What happened in Kaiga shouldn’t stay in Kaiga
More than 90 workers of the Kaiga Atomic Power Station in Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka were poisoned as a result of their water cooler being contaminated with radioactive tritium. Nuclear Power Corporation’s investigators suspect foul play, which was also corroborated by AEC chairman, Anil Kakodkar.
As with all forms of exposure to radiation, the effects of tritium exposure include mutation of cells, loss of brain weight and genetic abnormalities in future generations. It is unclear how often the workers are checked for traces of radiation, but the presence of tritium in the 90 Kaiga APS employees was identified on November 24.
Since 99% of tritium is eliminated from the body within 10 days of ingestion, the actual incident could have occurred any time between mid-November and Nov 24.
As word of the incident got out, Manmohan Singh attempted to allay fears by saying, “I’ve been briefed about it, it is a small matter of contamination and is not linked to any leak”. Yes, a small matter of radioactive heavy water contaminating our drinking water. That Manmohan Singh acted to appeal for calm is one thing, but to do so in such a bizarre, over enthusiastically dismissive manner sends a poor message to citizens and to domestic and international observers.
As if on key, the media bailed on covering the incident, leaving us at the mercy of the inane, often contradictory explanations being given by the DAE and the AEC, if and when the AEC felt disposed to provide any information at all.
There is little that we know about the incident — the identities of those exposed, the date of exposure, the amount of radiation recorded, or indeed, if all those exposed to tritium as a result of drinking water from the cooler have been accounted for.
The Deccan Herald ran an article which indicated that APS employed over a 1,000 workers and 5,000 contractors, all of whom had access to both the area that stored the tritium as well as the dispenser. Sadly, this is the kind of flippancy that has typified our approach to nuclear safety.
This isn’t the first radioactive leek or safety breech at an APS in India, nor will it be the last if this sort of trivialization of the safety of workers and those in the immediate neighborhood persists. In the Kalpakkam APS alone, there were three major instances of heavy water leeks in 2003, 1999, 1988.
If the Prime Minister is really serious about delivering on his promise of “good governance” after the victory in the general election this past May, he should constitute a review not only of the Kaiga incident but also all aspects of APS operation and management, including safety and handling procedures, physical security, isolation and access control, recruitment and background checks.
The usual dismissive, dubious attestations of the DAE simply won’t do anymore.