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Indian nuclear program: Disasters in Making

10 July, 2006

By Adnan Gill

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On August 6, 1945 the nuclear bomb Little Boy killed an estimated 80,000 people. In the following months, an estimated 60,000 additional souls were lost to radiation poisoning. Three days later Nagasaki was targeted by the second nuclear bomb. An estimated 39,000 people were killed instantly with another 75,000 believed to have succumbed to radiation poisoning. American intelligence estimates the casualties to be manifold higher in a similar attack on densely populated Indian cities like New Delhi or Mumbai. Indian experts say the country could face an equally devastating nuclear catastrophe, not because of its nuclear rival, but from within. Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan, a former chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) summarized the threats from within as, "There could be lesser accidents which could still release moderate amounts of radioactivity into the crowded areas surrounding some of our less-safe installations at Madras, Trombay or Tarapur. It could be devastating to a large number of people."


An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization report attributes 56 deaths to Chernobyl accident and estimates that as many as 9,000 people, among the approximately 6.6 million most highly exposed, may die from radiation exposure. As horrific as these statistics may seem, experts believe these figures will dwarf in front of mass casualties resulting from an impending nuclear disaster(s) in India. Indian nuclear reactors are called by some nuclear experts, 'disasters-in-making.' Experts say, It's not a matter of if, but when?

Indian industrial complex is notorious for lack of safety and catastrophic disasters. The Bhopal Disaster of 1984 is the worst industrial disaster in history. It was caused by the release of 40 tons of methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide pesticide plant located in the heart of the city of Bhopal, India . The gases injured between 150,000 to 600,000 unsuspected victims, and snuffed at least 15,000 innocent lives. What is even more disturbing is that experts believe Indian nuclear complex is poised to kill even more Indians. Such a disaster will put even Bhopal Disaster to shame. Scientists believe that Indian plants are so poorly designed, built and maintained, a Chernobyl-style disaster may be just around the corner. The threats posed by its mad pursuit of nuclear weapons are real, because India is the only country in the world where nuclear research and plutonium production occur inside or near heavily populated areas. The Indian nuclear complex is believed to be gravely unsafe and most dangerous in the world. It is not surprising that the popular American television program '60 Minutes', charged India with operating "the most unsafe nuclear plants in the world."

The safety black holes in the Indian nuclear program range from hazardous mining practices, near meltdowns, heavy water leaks, turbine-blade failures, moderator system malfunctions, inoperable emergency core cooling systems, coolant pumps catching fires, structure failures, to flooding incidents, to say the least. American-based watchdog group -- the Safe Energy Communication Council (SECC) -- described the Indian nuclear program, especially its reactors to be the "least efficient" and the "most dangerous in the world." Nuclear safety experts are alarmed by the dangerously unsafe conditions plaguing the Indian reactors. Sharing his alarm with the Christian Science Monitor, Christopher Sherry the research director of the SECC, said, "The fact that India's nuclear regulator acknowledges that reactors in India are not operated to the standards of reactors in the US and Europe is not much of a surprise, [but] it is very disturbing."

How safe are Indian nuclear plants? According to Dr A. Gopalakrishnan, the answer is, hardly at all. In his alarming response to the question Dr. Gopalakrishnan said, "Many of our nuclear installations have aged with time and have serious problems. Our efforts to find indigenous solutions, despite our capabilities, are not well-organized or focused." Fearing the pathetically unsafe conditions of Indian reactors, he said, "[It] is a matter of great concern."

Today, India has 14 nuclear reactors most of which are modeled after an obsolete 1957 Shippingport ( Pennsylvania, USA ) design. Only three Indian nuclear reactors barely meet IAEA standards. The rest are accountable only to the so-called 'national standards' set by AERB.

An Indian atomic-power expert Dhirendra Sharma estimates that Indian nuclear industry has suffered from "300 incidents of a serious nature... causing radiation leaks and physical damage to workers." He further concedes, "These have so far remained official secrets."

India's nuclear-power program has always been secretive, because politicians use it as a cover for the country's weapons program. The Indian government does not release information about the leaks or accidents at its nuclear power plants. Laws prohibit scientists and politicians from speaking out about the radioactive contaminations and accidents in the nuclear facilities. What throttled the absolute secrecy of accidents at its nuclear programs was the Indian Atomic Energy Act of 1962 (NO. 33 OF 1962. 15th September, 1962), which prescribes that the nuclear program should be shrouded in secrecy. The Act provides the Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) enormous powers and the rights to withhold any information from public. Critics call the DAE an 'unaccountable organization'. It prohibits private and public equity from within and outside the country. It also says the program should be run by the DAE with limited participation from private industries. Due to obscure international oversight and the 1962 Act the safety conditions at Indian nuclear facilities remain dangerously unsafe and largely hidden from the public.

Even four decades after it launched its nuclear reactor program, technical problems with Indian reactors remain so severe that the rated capacity of the country's reactors totals only 1,840-mw, contributing less than 2.5% of India's commercial energy.

A decade ago, a nine-month long AERB safety study of Indian reactors documented more than 130 extremely serious safety issues which warranted urgent corrective measures. The most urgent corrective actions were recommended at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre; Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR); Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited; Uranium Corporation of India Limited; Indian Rare Earths Limited; Nuclear Fuel Complex, and the Heavy Water Board.  

Due to its age and insufficient safety procedures, IGCAR is prone to serious accidents. In 1987, during a fuel transfer process, a tube guiding fuel into the reactor was snapped. Then in 2002, 75kg of radioactive sodium leaked inside a purification cabin.

The Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS) reactors are the oldest in the world. They experienced extensive tube failures which led to the de-rating of its reactors from 210-mw to 160-mw. The two reactors share the same emergency core cooling system, which experts say is a recipe for the reactor meltdown.

Kakrapar Atomic Power Station (KAPS) reactors are considered to be India's model reactors for controlling radiation leaks; not surprisingly, even they emit three times the radiation as much as the international norm, a fact admitted by S.P. Sukhatme, chairman of AERB. Mr. Sukhatme's shocking admission put the rest of the country's nuclear-power plants in grave perspective. Top Indian antinuclear activist Suren Gadekar found the admission to be extremely shocking and disturbing. He said, "The main implication is that other nuclear-power plants are much worse than even Kakrapar." In February 2002, chairman Sukhatme requested the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd to plug tritium contaminated water leaks in its reactors. In 1994, owing to its faulty design, concrete containment dome of KAPS collapsed. The collapse exposed the workers to high doses of radiation. Thereafter the floodwater entered the condenser pit and turbine building basement which resulted in four-year delay in its commissioning.

In 2002, the AERB ordered the closure of India 's first nuclear plant -- Rajasthan Atomic Power Station (RAPS). The reactor was plagued with a series of serious defects ranging from turbine-blade failures, cracks in the end-shields, a leak in the overpressure relief device, and leaks in many tubes of the moderator heat exchanger. It was not the first time that seriously dangerous accidents forced RAPS to shutdown. In 1976, due to construction errors, the reactors were flooded, which forced the shutdown. The reactors were once again flooded in 1992. Also in 1992, four of its eight pumps caught fire. On February, 12 1994, it was shutdown for the repair of its calandria overpressure relief device which leaked radioactive heavy water. Later, in 1994, the Indian Express reported that in the aftermath of Canadian reports on the possibility of rupture in the pressure tubes of Canada-India Reactor, US (CIRUS) reactors, RAPS also went through the safety checks, as it was designed from the copied Canadian blueprints. Once, the emergency core cooling system got obstructed, leading to a near meltdown. RAPS' innumerable problems forced it to be de-rated from 220-mw to 100-mw. RAPS functioned without high-pressure emergency core cooling system.

Despite a warning from the US-based General Electric (GE), the manufacturers of the turbines, in 1991, India commissioned the Narora Atomic Power Station (NAPS). As a result, in 1993, failure of two steam turbine blades resulted in a major fire in one of the heavy water reactors, which nearly led to a nuclear meltdown. The disaster could have been averted had either the government, or the DAE found it prudent to yield to GE's warnings.

In 1986, the inlets of Madras Atomic Power Station (MAPS) reactors cracked and Zircalloy pieces were found in the moderator pump. Then in 1988, MAPS was shut down after heavy water leaked, exposing workers to high doses of radioactivity. Again, in 1991, tons of heavy water burst out from the moderator system. Its emergency cooling systems are said to be inadequate.

Its not only the designs of Indian nuclear reactors that are obsolete and flawed, even the very sites they were chosen to be built upon were irresponsibly unsuitable for such facilities. The under construction 500-mw prototype fast breeder reactor coming up at Kalpakkam was damaged by the waters of 2004 tsunami. In a March 2005 report, the Telegraph (Calcutta) reported, "Water had surged into the reactor's foundation pit when the December 26 tsunami devastated coastal stretches of Tamil Nadu." The report further revealed the extent of damage, "The huge foundation pit, close to the [MAPS], was filled with over six meters of seawater and chunks of silt and sludge." The fast breeder reactor uses liquid sodium as coolant -- liquid sodium is an extremely hazardous agent. Once dried, it can ignite and burn with such heat and intensity that once started, it's almost impossible to extinguish. Alarmed by the deadly hazards posed by the breeder reactor, in 2005, its Employees' Association and other workers' unions planed to file a court case charging DAE for seriously lacking the qualified technical personnel at critical positions of the MAPS reactors and for the reactor perilously endangering the safety of the plant and the public. The reprocessing plant holding glass-matted enriched waste is said to be just about 150 meters from the sea. Will it be safe if another tsunami strikes?

It is said there is no greater curse then to watch one's child suffer from a disability and deformation. There are thousands upon thousands of Indian parents who inconsolably suffer from this horrific curse everyday. What is even more heartbreaking is that they don't even realize the evil that has brought the curse upon them is manmade. It is the evil of nuclear poisoning. Indian nuclear program does not harm only the workers of DAE, but it also harms the lives of ordinary citizens even worst.

"Maloti Singh, a nine-year-old girl whose contract-worker father loaded waste drums, was born with one leg withered into a stump and a deformed foot. Her father and grandmother, who used to collect stone chips from the tailing pond, both have skin cancer. None of the family has seen a doctor." (Sunday Telegraph, 25 April, 1999, Issue 1430). This is only one example out of thousands of ordinary Indians who have been poisoned by the highly-secretive, unsafe, and world's most dangerous nuclear program.

Environmental contamination is especially severe in the eastern state of Bihar where Indian government callously mines radioactive materials without any regards to human lives or wellbeing of other species. The health threats posed to many families living near the Jadugoda mine are said to be worst than the after-effects of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine . The locals suffer from unusually high number of abnormal births, cancers and a host of other ailments that were previously rare. Radioactive contamination is said to be so massive that genetic mutations have also been noted in animals and as well in plants.

In 1999, the Sunday Telegraph revealed, "In all, at least 30,000 villagers -- and the land and livestock around them -- are being exposed to contamination from the Jadugoda facility, according to researchers. Activists believe that the problems are caused by the lack of safeguards at the mine and its waste dumps, technically known as 'tailing ponds', as well as the unprotected movement of uranium and wastes. They fear that contamination has entered the food chain and will affect the genetic make-up of local population for generations to come." Sadly, those who are the worst affected by the fatal contamination, don't even realize what is terminating their lives short. Most attribute the strange diseases resulting from the radiation poisoning to the 'will of God.'

Indian experts like N.M. Sampathkumar Iyangar (former manufacturer of nuclear reactor components) believes the real safety problems with the Indian nuclear program arise from the fact that well-connected manufacturers often sell substandard and defective equipment to build and repair the nuclear reactors. Others believe India cuts corners to save money by forsaking the technologies that make the power plants safe.

What worries experts is not the fact that an ambitious Indian nuclear program has become environmentally unaffordable, rather the reality that its nuclear program has become disasters-in-making.



Reader Comments:

If nuclear programme is secret in India, then how you came to know about all these things.Nuclear disaster happened in US and russia in last 60 years but after 40 years nuclear programme by India there is no Nuclear disaster of big scale happened in India. And who told you that Indian industry donot look at safety issue. I am an enginner and worked in different heavy industry in India and did commisioning out side India also. If there is one death in a factory there will be lot of trouble among workers and with police and production halts. That's why all heavy industry in India particularly look at safety.When normal industry look at safety issue then how one can expect that we are not using good materials for nuclear reactor. We have enough money to buy good equipments for Nuclear reactor. If there is any accident in any reactor of small kind then it happens in all other country also. Fearing accident of small kind if donot construct factory and reactor then you will leave always in old age. So donot worry about us. We have talented engineers and managers of world class who can look at all these issue.

sisir, Hungary - 10 July, 2006

why dont you first report on the pakistan's nuclear stations and their proliferation issues and then worry about other countries. Stop being a thick head. As a reporter your reporting should not be biased. All you reporters from pakistan want to do is cry over the fact that india got the nuclear deal with usa and pakistan didnt. so you will go at any level to make sure that somehow that deal gets called off. but it is not going to happen. So better start writing on pakistan's nuclear industry and if it is that good why not write about it. atleast the world will know that you too deserve the nuclear deal. But for the moment, i must say as a reader your article was pathetically biased and doesnt stand.

andy, United Arab Emirates - 10 July, 2006


Dear Gill

You are a true friend of India. I hope Indian politicians/scientists read your article and even if you are telling one percent truth, they need to check and come up with the solution for this problem.

Manoj, Pakistan - 10 July, 2006

The safest nuclear technology belongs to Pak.
Cant hold my laughter...
better put your house in order before writing articles abt out nuke prog..

Abhilash, Hungary - 10 July, 2006

Wonderful article

should appreaciate the author for the article, author could have also mentioned about the pakistani nuclear program. Is it also a time bomb or a disasters-in-making ?

Shivam, Hungary - 10 July, 2006

Puerile journalism

Thanks for your concern. I do believe Indian scientists can discern risks that are blatantly perceptible to the journalists. No nation state can afford to overlook the well-being of its citizens. As an Engineer I can vouch for the safety of our nuclear reactors.
But what disturbs me is that your proclivity to sully India. The entire article is written to sooth your English reading public. You are inadvertently feeding the myth that anything Indian is inferior to you. You are doing a grave injustice to your people by glossing over the ills plaguing your country. I have never seen Indian media obsessed over any country like this.
You are creating an image asthough Pakistan is still comparable to India. The bitter truth is that India has overtaken Pakistan in too many areas. That is understandable due to the size of India and the kind of resources it has at its disposal. Nevertheless, Pakistan can be a great country if it understand its limitations and strengths.
Pakistan has developed a huge inferiority complex vis-a-vis India. For Pakistan to be a respected country, its people must be educated to know what plague's the country. Help Pakistani citizens to develope rational thinking. Learn to self-critical and dont lose heart if you become perspicacious of your problems. Face them. Shun the ostrich mentality.
I hope your future article would help your society to improve in someway. Wish you and Pakistani people, all the best.

Vengat, Hungary - 10 July, 2006

Please dont insult the intellect of your own people

Article after article of moronic quality from Mr.Adnan really makes one to cast aspersion on the discerning capacity of the pakistanis.
We do understand that generalizing the quality of the populace(of Pakistan) based on this article would be equally moranic. I am sure ,Mr.Adnan , that all Pakistanis would not be logically challenged like you.

Vengat, Hungary - 11 July, 2006

Subjective Article

The article is subjective. Why all comments are full of ignorance - except for Vengat's. If we indians have a problem, let us address it. Try to fix it. This is the well being of human lives that we are talking about. Mr. Gill reported facts. You think they are not true, then produce a counter article with your facts. Otherwise, we need to make sure that we are not jeopradizing human lives for the dream of being a nuclear power.

Sundar, United Kingdom - 11 July, 2006


Don't worry about us like what we do or what we did. Writing a article like this won't get any attention. Only jealous people pay YOU to writing a article like this. Keep writing, but nobody care.......

Indian Fella, Hungary - 11 July, 2006

not in a democracy

Ignoring public health and safety to pursue a nuclear program can happen in authoritarian regimes such as in Pakistan or China. Such policies would not stand a chance in a democracy such as India. We would not let such indifferent bureaucrats stick around.

sanjay, United Kingdom - 11 July, 2006

Message from the columnist

Dear Readers,

I appreciate all sort of criticism directed towards my articles and myself. I can even tolerate highly abusive, derogative, racist, and religiously biased abuse, but I cannot and will not tolerate death threats. Such threats cannot be taken lightly. Therefore, I have contacted the relevant law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI about these death threats.

Thank you for your concern.

Adnan Gill

Adnan Gill, United Kingdom - 12 July, 2006

Indian automic reactors aare outdated and are from old technology when the concept of safty was not at the forefront. It is not the questions of autoritarian or democratic India, Adnan is talking about the safty of the Indian people and he pointed out very nicely most of the incident happened.

Mian Riaz, United Kingdom - 12 July, 2006

Look who is talking

Adnan Gill's write up shows yet again that Pakistanis are obsessed with India no matter how you look at it. They just love to find errors or faults even when there is none but then this gives them the satisfaction. I would pity them but realistically if they spent same amount of time building their own backyard, Pakistan would be a lot better place.

Rohan Khanna

Rohan Khanna, Pakistan - 12 July, 2006

i'm jealous

i'm jealous bcoz 1) we in india dont have such talented journalists 2)we dont hav the best and most advanced nuke programs as pakistan possesses 3)nobody cares 4 us in india like adnan gill does.
really i'm jealous!!

ASHU, Hungary - 12 July, 2006

2 Thumbs Up !

2 thumbs up for this article from a mediocre and biased reporter Adnan Gill. Twists facts to show India in poor light. The report is meant to appease the "India bashing" appetite of English reading Pakistani crowd. India will never be like Pakistan and Adnan Gill really needs to concentrate on Pakistani state of affairs democracy to start with. Like I have said before, Pakistan is moving towards being India's Mexico.

Naresh Puri, United Kingdom - 12 July, 2006


ever heard of the term " throwing stones from within glass house "

veera, Hungary - 12 July, 2006

Security levels

All plants in India have multi-level security
a) no habitation is allowed within 14-15 km radius.
b) All perceived terrorist attacks are taken in account,
c) Turbines are well distant from reactors(incident of turbine was pointed out by author)
d) Even if turbine is bombed the turbines are placed in such a way that flying blades of turbines will not hit the reactor.
e) Reactor itself can sustain tons of explosives
and ....

Sanjay, Hungary - 12 July, 2006

Excellent Article

It's excellence at par Nuclear Energy in India is trated at Holy Cow and no one questions the truth and veracity about what is going on in these plants considering huge amount of moneybeing pumped in DAE. Your article sir opens the eyes of indian who have been blinded by the recent success of the Nuclear Deal with the US. If India aspires to be a Global player and a future super power in world politics the safety and security of Nuclear power plants is extremely essential as it will only strengthen India's case to seek to access to sensitive high end nuclear energy and as a responsonsible nuclear power.Sir your article is an eye opener to Indian citizen and will allow us to ask more questions to our government and this will only lead to strengthening of our nuclear power plants in the times to come ahead.

vijitchatterjee, Hungary - 12 July, 2006

Just an Advice

Adnan only pointed out valid concern about the safety in the Indian Nuclear program. The Indian nuclear regulator acknowledges these so did Dr. Gopalkrishnan and Dhirendra Sharma. Mr. Chattejee puts it beautifully" Adnan article is an eye opener". Dont be defensive, he only pointed out shortcomings in the Indian nuclear program.It is an advice, take it or leave it or let the better sense prevail.

Mian Riaz, United Kingdom - 13 July, 2006

Wackos everywhere

Dear Adnan,

There are wackos everywhere. If your intentions are really to address the nuclear dangers that India faces, then you should have chosen to write in one of the Indian newspapers. There are a good percentage of Indians who can rationalize. We do understand that it is not utterly impossible to find a good intentioned Pakistani :). Lol. I do not believe in generalizing people. You are belittling your valuable research artifacts by publishing in the inappropriate forum. Any action should have a "cause". Publishing here amounts to providing forage for sadists. Your intentions also become questionable. If rationalizing Indians are your target audiences then choose an appropriate forum.

Wishing you the best. Do take care of yourself.



Vengat, Hungary - 14 July, 2006

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