Deals That Threaten Disasters

Deals That Threaten Disasters

Deals for 16 reactors in a single day – so read India’s nuclear score card on December 7, 2009. On this date, an agreement was reached in Moscow, under which the country would get four more nuclear reactors from Russia. Simultaneously, in New Delhi, a US Commercial Nuclear Mission told the media that, under the US-India nuclear deal, “a minimum” of 12 plants would be set up, with the work on them starting in 2010-2011.

This latest advance of India into its own “nuclear age” – as the atomic establishment and its loyal acolytes hail it – came within two weeks of the latest of nuclear “incidents” to shake up the nation.

The surge in the deals has followed in quick succession to similar media-celebrated agreements with five other countries – France, Kazakhstan, Namibia, Mongolia and Canada. The rude shock came from the “incident” in the nuclear complex at Kaiga in the south Indian State of Karnataka.

The complex has been in operation since March 2000, under the Nuclear Power Corporation of India. Kaiga has four of the eight nuclear reactors officially acknowledged as strategic and, therefore, placed outside the purview of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. Kaiga is close to India’s major naval base, INS Kadamba.

The radioactive contamination of drinking water in the complex, which led to hospitalization of scores of employees (figures varying from the officially cited 55 to 92 according to some sources), shook India, though no life was lost. It revealed in a flash the potential magnitude of the danger that the functioning of this proud asset of the county’s nuclear establishment represented.

The theories about the incident emanating from the authorities and others do not diminish the danger at all. According to the authorities, some “mischief-maker” or “mischief-makers” among the employee of the complex – rank “insiders,” in other words – seem to have added tritium-contaminated heavy water to a drinking water cooler. The serious crime, it is said, could be either a particularly nasty prank or a case of sabotage.

Tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen also known as hydrogen-3, can be used as a booster in the making of fission bombs as well as thermonuclear weapons or hydrogen bombs. Tritium emits beta rays which, if ingested, can cause death, cancer and mutations.

By one unofficial version, the incident resulted from inter-union rivalry. By another, it was a case of disgruntled employees trying to discredit the management. Some political mischief-makers outside the complex indulged in loud speculation about the hand of “illegal” Bangladeshi immigrant laborers behind the incident, hoping to start another anti-Muslim hate campaign. Mercifully, however, investigations have reportedly ruled out that possibility.

Many questions, meanwhile, have been raised without getting any serious official response. Why did it take so long for the incident to be reported in any detail? It took place the night of November 23-24. A single-line story first appeared in the scroll of a television channel on November 25, but the full official acknowledgment of the incident had to wait for several days. It took even longer for authorities to go to the police. Was this not a hush-up attempt, bound to fail as the families of the victims could not be silenced?

Whether an accident or sabotage, how did the allegedly ironclad regime of procedures in the reactors allow it? As anti-nuclear activist Surendra Gadekar asks, how could anyone steal a vial of tritium, made at a cost of up to $100,000 a gram, with such ease?

Questions have been asked – and remain unanswered – about other, past “incidents” at Kaiga as well. Some Truthout readers may remember the report on “Death of an Indian Nuclear Scientist” (June 24, 2009). The mysterious end of Lokanathan Mahalingam was reported on India’s television channels on June 13. It took us ten full days to hear from the authorities in the subject. They cited a forensic laboratory finding to assert that it was a suicide.

Mahalingam was training young scientists and working in the simulator training division of the plant. A simulator is a precise replica of the control room of a nuclear power plant The scientist had created a similar mystery ten years before, while working in the Kalpakkam nuclear complex in the neighboring State of Tamilnadu, which has two of India’s strategic nuclear reactors. Then, too, he is said to have disappeared one day and returned home after a never-explained gap of five days.

Among the questions raised in June were: Why was his body, found in the nearby Kali River, cremated before the results of the DNA test done at the insistence of his family were released? How did the authorities instantly rule out murder when he did not leave a suicide note?

The Mahalingam mystery was recalled after the latest Kaiga incident, but not any of the questions. No one seemed interested in reopening the case. The authorities have not succeeded so easily in an earlier case of mysterious death. Ravikumar Mule, a non-scientist employee at Kaiga, was found “dead” in an apartment in the township on April 7, 2009. His widow, Ashwini G. Mule, has now demanded a fresh investigation, rejecting as final the reported police finding that her husband had committed suicide.

This is not the first incident at Kaiga. Even during construction in 1994, one layer of the first unit’s containment dome collapsed, delaying by four years a start to its operations. Nor is Kaiga an exception in India’s nuclear establishment in this regard.

A similar incident took place in the heavy water plant of Rawatbhata in the State of Rajasthan in 1991 and, to date, the findings of any official investigation into it have not been divulged. The long list of other incidents includes, besides several cases of workers’ exposure to impermissible doses of radioactivity, a fire in the Narora plant in the State of Uttar Pradesh (1993), the flooding of the Kakrapar station in the State of Gujarat (1994), and a heavy water spill in Kalpakkam (1999).

The question of questions about all these “incidents” is: why has no independent, external inquiry ever been conducted into any of them? The unstated answer is: such an inquiry cannot even be contemplated, since every nuclear installation is part of India’s security establishment.

This perverse notion of “security” makes every one of India’s proud nuclear deals a threat of disaster.