The shutdown of the 220 MW Unit-1 of the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station located in Gujarat’s Surat district following leakage of heavy water used to cool the nuclear reactor, on March 11, the fifth anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in Japan, is at once a reminder of the inherent risks associated with operating nuclear reactors and the importance of augmenting safety mechanisms. Unlike the Fukushima accident, rated seven (the highest level) on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale, where meltdown of the core of three reactors occurred due to the failure of the cooling system, it is reassuring that the safety systems of the KAPS reactor worked as intended, including the backup cooling systems, thus preventing any cascading event leading to radioactivity release outside the plant. While this may be a “rare event for a functioning plant” that happened for the “first time” in India, it is a cause for concern that the magnitude of the coolant system failure was “significant”. That the reactor has been shut down and an independent assessment of the safety situation at the plant is being undertaken by scientists from the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board evokes confidence. The second unit here has remained shut since July 2015 for maintenance. While the AERB has maintained its independence in terms of its risk assessment and management functions, there is no room for complacency. It must be borne in mind that collusion between the Japanese government, the country’s regulator and the operator had led to many violations that were detrimental to the environment and human health.
Given the heightened fear of nuclear energy in India following the Fukushima disaster, the only way AERB officials can reassure the public and win confidence is by being more transparent with its findings, however grave they are, and by taking all necessary steps to ensure that similar events are averted in the future. Just as lessons learnt from the Fukushima accident led to an enhancement of the level of safety of the backup systems in reactors that are under construction in India, lessons from this incident should be put to good use. These steps are indeed warranted as India plans to increase the installed nuclear power capacity from the current 5,780 MW to 10,080 MW by the end of the Twelfth Plan (2017) and 20,000 MW by 2020. Also, India gave an assurance in Paris that by 2030 it would reduce carbon emissions relative to its GDP by 33-35 per cent from 2005 levels and also generate 40 per cent of the country’s electricity from non-fossil fuel-based sources, using among others the solar, wind and nuclear options. While India has positioned itself as a leader in the renewable energy sector by playing a pivotal role in the creation of the International Solar Alliance, the nuclear space is plagued by delays in completing the construction of reactors, as seen in the case of Kota in Rajasthan (RAPP 7 and 8) and at Kakrapar (KAPP 3 and 4). Whether public sentiment supports fresh nuclear reactor proposals would depend on how well the AERB fulfils its tasks.