Stressing that Indian atomic power plants were constantly upgraded to match current levels of safety requirements and were safe, scientists on Monday said that the events in Japan cannot slow down the country's nuclear energy programme in any way. Indian organisations had already announced they would revisit all safety aspects of nuclear plants in the country after the situation in Japan.

Addressing a packed media conference, Srikumar Banerjee , Chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission(AEC), said through the television and the press there was alarming news but all of it was not factually correct. He said it was wrong to say there was a nuclear cloud over Japan and what had happened was a chemical explosion and not a nuclear explosion, he clarified. The reactors had a safe shutdown and it was the cooling process that was affected. The plant was built to withstand earthquakes but the tsunamis led to the cooling systems shutting down since it was flooded, he said.

No high radiation

Dr. Banerjee also dispelled reports that there was high radiation as a result in the vicinity of the plant. According to information collated by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), radiation levels around the plant in Japan were normal.

S.K. Jain, NPCIL chairperson, said that they had taken the events in Japan very seriously and safety audits of nuclear plants were of primary concern. Unlike regulatory practices in other countries, in India the regulatory board gave clearance for five years at a time and after that it was mandatory to conduct a safety assessment to seek relicensing, he said. In fact, three plants which had completed five years were undergoing a safety audit, he pointed out. He said that all the nuclear plants in the country operated on a high level of safety.

At the Tarapur atomic power station, where two units are 40 years old, they had undergone detailed safety audits in 2004 and requirements to upgrade the safety systems to current levels were incorporated, Mr. Jain said, adding that the company was meeting all the norms of nuclear safety. Also Indian plants had a passive system for cooling the reactors which was not dependent on power supply. In Tarapur, which came up in 1969, the seismic requirements were different at that time and it has all been re-qualified according to new seismic parameters.

To questions on tsunamis, Dr. Banerjee said that it was the eastern coast of India that was more active and the last tsunami was on the west coast in 1945. He said the main thing in containing a nuclear accident was heat management.

Structural integrity

R.K. Sinha, director, BARC, said data on the impact of the earthquake in Japan on the structural integrity of the nuclear plant would have to be studied. He said in Japan the plant design had taken into account tsunami waves up to a height of 6.5 metres and that is where the diesel generators for the cooling systems were placed. However, the water levels rose to between seven and ten metres, causing power failure.

In India, there was a thorough modelling carried out on tsunami levels and this was validated with actual levels. The bottom line is to avoid a station blackout, he said. “We will get data from the Japanese and look for lacunae in our systems and improve things,” he added.

Mr. Jain said the situation in Japan was being closely monitored and safety will be the overriding parameter. “We have access to transparent information which will enable us to revisit our plants and come back to the media and share information,” he said. He said that there will be no short cuts and the industry was perfectly capable of conducting a safety audit.

No compromise

Dr. Banerjee said: “When there is a question of safety and if the costs increase, there will be no compromise. If the cost is too high then we won't have a nuclear plant.” It has to be viable, he said. “Without sacrificing safety, we will have to give a competitive price and tariff has to be comparable to the price of thermal power generation in the area,” he added.

Survived calamities

An NPCIL statement said Indian nuclear plants remained safe when two natural calamities struck India in the past decade. But it said there was no room for complacencyDespite a major earthquake in Bhuj on January 26, 2001, the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station near Surat, Gujarat, continued to operate safely, the NPCIL said. Similarly, during the December 2004 tsunami in Tamil Nadu, the Madras Atomic Power Station was safely shut down without any radiological consequence. The plant was restarted within days after a regulatory review.

The Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, where two new reactors of 1000 MW each are being built, also remained unaffected by the tsunami because the plant was sited higher than the sea level.

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