Wake-up call

SECOND EDIT

The radioactive contamination of drinking water at the Kaiga Atomic Power Station in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district lays bare the shoddy safety measures in place at the nuclear power plant. Some 55 employees at Kaiga are reported to have been detected with radiation levels beyond permissible limits during a routine medical check-up. They drank water from a cooler that had been mixed with tritium, a highly radioactive substance. Kaiga authorities claim that it was an act by a disgruntled employee. Some are pointing to the hand of outsiders. Whether the work of an insider or not, the intentional poisoning of water with radioactive substances is deeply worrying. It might be possible for investigators to zero in on who is responsible for the poisoning, thanks to CCTVs. But we need more stringent and foolproof measures to ensure that violation of established protocols and procedures will not be possible in future.

Government officials often point to multi-level security arrangements that are in place at nuclear power plants to underscore how secure they are. But security in nuclear plants has to be tight at all times. Nuclear safety experts have warned in the past that safety is not given the priority it deserves. Workers are discouraged from raising issues regarding their immediate environment and its impact on their health. Issues of importance for safety that are raised are often brushed under the carpet or quickly silenced in the name of national security. It is this culture of silence on safety and security that is undermining our nuclear plants from within.

Authorities of India’s Atomic Energy Commission and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), which owns the Kaiga plant, have sought to assure employees as well as residents of nearby villages that the situation is under control. They have said that there has been no radiation leak, nor has nuclear material from the plant gone missing. But such statements alone are unlikely to allay apprehensions. Even a single incident or lapse, however minor it might be, shakes public confidence. Kaiga needs to come clean on what happened. Else, conspiracy theories and rumours will abound.

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