The first of the two 1000 MWe VVER nuclear reactors at Koodankulam Project (KKNP-1), under commissioning and testing , is supplied by the Russian atomic energy corporation, Rosatom ,through its subsidiary, Atomstroyexport. On the Indian side , the KKNP project is owned by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) , a public sector undertaking of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) . The overall safety regulation responsibility is with the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) .
Crucial materials and reactor parts have been exported to KKNP-1 & 2 by a Russian government-owned company called Machine-Building Plant ZiO-Podolsk (ZiO) , which is another Rosatom subsidiary. ZiO-Podolsk supplies have been sent for years to all the Russian nuclear power plants, and to most of the VVER plants exported to countries like India, Iran, China and Bulgaria. These include important safety subsystems , equipment , components and materials supplied over the years to KKNP-1 & 2 .
KKNP-1 was originally scheduled to start operation in early 2010 , but presently even the final start-up testing is not completed . In January 2013 , the Secretary, DAE, stated that he was totally certain that the reactor would be started that month itself, but it did not happen.
From NPCIL’s continuing inability to start-up KKNP-1 till now , it is very obvious that the Indo-Russian commissioning team at Koodankulam is facing some serious problems which they never anticipated.
The congenital lack of transparency from which the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the nuclear sector organisations are suffering always prevents the public from knowing the real story. The DAE Secretary’s reasons for the delay in KKNP-1 start-up is that “ the engineers have opened up a few of the valves and such components for maintenance and it’s taking some time.” M.R Srinivasan, Member (AEC), is reported to have said, “We sought an additional safety mechanism , which consists of valves. The original reactor design had to be altered and I believe this is the basic cause for delay . The valves were designed partially in India and Russia and compatibility with the reactor led to some hiccups.”
The fact that a high-cost , high-risk nuclear reactor is facing defects and deficiencies in its components and equipment even before it is started up is highly unusual, and this indicates gross failures at several levels in the DAE-AERB-NPCIL-Atomstroyexport combine.
If designs have been checked and followed , procurement of materials and fabrication have been done as per technical specifications, testing and quality control at the manufacturer’s shops were comprehensive, and NPCIL’s Quality Assurance (QA) before acceptance of supplies at site were strictly as per nuclear norms, these problems could not have arisen at the commissioning stage.
If news trickling out of KKNP-1 site is to be trusted, the Russian special check valves in the passive long-term core flooding system (hydroaccumulator system- stage 2) are defective as received and, at this late hour an order to manufacture one or more such valves has been placed on a reputed Hyderabad company. One or more of the new Russian valves show cracks even at the finish of initial commissioning tests. Similarly, the passive heat removal system (PHRS) is not functioning as per specifications, because the damper — air heat exchanger — vane system has not been integrally tested at the Russian manufaturer’s works as required and problems were not sorted out there itself . There are other problems to list, but the above are typical of the flaws holding up the reactor commissioning. Almost all these malfunctioning components and sub-systems have been produced by ZiO-Podolsk, and all of them are crucial to the safety of the plant, under beyond-design-basis accidents.
The Bellona Foundation, an international environmental NGO based in Norway
(http://www.bellona.org/), stated (http://www.anti-atom.ru/en/node/3468 ) in February 2012 that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) had arrested Sergei Shutov, the procurement director of ZiO-Podolsk, on charges of corruption and fraud. The FSB has charged Shutov with buying low-quality raw materials on the cheap over the years, passing them off as high-quality materials, and pocketing the difference.
It is not clear how many reactors have been impacted by this alleged crime, but reactors built by Russia in India, Bulgaria, Iran and China are among those suspected to have received sub-standard equipment and components, given the timeframe of work completed.
Bulgaria has already asked Atomstroyexport and ZiO-Podolsk to provide details of materials used in their reactors, including quality certificates. Similarly , China’s Tianwan plant has two VVER-1000 reactors, and the Chinese have raised several hundred queries regarding the low quality of materials and components.
Investigative Journalists, an NGO based in the Armenian capital, has said (http://hetq.am/eng/news/11194/russian-prosecutors-arrest-state-nuclear-official.html ) that the use of substandard materials could lead to a nuclear disaster. “Stopping and conducting full scale checks of reactors where equipment from ZiO-Podolsk has been installed is absolutely necessary,” Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of Russian environmental NGO Ecodefence, said recently.“Otherwise the risk of a serious accident at a nuclear power plant, whose clean-up bill, stretching into the tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars, will have to be footed by taxpayers.”
The problems with ZiO-Podolsk supplies to the KKNP-1 Project, seen in the context of the widespread allegations of corruption and poor quality, indicate that the root cause of KKNP-1 problems lies in those sub-standard supplies. Recent questions raised under RTI to the AERB and NPCIL resulted only in evasive and pointless replies. Asked about parts supplied by ZiO, AERB says “the selection of a company for supplying any equipment to NPCIL is not under the purview of AERB.” For the same query, NPCIL says, “No information regarding any investigation against ZiO-Podolsk is available to NPCIL”. Both these DAE organisations were lying in these replies, as is evident from the following facts.
The website of the Russian Embassy in India carries the news of a senior Indian delegation (http://www.rusembassy.in/index.php?option=com_content&view= article&id=4881%3A-q-q&catid=10%3A2010-01-21-11-06-46&lang=ru ) headed by AP Joshi, Special Secretary, DAE having visited ZiO-Podolsk from July 15-18, 2012, just about five months after the arrest of Sergei Shutov, Zio-Podolsk’s Procurement Director, for fraud and corruption in sending out inferior products to national and foreign reactor projects , including KKNP-1 & 2.
The Indian Embassy in Moscow and the NPCIL / DAE personnel stationed there must have certainly known about Shutov’s arrest , and the inherent serious implications of his actions on the safety of KKNP-1 & 2. They would have briefed the DAE Secretary about it immediately and through him the PMO would also have been alerted . And yet , both AERB and NPCIL pretend to take the ZiO-Podolsk matter very lightly and feign ignorance .
One can only surmise that the PMO & the DAE quickly realied the gravity of the potentially explosive situation that could develop vis-a-vis Koodankulam reactor safety, following Shutov’s arrest, because by then several crucial equipment, components and materials with alleged poor quality and deficiencies have been already installed in various parts of both units at KKNP and Unit-1 was on its way to commissioning. The PMO & DAE seem to have decided to weather the storm through the joint execution of an Indo-Russian cover-up plan, and hold a firm position that all is well with KKNP supplies.
After a fire-fighting strategy was framed in India , it would appear that the PMO despatched the Special Secretary, DAE, and his team to visit ZiO-Podolsk and spent three days to firm up the modus operandi of tackling the rather tricky situation which could develop in India once the protesters and the courts of law come to know of the scam details. After all , the PMO’s top priority is to meet the PM’s promise to President Putin that KKNP-1 will be started up in April 2013, and public safety and corruption come only after that .
There could be a large number of equipment, components and materials of substandard quality from ZiO-Podolsk already installed in various parts of KKNP- 1 & 2 whose deficiencies and defects are dormant today, but these very same shortcomings may cause such parts to catastrophically fail when the reactor is operated for some time .
Many such parts and materials may have been installed within the reactor pressure vessel itself, which is now closed and sealed in preparation for the start-up. Once the reactor is made critical and reaches power operation, much of these components and materials inside will become radioactive and/or will be in environments where they cannot be properly tested for quality or performance.
Under the circumstances , KKNP Unit-1 commissioning and KKNP-2 construction work must be stopped forthwith, and there can be no question of resuming these works towards start-up of both these reactors until a thorough and impartial investigation is carried out into the impact of this corruption scandal and sub-standard supplies on the safety of these reactors.
And these investigations must be carried out by a team, where majority membership must not be from DAE , NPCIL and AERB, but include subject experts from other organisations in the country.
India must also seriously consider inviting an IAEA expert team specially constituted to investigate the specific issues which this scandal has thrown up.
Gopalakrishnan is a former Chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board