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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