Using a PR campaign to fix safety problems
The Indian government’s confidential plans for responding to public anxieties about the Kudankulam reactors and others like them were put into motion shortly after an earthquake triggered a tsunami off the coast of Japan in March 2011, causing three of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to melt down.
Within six weeks, the office of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent a series of memos containing key elements of a new public relations campaign to the key organizations pushing the Kudankulam project forward: the Atomic Energy Commission, which governs the Department of Atomic Energy that oversees training and research for both the civilian and military sector, and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd., which supervises the construction and operation of reactors. Inspectors in charge of safety and security at the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, supposedly an independent organization, received the same memorandums.
Officials were tasked with contacting journalists on an annotated list that described their politics, religion and affiliations, as well as their pliability, according to a copy of the messages obtained by the Center for Public Integrity from a former government official. These reporters and commentators were to be paid — out of the national coffers — to write and broadcast about the Indian civil nuclear sector’s culture of “unparalleled watchfulness,” a message dated July 2011 from the Department of Atomic Energy Secretariat, Anushakti Bhavan, Delhi, to the Principal Secretary for the Prime Minister, stated. It said the payments would be in exchange for accounts depicting India’s safety record as second to none and highlighting “the natural catastrophe that occurred in Japan,” rather than the underlying human failings and technological mistakes.
The Center could find no evidence that such payments were made, however, and India’s official spokesman at the Ministry of External Affairs, Vikas Swarup, declined any comment about them.
One of the memos suggested executives and scientists should “emphasize India’s resilience as compared to Japan,” and note that in India there had been “no Three Mile Island or Windscale,” referring to the 1979 meltdown of a reactor in Pennsylvania and a catastrophic fire at a British reactor in 1957. The Indian system was underpinned by “rigorous oversight,” another of the memos stated, according to copies seen by the Center. Critics should be described as “anti-national,” as Western nations “prompted agitation” inside the country to suit their own “economic and strategic objectives.” These hostile Western nations could also be referred to as “neo-colonial,” it said.
Srikumar Banerjee, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, subsequently appeared on channel NDTV in 2012 to say that “Kudankulam has one of the world’s safest nuclear reactors.” S.K. Jain, chief managing director at the state-owned nuclear corporation, reframed what happened at Fukushima. “There is no nuclear accident or incident,” he said, even as the situation was unfolding. “[Fukushima] is a well-planned emergency preparedness program … to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automated shutdown following a major earthquake.” He similarly emphasized there were “zero casualties.”
But Udayakumar and other residents described the official responses as “glib and misleading.” “No one died in Japan,” Udayakumar said, but a World Health Organization report that “everyone [here] read” predicted that girls living in areas worst affected had a 70% higher risk of developing thyroid cancer. If nuclear chiefs wanted ordinary people to feel reassured, he argued, they should openly discuss preparedness for a disaster like Fukushima, and conduct training workshops.
But the government’s detailed safety analyses have been kept secret. The plant operators argued they were commercially sensitive documents, explaining that their Russian partners demanded confidentiality. During a test run of the reactor in July 2011, the authorities instead published public service advertisements in local newspapers suggesting that villagers “cover their nose and mouth, after closing doors and windows, in case of a radioactive release,” according to a copy seen by the Center. A health ministry official conceded at a parliamentary hearing in 2010 that India was “nowhere” on the path to dealing with “nuclear and radiological emergencies” and that lack of preparedness at hospitals and other response systems would only ensure that “mortality and morbidity … could be on a very high scale.”
Facing increasingly volatile demonstrations, and pressure from right-to-information laws, the government finally released a 12-page summary of the atomic park’s emergency and security plan, which stated that at least three routes existed for possible evacuation, and that schools and other public structures had been designated as temporary shelters. It failed to mention, however, that one million people live within a 20 miles radius of the reactor, and did not explain how many shelters had been allocated for these residents.
There likewise was no mention that many of roads that evacuees would have to travel down were still hewn from mud, making them impassable after a downpour. There was no reference to the 30,000 people living within three miles of the plant, thousands of them within a zone that supposedly has been cleared, as safety laws requested. And it gave no indication that officials have yet to set aside any boats for a potential seaside evacuation of these villagers, as the state government confirmed to the Center, even though this method has been referred to in the plan as “preferential.”
Under a subheading, “Tsunami,” the document states: “Not significant.” Referring to seismic activity, it concludes: “No active fault within 5km.” But M.V. Ramana, a physicist at Princeton University’s Nuclear Futures Laboratory, said these conclusions reminded him of an assertion by the atomic energy department in 1986 that tsunamis did not occur in India. That was eighteen years before a tsunami, triggered by an earthquake, devastated India’s southern coast, killing an estimated 18,000 people and displacing another 600,000 while inundating homes in Idinthakarai village, twenty minutes from the new atomic park. Three miles of coastline to the west of Kudankulam were smashed by waves as high as 31 feet.
Villagers were also alarmed by disclosures of construction flaws at the plant, where operators repeatedly missed construction and budgetary deadlines. Soon after the double containment domes topping the first reactor in Kudankulam were finished, for example, contractors were forced to crack them open so they could rethread power and control cables that somehow had been left out by Indian engineers. According to a 2010 report from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board prepared for the Atomic Energy Commission, seen by the Center, the initial build, especially the wiring, did not match the specifications sent from Russia. The nuclear corporation said Russian manuals for the reactor’s control system had been delivered late, and said the engineers had been forced to improvise, as they were “unfamiliar with the system they were dealing with.”
Russian engineers subsequently told the Indian regulator and plant operators in 2012, in a note dated September 16, and seen by the Center, that the repairs were so poor that “magnetic interference” now hampered critical safety equipment in the reactor, rendering it ineffective. The Indian regulator, department of atomic energy and spokesman at the Ministry of External Affairs declined to comment on these conclusions, or to say whether the faults were ever fixed.
Then, on May 21, 2013, the Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee announced that officials at ZiO-Podolsk, a subsidiary of Rosatom, a state nuclear corporation, had deliberately substituted cheap, substandard steel to fashion components for nuclear reactors sold to India, Korea, Bulgaria and China. The Chinese authorities had triggered the committee’s inquiry after engineers found more than 3,000 inferior components at its Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant, on the Yellow Sea, in Jiangsu.
Activists in Kudankulam demanded to know what engineers at the atomic plant knew, submitting a Right to Information (RTI) request. The plant operators initially responded by stating that they had “no information regarding any investigation against [the Russian supplier].”
However, one of the Russian investigators told the Center in an interview in January that Indian officials had travelled to Russia for a three-day trip in July 2012, five months after an executive in ZiOPodolsk had been arrested in connection with the fraud. During this visit, the Indian delegation was briefed on the official inquiry. A document later released under Indian RTI laws named the officials as “Special Secretary Mr. A. P. Joshi, Deputy Secretary Mr. Ninian Kumar and the Manager of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Mr. Dzhogesh Pady,” confirming the account given by Russian investigators. According to an official on the Russian inquiry team, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the issue, Russian investigators “felt certain” that those under arrest in Russia had “Indian accomplices” who “were paid to conceal complaints on component failures.”
The Center put these allegations to plant operators, the Department of Atomic Energy and to the official government spokesman, but all declined to comment.
In January 2013, an internal Indian nuclear corporation report, seen by the Center, acknowledged that “engineers are still reviewing thousands of the components” sent by ZiO-Podolsk. But four months later, Nalinish Nagaich, the nuclear corporation’s executive director, claimed that only four faulty valves had been detected and replaced at the plant, according to media reports. Since then, and despite repeated requests for information by Indian scientists and local residents, the plant operators and their bosses at the Department of Atomic Energy have declined to talk about the investigation.