Nuclear disaster: Control rooms with no bosses, hotline turned cold

After J&K floods came Hudhud. Now Ebola lurks. Indian Express examines India’s response preparedness to disaster.

Written by Smita Nair | Mumbai | Updated: October 21, 2014 2:54 pm
After years of learning about events from Chernobyl to Fukushima, the men know this: although the odds of a disaster are very, very low, the unimaginable extracts unimaginable costs. After years of learning about events from Chernobyl to Fukushima, the men know this: although the odds of a disaster are very, very low, the unimaginable extracts unimaginable costs.

They know it’s the last thing of beauty they might ever see: long beds of ramphool flowers scattered across the countryside, their long stalks bending in the wind. For years now, 1,149 first-responders stationed amidst the flowers, at the National Disaster Relief Force base at Sudumbare near Pune, have trained each day for the most horrific kind of industrial accident imaginable: a disaster at the Tarapur Atomic Power Station, Maharashtra.

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After years of learning about events from Chernobyl to Fukushima, the men know this: although the odds of a disaster are very, very low, the unimaginable extracts unimaginable costs.

Two basic principles will be key to saving thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of lives: timely detection of the radioactive leak and swift evacuation of people from wind-borne radioactive cloud which will follow.

Led by Alok Avasthy, the NDRF’s 5 Battalion has trained for a decade to deal with CBRN events — short for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear. “If you place us at the spot at the right time, we are confident that we are going to fix the situation,” Avasthy says. The “if” is a carefully considered one.

Dysfunctional system

THE 5 Battalion has been called to help in all kinds of disasters over the years — landslides, floods, building collapses, etc. It has always had to get there by road. In spite of extensive correspondence with NDRF headquarters, and subsequent communication between the NDRF and the Ministry of Home Affairs, there’s no hotline that would allow the Battalion to immediately call in air support. The NDRF’s director, as first reported by The Indian Express earlier in this series, has no power to requisition helicopters or aircraft.

In 2011, fatigued and frustrated by the distance between cities and their base, and in an effort to multiply force,  the battalion with specialised skills and equipment began picking men from the State Response Police Force for training. Those men, though, have been committed back to law and order duties, dispersed across various units.

“The idea was to strengthen our CBRN response in mega cities,” says Avasthy. “Around 1,100 police personnel were trained in the best of grounds and with the best equipment and mock situations. I do not know where they have vanished today.”

The state government, meanwhile, is pushing to set up a State Disaster Response Force of its own. Having worked on the proposal for months, Milind Mhasikar, secretary of the department, recalls the day when the cabinet approved the proposal for an indigenous response team. “Malin floods took place at 6.30 am and the cabinet passed the proposal at 9.30 am,” he adds. The proposal being worked since January has Rs 100 crore budget only for salaries, with two companies to be shaped before the end of 2014. Nothing much has happened since, though — so raising day might be a while away.

Theory and practice

In theory, there’s back-up in place already. A nuclear emergency should set off what’ called a Level 3 response — involving the country’s defence, paramilitary, police and government agencies all the way from the Centre to the taluka. The National Disaster Management Agency had prepared a structured document, providing precise directions on rescue, decontamination and evacuation, to be administered in real-time by control rooms at the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi and in the states.

The reality is that Maharashtra doesn’t actually have a set of operating procedures in place, which would govern all organisations in a crisis. The SOPs of three agencies that The Indian Express accessed showed overlaps, while one at the state level hadn’t been updated since 2005. The State Relief and Rehabilitation Office has asked all concerned agencies, from police and essential services to traffic, to prepare a single SOP for various situations. It is currently working on one for railway strikes.

“We have kept streamlining the SOP for mega-disasters like terror attack in a nuclear reactor for last as the number of agencies involved is huge,” an official explained

To make an SOP work, it’ll need an effective control room. The Maharashtra secretariat’s control room, run by the SRRC, does not have a single professional disaster expert — just staff on deputation from various departments like general administration, irrigation and animal husbandry. The position of the nodal officer, the Director of State Relief and Rehabilitation, has not been occupied for 45 days. Two crucial posts, the capacity-building officer and resource coordinator, do not exist.

Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, which operates all the 19 nuclear power plants, takes safety seriously, operating a ‘defence-in-depth’ strategy involving multiple layers of concrete protection and electronic systems. After the 9/11 terror attack, the new age reactors were given another coat of security, to ensure that they are missile-proof. Emergency preparedness drills are conducted every two years, along with the district administration.

\Yet, a 2011 emergency census document obtained by The Indian Express shows that there will be real problems should a large crisis emerge. A population of 2,98,573 people will have to be evacuated in an extreme emergency, not counting the swelling floating population in the area. The 2011 exercise found that there were limited evacuation modes and ground routes, due to area demographics and its proximity to sea. NPCIL and NDRF teams too have pointed to the lack of check on increasing density around the site, which is against the AERB norms.

Things which work well during drills — of which populations are warned for weeks — don’t always work when the exercise is over. An out-of-routine check to the State Transport Bus office at night by an official saw that 18 buses were available for evacuation near a reactor — but no drivers. Another official at the State Health Department confessed that while medicine keeps getting updated and stocked at all hospitals around the site, there is a lack of expertise in treating radiation-related conditions. No-one knows what impact modern communication means, like the social media, will have: it has never been factored in during exercises.

The police, key to handling the hundreds of thousands who will need evacuating, haven’t shown great skills with panicked people: 18 had died in a stampede outside the gates of Mohammed Burhanuddin, spiritual leader of Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community, hours before his funeral in January, 2014.

In many cases, there’s an unwillingness to consider low-probability events — the ones that actually cause the most fatalities. Last year, fired by news from Japan’s Fukushima disaster, the civic administration approached NPCIL with a “core meltdown” theme for mock drill exercise. The scientist community shot it down, suggesting that a drill should be of “probable events” and not “unfounded situations borrowed from reactors abroad”.

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  1. A
    Alsikhali Rama
    Oct 21, 2014 at 4:57 pm
    The secrecy that shrouds the civilian nuclear industry in India makes it almost impossible for citizens to know accurately the details of accidents that have occurred, or indeed sometimes whether accidents have occurred at all. Yet the sector teems with rumours and eyewitness accounts of near-misses, leaks, cracks, radiation exposures and safety violations.The costs paid by Indian citizens, in both health and environment, seem to be far greater than the meager 2.7% of electricity currently provided by India’s civilian nuclear sector (1). An even greater injustice is that it is often the same factions of society - the nameless day labourers who are not educated in the dangers of radiation - that are brought in to clear up the mess, as are then overlooked when it comes to distributing reliable supplies of electricity.
  2. R
    Oct 21, 2014 at 8:21 am
    The dams which caused the triple meltdown at ushima by a great earthquake of 9.0 MM magnitude also pose a grave threat to Tarapur, applying the precautionary principle. There were 220 earthquakes in a 500km radius around Tarapur Station during the hydrological years 1973 to 2013, 95% of which were within 220 to 256 km of Tarapur Nuclear Power Station(similar distance to the quakes which occur around ushima). The power surge due to dams of the world at Tarapur would be about 600000 terawatts, five orders of magnitude more than the entire electrical capacity of the world of 6 terawatts. Considering that the simultaneous, instantaneous, ulative reservoir content changes of all the dams in the world due to water consumption demands is at present 250 billion cubic meters from instant to instant, which is 1 to 2 percent of the world reservoir capacity, it would be unwise, nay suicidal moorkhapaddhati, to dismiss the threat posed by this ubiquitously occurring dynamics. Modern civilization is committing suicide because of the false foundations on which it is based. The death knell was sounded by Mahatma hi in 1908 when he proclaimed: Given enough time modern civilization will destroy itself. Hats off to the sagacity of the civiic administration. Please put pressure on the concerned authorities so that saner councils would prevail. Its best to shut down the negative efficiency infinite cost nukes now as Germany has decided after having one look at ushima.
  3. F
    Flynn William
    Oct 22, 2014 at 2:38 pm
    India with its geo-climatic conditions, high density of potion, socio-economic disparities, politics and troubled relationship with neighboring countries, has high risk of natural and man-made disasters. In respect to natural disasters, it is vulnerable to forest fires, floods, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones. Nuclear is sensitive and India as a country does not have a properly implemented nuclear disaster management system.
  4. H
    H K
    Oct 21, 2014 at 6:58 pm
    Relax, The safest reactor is up there, SUN, giving out enough energy for all free. Just simplify life use solar energy, All the tec know logy easily available, Shut down all nuclear plants,Wise germans have done it,
  5. A
    Oct 22, 2014 at 5:25 am
    This is the dilemma, state policies have serious implications upon common mes. In rush for nuclear energy, most of the power plants have been installed in vulnerable areas. These areas can be hit by tsunami and other natural calamities. Government's policy failures can lead to further disasters if proper measures not taken.
  6. R
    Oct 21, 2014 at 1:20 pm
    India clearly depicts the picture that relying on secrecy and obfuscation, a nuclear program undermines democratic accountability and contributes instead to a culture of lies and evasions. Shielding the program from public scrutiny hides the inefficiency, malpractice, mismanagement and dangers — and nuclear technology is unforgiving when things go wrong with grave safety and environmental concerns.
  7. M
    Mahender Goriganti
    Oct 21, 2014 at 4:03 am
    scare story?? it is, Indian expressway of telling the story
  8. K
    Kudiyan Sasi
    Oct 21, 2014 at 10:58 am
    None of your trash will make any difference. Nuclear power is here to stay as is evidenced by our nuclear capacity expansion. The anti Jaitapur Shiv Sena was defeated in this polls. Nuclear plants in Kaiga, Kakrapar, Kota and Kalpakkam are proceeding smoothly. So is the one at Koodankulam. So no room for anti nuke clowns and no time for your tomfoolery.
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