Why nuclear reactors are '100 per cent safe'

Why nuclear reactors are '100 per cent safe'
New Delhi: The world is on tenterhooks and the Indian atomic chief assures that the 20 Indian reactors are safe. But are they? In the midst of the unfolding nuclear nightmare in Japan, India's nuclear chief, Dr. Srikumar Banerjee, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission the man literally on the hot seat, sat down for a highly combative interview with Pallava Bagla.

Here's the full transcript of the interview:

NDTV: Has this Japan incident shaken you?

Srikumar Banerjee
: Japan incident has shaken me but what you are saying is not just for me.

NDTV: But this is an unfolding nightmare, has this shaken your confidence?

Srikumar Banerjee: It has not shaken my confidence but it has disturbed me. But obviously had this not happened we would have been happier. It's totally rubbish that some radiation level will come to India.

NDTV: Are Indian reactors safe?

Srikumar Banerjee: One hundred per cent.

NDTV: Can you keep your hand on your heart and say Indian public need not fear Indian reactors?

Srikumar Banerjee: Yes I am keeping my hand on my heart to say that Indian public need not fear Indian reactors and if there is any chance of any accident then we will be the first one to say, close it.

NDTV: But you are so secretive?

Srikumar Banerjee: How can you say that? We are not secretive at all.

NDTV: So should India continue to embrace nuclear energy or move away from it?

Srikumar Banerjee: We have to generate energy and the clean energy that we can provide, the best way to do that is through nuclear but we should not do it recklessly. We should do it with concern of safety and keep in mind that we are not damaging the environment at all.

NDTV: Are these explosions nuclear?

Srikumar Banerjee: No. The first question is that the energy release from the containment is not a nuclear event. This is a hydrogen fire.

NDTV: People's fear is one after the other; out of 6 reactors in the complex 3 have had explosions. They should not have had any explosion?

Srikumar Banerjee: True. Reactors are designed so that there is no explosion. I was also hoping after the blast of the unit 1 and then unit 3 and then there was spike in the radiation and then it fell down. I was hoping for the best that now the radiation level has come down but again there is one more incident and again the radiation level has gone up. Now it has come down. I would only say that though this is alarming but we should not compare it with events like either a nuclear explosion or even an event like Chernobyl. It's not that type. The energy evolution is not from nuclear fissure.

NDTV: You are anxious but is it to a level that it is alarming?

Srikumar Banerjee: I am anxious but not so much to think how safe our nuclear reactors are. I am quite confident about our nuclear reactors. I am 100% confident that there is no difficulty with our reactors but that does not mean we should not be anxious.

NDTV: Is the worst over that we don't see a catastrophic blow up?

Srikumar Banerjee:  It is a predictive statement I have to make. There is no big chance of that kind of a thing happening, that is catastrophic blow up of the containment vessel. Containment leakage is something, containment fracture is something and catastrophic blow up is [altogether] something else. Because that kind of an energy source is no longer inside.

NDTV: So can you say that we will not have a situation like Japan here in India?

Srikumar Banerjee: For the case of pressurised heavy water reactor we can say that the total coolant inventory to take care of decay heat is so much larger that there is no chance of a similar situation.

NDTV: So our reactors are roughly designed for 6.5

Srikumar Banerjee: Yes 6.5 in a nearest fault zone. But we don't locate our reactors right there. That is site selection. There is still a margin over and above that.

NDTV: Let's come specifically to the issue of EPR reactors that are going to be housed in Jaitapur? I have information from NPCIL wherein they report that in the last 20 years around 100 earthquakes have taken place around Jaitapur. Is the reactor at Jaitapur designed to withstand those earthquakes?

Srikumar Banerjee: If you have noticed each of these magnitudes is much lower than even 6.5.

NDTV: We also had the Latur earthquake which was around just 300 km away from Jaitapur?

Srikumar Banerjee: If you take the devastation in terms of casualties but in terms of the earth movement or in terms of the Richter scale, it was nothing with compared to what you are seeing now.

NDTV: Are you saying Jaitapur is sited correctly in terms of earthquake?

Srikumar Banerjee: Yes I can tell you very confidently that Jaitapur has been sighted correctly in terms of earthquake

NDTV: in terms of tsunami is it sighted correctly?

Srikumar Banerjee: There is a special advantage in Jaitapur it is right adjacent to the sea but at the same time it is at a height typically above 20 m above sea level. So a natural tsunami saviour is there we may find that other sites may not have that natural advantage

NDTV: After the Japan incident the Indian Prime Minister has ordered a safety review of the nuclear facilities, what is the safety review? What will you do?

Srikumar Banerjee: We are going to take make a revision of the safety scenario of all the plants under extreme conditions of the natural calamities. We have some design margins. What are the additional design margins above the design basis accident? So these are called beyond design accidents. Each of this reactor their robustness in the conditions which are beyond the design basis, that is what they are going to analyse.

NDTV: What are the natural disasters you are talking of?

Srikumar Banerjee: We are talking of earthquake, tsunami, flooding, and cyclone.

NDTV: How soon will this review be over?

Srikumar Banerjee: It will be done within a week but it will not be a one step process. We will continue to upgrade our systems. Safety is linked with the multiplicity of the barriers. No safety can be assured by one layer.

NDTV: Other countries while they are doing their review have already ordered a shutdown of the nuclear reactors. That is giving a lot of confidence to the general public. Why have you not given orders for a shutdown till this review is complete so that there is confidence among the people?

Srikumar Banerjee: I don't think there is any necessity of calling for a shutdown. What are we going to gain by just shutting down because there is nothing that has happened in any of our systems which would call for a shut down? I am unable to understand the rationale behind thinking of shutting it down. If we see that there is some weakness in the safety analysis because even I don't want to bring any kind of danger to our own countrymen.

NDTV: People don't inherently trust the Indian atomic energy establishment

Srikumar Banerjee: I wouldn't say so because if this was true then we would have never got any support from the people because in a country like ours when we are isolated from the rest of the world on the nuclear activity.

NDTV: Most people think that the Department of Atomic Energy is secretive about what it does. It is not transparent. It does not give out data?

Srikumar Banerjee: There is not many evidence to show that the Department of Atomic Energy is not giving out data.

NDTV: How will you address those concerns raised by the former chief of regulatory board Dr. A. Gopalakrishnan? Why is that report being kept secret?

Srikumar Banerjee: I don't know which particular report has been kept secret but if the chairman has given some stipulations or conditions that needs to be fulfilled before starting a nuclear plant, it has been obeyed in all conditions because in our culture it is not possible that if some stipulation is given, without fulfilling them to run the nuclear plant. The PM has hinted towards that mainly because of the reason. We all want to strengthen the regulatory body; there is no doubt on this.

NDTV: How many times have you been pulled out by the atomic energy regulatory board that you are not doing something right?

Srikumar Banerjee: Innumerable times. Many, many times because regulatory restrictions are very heavy. The general public has thinking that regulatory process is a single-step process. We think one day one certificate will come from a regulator and then you are free. No reactor in the country gets a license from more than 5 years of operation. We have been running reactors for more than 40 years, even then every time we get a license its not more than 5 years and every 5 years it is going through the same kind of grill

NDTV: Japan crisis that is happening will it have a setback on the Indian programme in the increase of reactors?

Srikumar Banerjee: It will have an influence on the psyche of the people.
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