Thursday, 15 November 2012

UN's nuclear watchdog: Rajasthan reactors are among world's safest

Good news for India from the UN nuclear watchdog that intensively audited over several weeks two reactors at the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station for safety. It has concluded that the reactors are among the best in the world, the indigenously made 220 MW atomic plants can withstand a Fukushima type of accident, even suggesting that the "safety culture is strong in India".

After completing the first ever audit, speaking exclusively to NDTV, the head of the Operational Safety Division at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Miroslav Lipar, who has over 35 years of nuclear experience with more than a decade in the IAEA, said "improvements were necessary in fire protection and electrical cabling systems".

Mr Lipar said this was the 171st such nuclear audit in the world and the first of its kind for India. According to him, "India emerged a winner with a high global safety rank." (Watch: IAEA lauds safety of Rajasthan reactors)

When asked if the plant incorporated additional safety features necessitated after the accident at the Fukushima atomic reactors in Japan, Mr Lipar said "the emergency preparedness was optimal", with sufficient back-up power and cooling systems being in place.

But the big question is - will this calm the critics who oppose nuclear energy?

This international peer review was precipitated when the Indian nuclear establishment faced a deluge of questions on the safety of Indian nuclear reactors with fears sky-rocketing, especially after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan last year.

This was a first hint of transparency in the highly secretive Indian nuclear establishment. Interestingly and in comparison Pakistan subjected its atomic power reactors located at the Chashma site for a similar peer review as far back as 2004.

In an unprecedented step India agreed to allow for the very first time safety inspectors from the IAEA to thoroughly audit over a period of several weeks two nuclear reactors at the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station, namely units 3 & 4, for their operational safety.

The international audit was a voluntary confidence-building measure initiated at the prodding of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, so the Department of Atomic Energy, for the very first time gathered the courage to subject its indigenously-made 220 MW atomic reactors to an international peer review of the safety procedures.

Speaking to NDTV, G. Nageshwar Rao, Director (Operations) at the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, Mumbai, said, "Here onwards people should not have apprehensions about Indian atomic reactors." (Watch: Nothing to worry about India's reactors)

Still not convinced, critics like former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board chairman Dr A Gopalakrishnan are urging India to subject the oldest reactors the country has at Tarapur, the two boiling water reactors made by General Electric, namely units 1&2 which have a vintage of 1969, to an open safety inspection.

Mr Gopalakrishnan says, "These two smaller Tarapur units are totally unsafe and should have been shut down long ago as they are of a similar kind like the atomic reactors that exploded one after another at the Fukushima site in Japan."

Countering this criticism, Mr Rao says, "We have no reservation of subjecting older reactors to a peer review and if the government wants Tarapur 1&2 these can also be audited by the IAEA safety team at a later date, but initially the thought was that learnings should flow to reactor types namely the Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors that are the mainstay for India and are now totally indigenously made, the benefits of a peer review could be best for these reactors that will last the country another half a century or more."

But will this thumbs up by the global nuclear watchdog really help allay fears of radiation leaks and accidents? The country has been witness to unparalleled protests in Tamil Nadu at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant where locals oppose the commissioning of the 1000 MW Russian made reactor dubbing it unsafe. Mr Rao feels this endorsement from the IAEA should help quell voices of dissent that vociferously oppose the country's desire to ramp up the installed capacity of atomic reactors to 63,000 MW in the next two decades from the 4800 MW installed capacity in 20 reactors that exist today.

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