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Are India's nuclear weapons facilities safe?

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  • Harsh Kapoor
    Rediff.com - April 12, 2011 Are Indian nuclear weapons facilities safe? Parliament must insist that the government should direct its Department of Atomic
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 13, 2011
      Rediff.com - April 12, 2011

      Are Indian nuclear weapons facilities safe?

      Parliament must insist that the government should direct its
      Department of Atomic Energy to immediately examine and make
      recommendations to the government on the structure of an independent
      surveillance and regulatory authority for the defence nuclear
      facilities, says Dr A Gopalakrishnan

      India has a declared nuclear weapons program and several associated
      nuclear installations like plutonium production reactors, spent-fuel
      reprocessing units, uranium enrichment and tritium separation plants,
      radioactive waste management plants, submarine test reactor facility,
      etc. All these facilities have been kept outside the purview of
      International Atomic Energy Agency's Safeguards Agreement and their
      Additional Protocol. From the inception of the Atomic Energy
      Regulatory Board in 1983, all these facilities were under its safety
      surveillance & regulation, even though the AERB is very much a captive
      organisation of the Department of Atomic Energy, reporting to the
      Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy.

      But, on April 25, 2000, the then secretary, DAE had ordered that the
      regulatory and safety surveillance functions at BARC and its
      facilities, which were exercised till then by the AERB, will
      thereafter be carried out through an 'Internal Safety Committee
      Structure' to be constituted by the director of Bhabha Atomic Research
      Centre. The structure, membership or functioning of this committee is
      not known. This status of safety administration of the defence nuclear
      facilities is totally unsatisfactory because the safety evaluation and
      regulation is done by the same management which is responsible for
      operation and maintenance of these facilities, and there is no
      independence of regulation or any transparency of their actions.

      Besides, the entire process of operation, maintenance and safety
      management of these weapons facilities is kept secret under the
      Official Secrets Act. Under the circumstances, it is easy for the
      government to cut corners in safety implementation, when faced with
      the exigencies of weapons production. No one outside the facility will
      know about such by-passing of safety principles and procedures, and
      none from within the DAE system will dare to openly question these
      serious lapses for fear of being accused of violating the stringent
      Official Secrets Act.

      As a consequence, for the last 11 years, AERB has no knowledge of or
      control over the hazardous nuclear facilities and their activities in
      the extensive BARC Complex in Trombay, on the outskirts of Mumbai, or
      BARC's extensive and potentially dangerous operations at Kalpakkam
      near Chennai, or at Mysore, or elsewhere. This is a serious lacuna,
      especially in today's context where the prime minister has ordered a
      safety audit of only the nuclear power plants, but not of the
      country's weapons establishments, many of which are next door to some
      of India's most populous cities.

      There are several highly hazardous nuclear installations which come
      within the ambit of 'weapons facilities', any one of which could cause
      a major accident with extraordinary impact on the lives of large
      populations around these facilities, besides damage to the
      environment. Examples of such facilities include: the BARC complex,
      containing the 40 megawatt-thermal (MWt) CIRUS reactor (under
      shutdown?) and the 100 MWt Dhruva reactor as well as large amounts of
      high-grade liquid radioactive waste material stocks; an old spent-fuel
      reprocessing plant, an enrichment plant and a fuel fabrication unit,
      as well as a tritium separation unit at Trombay, the uranium
      enrichment plant near Mysore, the submarine test reactor facility and
      the KARP plutonium extraction plant in Kalpakkam; the plutonium plant,
      the radioactive waste immobilisation plant, and an Away From Reactor
      Spent-Fuel Storage Facility holding enormous quantities of spent-fuel
      from the entire life of the GE boiling-water reactors (BWRs), all at

      Besides these, there are several pressurized heavy-water reactors
      (PHWRs) which India has kept outside the IAEA safeguards, perhaps
      because we need the plutonium from their spent-fuel for the strategic
      programs. Whether DAE has yet designated such reactors as
      weapons-related facilities and taken them away from AERB purview is

      In this context, it is worth examining how the advanced western
      countries like the US have handled the safety surveillance and
      regulation of their defence nuclear facilities. Since the inception of
      the US nuclear weapons complexes during World War II and their
      expansion during the Cold War era, these had been managed separately
      from the power reactor stations, under strict secrecy. The US
      Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies, were managing these
      weapon facilities, without independent external oversight, within the
      executive branch.

      This past US situation is a parallel to the one prevailing today in
      India, with the DAE carrying on with a weapons program without any
      independent overview. The nuclear arms race and the sense of urgency
      about maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent legitimised secretive
      operations in the US weapons complex in the past, and gave rise to a
      higher priority for weapons production needs over concerns for the
      safety of workers and the general public.

      In India too, I am afraid a similar lop-sided priority is existing
      today, with public and worker safety relegated to a much lower level
      of importance than nuclear weaponisation.

      The Three-Mile Island accident of 1979 in the US and the more
      devastating accident at the Chernobyl plant in 1986 drastically
      changed the perception of the general public and the US Congress
      towards the rather relaxed approach of the DoE regarding the safety
      overview of military nuclear activities. This eventually led to the
      creation of the Defence Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an
      independent executive-branch organisation, by the US Congress in 1988
      to provide technical oversight of the DoE's defence nuclear
      facilities, in order to protect the health and safety of the public
      and workers. The board was charged with identifying potential safety
      threats posed by the facilities, elevating such issues to the highest
      levels of authority, and informing the public.

      In creating the DNFSB, or the 'Board' as it is often referred to, one
      aim of the US Congress was to provide an expert body to act as an
      adviser to DoE on establishing, and operating in accordance with
      standards comparable to those that prevailed in the US commercial
      nuclear power industry. Congress also provided the DNFSB with a
      variety of powers to carry out its oversight mission, chief among them
      being the power to issue formal recommendations to the secretary, DOE.
      Interestingly, the secretary is not required to accept these
      recommendations, but he is required to answer them.

      It is interesting to note the qualification for membership of the
      DNFSB, as given in the US Atomic Energy Act 1954 (Chapter-21,
      Section-311). To quote, "The Board shall be composed of five members
      appointed from civilian life by the President, with the advice and
      consent of the Senate, from among United States citizens who are
      respected experts in the field of nuclear safety with a demonstrated
      competence and knowledge relevant to the independent investigative and
      oversight functions of the Board. If political affiliations are
      involved, not more than three members of the Board shall belong to the
      same political party."

      Among the functions of the Board, the following task is included: "The
      Board shall investigate any event or practice at a DoE defence nuclear
      facility which the Board determines has adversely affected, or may
      adversely affect, public health and safety."

      The Board is also authorised to establish reporting requirements for
      the secretary of energy which shall be binding upon the secretary. The
      information which the Board may require the secretary of energy to
      report under this subsection may include any information designated as
      classified information, or any information designated as safeguards
      information and protected from disclosure under the US Atomic Energy

      After the receipt of any recommendations by the secretary of energy
      from the Board, the Board promptly shall make such recommendations
      available to the public in the Department of Energy's regional public
      reading rooms and shall publish in the federal register such
      recommendations and a request for the submission to the Board of
      public comments on such recommendations. Interested persons shall have
      30 days after the date of the publication of such notice in which to
      submit comments, data, views, or arguments to the Board concerning the

      The secretary of energy shall transmit to the Board, in writing, a
      statement on whether the secretary accepts or rejects, in whole or in
      part, the recommendations submitted to him by the Board, a description
      of the actions to be taken in response to the recommendations, and his
      views on such recommendations. The secretary of energy shall transmit
      his response to the Board within 45 days after the date of the
      publication, under subsection (a), of the notice with respect to such
      recommendations or within such additional period, not to exceed 45
      days, as the Board may grant.

      At the same time as the secretary of energy transmits his response to
      the Board's recommendations, the secretary shall publish such
      response, together with a request for public comment on his response,
      in the federal register. Interested persons shall have 30 days after
      the date of the publication of the secretary of energy's response in
      which to submit comments, data, views, or arguments to the Board
      concerning the secretary's response. The Board may subsequently hold
      hearings for the purpose of obtaining public comments on DNFSB's
      recommendations and the secretary of energy's response.

      From the above details, it is evident that the United States, a much
      more well-informed State when it comes to nuclear power and weapon
      technologies compared to India, has not only felt the strong need to
      institute a mechanism for independent safety overview and regulation
      of their military nuclear facilities, but also felt it is only proper
      to keep the public informed of the progress of that oversight
      function. Compare that with the shameful secrecy with which the UPA
      government and its DAE are hiding behind the Official Secrets Act, and
      most likely endangering the lives of workers and the public associated
      with and living near the civilian and defence nuclear installations in

      Parliament must insist that the government should direct its DAE to
      immediately examine and make recommendations to the government on the
      structure of an independent surveillance and regulatory authority for
      the defence nuclear facilities, outside the administrative control of
      the DAE, so that transparency and public confidence in safety can be
      brought about.

      The DAE alone may not be competent enough to make an unbiased and
      comprehensive recommendation in this regard. They must, therefore, be
      asked to have wider consultations and seek and use expert help from
      within the country, but from outside the DAE. The final
      recommendations of the DAE in this matter should be subjected to
      scrutiny by a team of senior national experts, before a new regulatory
      structure is put in place for the defence installations, under an
      appropriate Act of Parliament.

      Dr A Gopalakrishnan is former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory
      Board. [Govt. of India]

      [The above article is also available at: http://www.sacw.net/article2010.html ]


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