Over 55 workers at the Kaiga Generation Station in Karnataka were exposed to an excessive radiation dosage when they drank from a water cooler. How did it happen? The water had been mixed with tritium which is a radioactive form of hydrogen, used in research, fusion reactors and neutron generators. Tritium is a radiation hazard when inhaled, ingested via food, water, or absorbed through the skin. It’s also used in making hydrogen bombs.
The incident took place on November 25, when the number one reactor was under shut down for maintenance. Officials said their suspicions were confirmed when not only workers who worked in the radioactive areas of the reactor but also those who did not work in the radioactive zones had a high dose of tritium in their routine urine samples.
Top officials with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited blamed the incident on ‘an insider's mischief’. They alleged that ‘an insider had mixed tritium in the drinking water in the water cooler kept in the operating island of the first unit’ at Kaiga.
Here is a Greenpeace Canada Report on tritium and its effects.
This is a case where insurance liabilities do not apply - after all the government is not planning to insure against malevolent acts by disgruntled employees! Insurance companies will not pay for such acts. It is a perfect example of liabilities not working.
This is isn’t the first time something like this has happened. As Dr. Sangamitra Gadekar from India’s anti-nuclear journal Anumukti says: ‘Another pet sentence from the nuclear establishment is that all such accidents are studied and their lessons learnt. In 1991 on July 27, something very similar took place at the heavy water plant run by the Department of Atomic Energy at Rawatbhata in Rajasthan.’
YB Ramakrishna from India’s Citizens for Alternatives to Nuclear Energy adds: ‘Tritium can easily get into the food cycle through water. The people here eat the food they grow along this river. Has any one gone and checked them out? The district collector made yet another statement that the radiation is easily treated by having Iodine tablets and drinking a lot of water. Drinking more and more tritiated water? All seem to be worried about the employees. What about the people living in the vicinity who will die subsequently from cancer if their consumption of tritium through the food they eat is never ever measured?”
The official explanation of a ‘disgruntled’ employee causing ‘mischief’ raises more questions than it answers. The issue is much larger than it appears. Kaiga’s operators should immediately admit the tritium concentration found in the water cooler, the amount of tritium ingested by the workers, the estimated doses for the workers, and the source of the tritium (even if it were a malicious act: where did the tritium come from?)
The high radiation levels in some of the employees were found because it is only they who go through routine tests. What happens to the people living along Kali River, especially in the downstream who spend substantial time standing in water to catch fish and eat it? A baseline health study done by independent, international experts must be conducted.
Finally, there must be much more transparency in and around the Kaiga. India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is the perfect example of how not to run a nuclear watchdog.
(This is a guest post by Orsi Kralik, nuclear campaign blogger for Greenpeace India)