Leaks at India's Nuclear-Power Plants: Cause for Concern? ; Even the Country's Safest Reactors Don't Meet International Standards, According to Its Atomic Regulations Agency

Article excerpt

Kakrapara Atomic Power Station (KAPS), in the western city of Surat, is India's well-groomed nuclear workhorse. Huge concrete domes enclose its two reactors, which generate a surplus of power for the country. And when it comes to controlling radiation leakage, KAPS is "our best station," says S.P. Sukhatme, chairman of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).

That, it turns out, is bad news. KAPS may be India's prized nuclear plant, but radiation emitted from its reactors is three times as much as the international norm, says Mr. Sukhatme.

It's a shocking admission that puts the rest of the country's nuclear-power plants in grave perspective. "The main implication is that other nuclear-power plants are much worse than even Kakrapar," says Suren Gadekar, considered to be India's top antinuclear activist.

Four months ago, world leaders fretted about the possibility of two nuclear-weapons rivals, India and Pakistan, approaching the brink of war. That problem apparently on hold, India's nuclear scientists say the country could still face an equally devastating nuclear catastrophe - without a shot being fired.

This time, the threat is not Pakistan or terrorists, but India's power plants themselves. Some scientists say that the plants are so poorly built and maintained, a Chernobyl-style disaster may be just a matter of time.

"The fact that India's nuclear regulator acknowledges that reactors in India are not operated to the standards of reactors in the US and Europe is not much of a surprise," says Christopher Sherry, research director of the Safe Energy Communication Council in Washington. "But it is very disturbing."

India tested its first nuclear device in May 1974. In 1998, the country successfully conducted five underground nuclear tests, heralding its entry into ga select group of countries capable of waging nuclear war.

Today, the country has 14 nuclear power reactors including two at KAPS. Most are modeled after a design first built in Shippingport, Penn. in 1957, and considered by experts to be the most cost- effective way to produce electricity through nuclear energy.

However only three of those nuclear reactors fall under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) standards. The rest - which were built with local technology - are accountable only to national standards set by the AERB.

This February, Sukhatme asked the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd - a government-owned manufacturer of nuclear plants - to plug leakage of water contaminated with tritium, a highly radioactive substance, from reactors. …