On January 25, newspapers reported official statements regarding yet another delay in commissioning the Koodankulam plant. A widely published PTI report declared that India’s nuclear regulator has given its “nod to repeat the full systems test at the first unit of Koodankulam atomic power project in Tamil Nadu.” The media seemed satisfied with the statement. No questions were raised. The Hindu report referred to this “permission” as “some good news on the Koodankulam front” and said it raised expectations of an early commissioning.
The test itself would take a fortnight. Interpretation of its results can take another fortnight. This will delay the commissioning, not hasten it. But the delay is not the issue here. Any which way one sees it, the “permission” is not good news. For nuclear proponents, it represents yet another delay. For nuclear opponents worried about the lack of adequate safeguards and due diligence in Koodankulam , the “permission” raises disturbing questions.
Even a child will tell you that you need to repeat a test only if you have failed in the first instance. NPCIL’s desire to gloss over its failure and make it seem as if the “permission” was a hard-won victory is understandable. But why is the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board playing ball? Why is it referring to the decision as a permission rather than an order? What were the circumstances that led to NPCIL failing the first test?
The nuclear establishment has a way with words. By using cryptic and vague one-liners to dress the truth, it lulls some into a false sense of security even while others panic, and rumours begin to take root.
Of all the pronouncements from the establishment, Atomic Energy Commission chairperson RK Sinha’s statement earlier this month offers some glimpses of the truth. Speaking to reporters in New Delhi, Sinha had said “Essentially there are some system parameters like flow, pressure, temperature that need to be maintained within particular values.”
Piece this information together with bits from other statements that appeared in the media, and 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.
The fact that brand new valves – more than one – were malfunctioning raises questions about the quality of the equipment. And, the identification of these defective valves at this late pre-commissioning stage suggests that quality assurance of individual components was deficient. Taken together, this indicates grave problems with both the supplier and the buyer.
An ongoing investigation into corruption in the Russian nuclear establishment gives a new twist to the tale. In February 2012, KGB’s successor 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 is suspected to have been used in nuclear reactors built by the Russians in Bulgaria, Iran, China and India.