December 3, 2009 Leave a comment
by Neeraj Jain
Yet another incident! The nuclear industry euphemistically refers to all accidents at nuclear power plants as ‘incidents’, in order to downplay the severity of the accident and mollify public concerns.
The tritium which has contaminated the bodies of 55 workers by the admission of spokespersons of the AERB and AEC is a terribly radioactive element. The AEC and its spokespersons are trying to play down the radioactive nature of tritium, and they have not given a single statement about its true nature. All that they are saying is that only in the case of two workers does the radiation exposure exceed the AERB specified limit, and the other 53 workers are safe and back to work. The truth is that the tiniest amount of tritium is enough to damage the health of these workers. Of course, all this is assuming that no tritium has found its way into the atmosphere. If it has, the chances of which are very high, then it has contaminated the area for the next 248 years!
Tritium (H-3), a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, composed of one proton and two neutrons. Tritium is produced in the fuel rods of nuclear reactors as a fission byproduct. It is also produced in the primary coolant due to interaction of neutrons emitted from the fuel rods with water molecules. Tritium has a half-life of 12.4 years and as such is radioactive for 248 years. H-3 combines readily with oxygen to form tritiated water (H3O).
Tritium is a particularly scary material, as it is a beta emitter and is biologically very mutagenic, being readily absorbed through the skin, lungs and the GI tract. On absorption, it behaves like a water molecule and becomes part of the cell. Tritium causes tumors and cancer in the lungs and GI tract. In animal experiments, even at low doses, it has been shown to shrink the testicles and ovaries, and cause birth defects, mental retardation, brain tumours, decreased brain weight, loss of reproductive abilities of offspring, and stunted, deformed fetuses.
The AEC and AERB spokespersons are claiming that this incident was because of sabotage by an employee. We will never actually know the truth because India’s nuclear establishments are beyond public scrutiny, we cannot file an RTI and seek information regarding accidents or safety conditions in India’s nuclear reactors. The nuclear authorities in India are legally empowered to deny all information about the state of India’s nuclear reactors and the various accidents-incidents taking place in them. The Indian Atomic Energy Act of 1962 gives the DAE the right to withhold all such information; the Act is so authoritarian that the DAE is not accountable even to the Parliament! In fact, the DAE has used the Atomic Energy Act to even prevent nuclear plant workers from accessing their own health records!!
It is possible that the tritium leakage occurred because of some more severe accident within the Kaiga nuclear reactor, and it is also possible that more than 55 employees suffered exposure to high levels of radiation. The Department of Atomic Energy and its subsidiaries, including the AERB and NPC, are well known for lying, they have never admitted on their own any accident, and when the press has finally exposed their cover-up, they have tried to downplay the accident.
But even assuming the official version is true, and that it occurred because of employee sabotage, that is small consolation, because whether it is “accident” or “sabotage” is hardly any consolation for the actual or potential victims.
Assuming it is “sabotage, which could not be prevented, this means that it can happen again. And a more serious “sabotage” could have a disastrous impact with immediate and intense effects on hundreds of thousands of lives, as in case Chernobyl (in Ukraine of the then USSR) on April 26 1986.
Such incidents are frequent occurrences at India’s nuclear plants, and so far, more than 300 such incidents have occurred at India’s nuclear plants. It is only sheer fortune that another Chernobyl has not occurred in India. This incident once again reminds the people of the country that we are living on the edge of a major tragedy, and we should raise our voices against the push being made by the government of India for nuclear energy, and press for more saner and ecofriendly and safe alternatives, like wind, solar and hydro electricity.
About Neeraj Jain
Neeraj Jain is B. Tech (rank holder) from IT-BHU, Varanasi, and an activist and writer. He is presently based in Pune and is Convenor of an activist group based in Pune, named Lokayat. He is also the convenor of the Maharashtra unit of National Alliance of Anti-Nuclear Movements (NAAM).