activists that excessive consumption of diesel may somehow have been used to supplement electricity production from the flawed Unit 1.

This scepticism is not entirely baseless. Nuclear components are extremely sensitive. Design, fabrication, engineering, transportation, storage, installation, commissioning and maintenance are meant to be done to exacting standards. In the case of KNPP’s Unit 1, there are serious concerns regarding the fabrication and engineering, transportation, storage, commissioning and maintenance of critical components.

It is public knowledge now that the procurement director of Zio Podolsk — the company that supplied KNPP’s steam generators and several other important components — was jailed for sourcing sub standard steel for equipment to be delivered to Rosatom’s clients in India, Iran, China and Bulgaria. Rosatom is the state corporation and regulatory body of the Russian nuclear establishment.

China too received Zio Podolsk’s steam generators for a plant similiar to the KNPP unit. But the Chinese detected cracks in the tubes in one of four steam generators and conducted rigorous inquiry into the quality of imported components. Such cracks and defects can occur due to poor material, sub standard fabrication and/or improper transportation and storage, leading to exposure to corrosive air.

China had previously complained to Rosatom with over 3,000 grievances regarding the low quality of materials delivered to construct the plant.

Indian authorities initially denied allegations about the import of substandard components from the tainted manufacturer. Subsequently, they downplayed the ramifications.

Till date, no independent verification has been conducted on the quality of the components supplied by Zio Podolsk.

Former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) chairperson, Dr A Gopalakrishnan says he is also concerned about the packaging and conditions of transportation and storage. “The steam generators have spent a long time at or near the sea. Pitting corrosion is likely if storage were not properly done,” he says.

The first steam generator had already arrived in mid-2004. The KNPP’s then project director, SK Agarwal, expected work on the first unit to be completed by 2007. However, it was only in August 2006 that the AERB gave permission for erecting the equipment. For more than two years, the generators were lying in Koodankulam.

“Those were early days. I don’t know whether there were proper warehouses or just sheds, and whether measures such as nitrogen blanketing were used to protect the components from the corrosive sea air,” Gopalakrishnan adds.

A steam generator consists of a boiler and several thousand steam generator tubes. These tubes are built to withstand corrosion for extended periods of operation. Tubes with signs of corrosion are plugged during maintenance checks to avoid rupture, radiation leaks and damage to other tubes. With every tube that is plugged, steam output decreases and electricity production suffers. In the Tianwan generator in China, plugging of tubes had compromised electricity production by about 2 percent even before commercial production began.

KNPP’s Unit 1 too has had steam generator problems. Citing “sources,” an October 2013 ians article titled “Koodankulam N-plant power generation delayed again” reported that “sufficient pressure is not being built to run the turbine to generate power.” Faced with the real possibility of compromised steam generators and excessive diesel purchases, local residents and activists had begun to wonder if diesel was being used to supplement steam generation for power production. However, back-of-the envelope calculations by Suvrat Raju, a physicist at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bengaluru, suggest that the diesel purchases cannot account for more than a fraction of the 2,600 million units that KNPP claims to have produced till date.

While that may be so, two critical questions still remain unanswered:

First, NPCIL acknowledges that KNPP uses diesel only for intermittent operation of auxiliary boiler and during periodical testing of the diesel generator facilities. If that is the case, then why is KNPP purchasing diesel worth crores of rupees every month? While Tarapur, a comparable facility, had purchased only 10,000 litres of diesel between November 2013 and February 2014, KNPP had purchased nearly 1.2 lakh litres during the same period.

Second, what is the state of the steam generators and how many damaged tubes have been plugged? The RTI application about diesel purchases also sought this information. The NPCIL’s response to this is curious.

“The details regarding the number of tubes in a steam generator, its plugging details etc, are part of design. Disclosing the above details would entail a breach of commercial confidence. . .” it said. Plugging details are not part of the design of a steam generator. Rather, they are a postdesign intervention to address defects.

Clearly, there is no commercial confidence or trade secrets at stake here.

Are we then to believe that the real reason for denial is that disclosure would expose the Indian nuclear establishment to ridicule and perhaps criminal action for fraud. As Gopalakrishnan rightly observes, “The more they are evasive, the more suspicious people will get.”

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(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 40, Dated 4 October 2014)