This article has been written by Samhita R.H. Nidigattu.
Table of Contents
Nuclear energy as we know it is free from harmful greenhouse emissions and has a minimal carbon footprint and most importantly an inexhaustible source of energy to power life on earth. This article evaluates the Nuclear industry and rights of radioactive workers in India and compares the reality to a major Nuclear Power House Russia and compares what best practices could be adopted. It also views the biggest nuclear disasters and lessons learnt from them and the shortcomings of Indian Nuclear legislations towards radioactive workers. We view some loopholes and conclude with suggestions.
Nuclear energy as we all know has revolutionised energy generation across the globe and is equally used for power generation as well as an explosive. Nuclear energy is a class apart because it’s clean energy that doesn’t deplete any natural resources. Simply put Nuclear energy originates from nuclear fission of uranium atoms, the process of splitting the atoms generates heat that produces steam which is converted into electricity by turbines. This process is devoid of any emissions or chemical waste and is therefore considered green energy.
The nuclear core contains uranium-235 or plutonium-239 ( most commonly used isotopes) mined and enriched into a yellow powder that made into pellets inserted into fuel rods, which serve as nuclear fuel and grouped into a group of fuel rods. These rods are then activated by a free neutron that breaks apart the uranium atoms and makes it an unstable isotope which produces lighter nuclei, heat, gamma rays and free neutrons, the condenser flushes in water, which then gets heated and produces steam that powers the turbine and then the generator. The steam is again condensed and reused in the cooling process.
Meanwhile in the nuclear reactor control rods exist to halt the fission process by absorbing free neutrons without fissioning themselves and are usually made with boron, silver, indium, cadmium and hafnium with alloys which shuts down the nuclear reactor. This process occurs in a loop to produce energy and is called the nuclear chain reaction. While this process is relatively safe when it has manual and automatic shut down options the main concern is the radioactive gamma rays that are released.
On an average a normal human receives about 620 millirems of radiation according to the NRC which is considered tolerable, half of which comes from natural sources like the sun and background radiation from naturally occurring minerals and inherent radioactive elements in our food, meanwhile the other half is from man made sources like x rays, microwave ovens, cellular towers, electronics, radiation therapy and the like.
There are different types of radioactive waves that affect us. There are four main types, Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Neutron waves. As seen in the figure alpha and beta waves can be easily immobilised whereas gamma and neutron waves can penetrate through most materials. Whatever the types of radiation the damage to human cells is real, exposure to radiation can cause genetic mutations that lead to various diseases such as cancers, cardiovascular problems, birth defects and similar issues as it affects the DNA cell structure. Despite the advertisements of permissible limits there is no clear data as to how much radiation can ever be considered safe as exposure to radiation is not without effect.
While there are conventions such as the ‘Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty’ adopted by the UN in 1996 India, North Korea and Pakistan have still not signed it. While the ’Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons’ was drawn up in 2017 and officially active from 2021, it has still not been ratified by many nations. These treaties and political alliances across the globe have come to a consensus on prohibiting nations from engaging in nuclear warfare as its mutually assured destruction will only result in the ultimate elimination of all life on earth.
However there are still a group of people affected by nuclear energy and its radioactive waves every day. These are the engineers and workers at nuclear plants that have to deal with radioactive waves on the regular. The best practices against this are protective gear, high security measures against hacking or intruders and emergency countermeasures in case of accidents and of course regular monitoring and ample training for the employees to educate them of the procedure to be followed w.r.t to occupational exposure. Organisations like the International Atomic Energy Agency issue guidelines to all member countries through the international basic safety standards.
Indian Nuclear Industry
The Indian nuclear industry is governed by the Atomic Energy Act, 1962. India hasn’t signed nuclear trade treaties and therefore has to depend on the indigenous supply of uranium which does not amount to much. The AERB governs polices and safety protocol concerning nuclear energy in India.
The AERB set out guidelines regarding worker safety in the, ‘Atomic Energy Radiation Protection Rules, 2004’. Furthermore they are drawn from the ‘International Basic Safety Standards for Protection against Ionizing Radiation and for the Safety of Radiation Sources (BSS)’ developed by the UNFAO, IAEA, ILO nuclear agency of OECD, WHO and PAHO, wherein they provide a uniform safety standards for workers engaged in nuclear and radiological operations as per ILO convention no.115 across the world. The NPCIL governs the operations and design of all nuclear power plants in India. After the 2015 amendment NPCIL can enter into joint collaborations with Public Sector Undertakings.
First off it calls for a regulatory authority to be established that is the AERB in India, and for all the personnel involved in the field to be equipped with knowledge of the standards and to implement them. These standards uniformly apply to the nuclear industry, educational, agriculture, veterinary and medical research and practice and any other field that might involve the use of radioactive materials. All related personnel are to be made aware of permitted dosage of irradiation, and have to undergo regular medical check up and bioassays and consent to give regular urine samples and comply with workplace protocol by wearing their personal protective equipment.
Workers are also provided access to on-site medical professionals to deal with irradiation effects if any and are meant to strictly cannot cross the limit of 1mSv (table.1) in their entire lifetime, unless there is a need to be exposed beyond the permitted level e.g. in emergency cases. In most cases we see it measured in millisieverts because exposure to 1Sv can cause immediate effects on the human body.
Radiation measurement : Table
measures radioactivity released by a material
Roentgen( R) / coulomb per Kilogram ( C/ kg)
measures amount of radiation in the air
Rad / Gray (Gy)
measures the absorbed dose by an object or being ( 1Gy = Joule/Kg)
Roentgen equivalent man ( rem) / Sievert (Sv)
measures the radiation absorbed and the corresponding medical effects
A striking factor in the Indian Nuclear Industry is that it’s all controlled by the government unlike in the US where private entities run NPP’s. There is no scope for private players to enter the nuclear industry for the foreseeable future. According to S.11,14,15 and 16 of the Atomic Energy Act the Government holds the exclusive right to take charge of mining and production of radioactive materials. S.17 of the act prescribes safety measures for employees working in the radioactive industry. S.23 clearly states that the central government reserves the exclusive right to bypass the Factories Act, 1948.
According to the Atomic Energy (Radiation protection) rules (2004), no one below the age of 18 will be taken into employment (S.17), furthermore employees are entitled to their medical records at any given point of time (S.24) and shall be under constant health surveillance (S.25). Any workplace accidents and the expenses occurred therein shall be reimbursed by the employer ( S.32). Personnel regularly carry dosimeters that monitor exposure to radiation and even the prescribed limits (table.1) are not exceeded. The environment and surrounding areas are constantly monitored for radiation and contingency measures are always on standby.
Moreover the Government has enacted Atomic Energy Safe Disposal of Radioactive Waste Rules, 1987 and Atomic Energy Factories Rules, 1996 that govern the implementation of radioactive waste and guidelines for atomic factories regarding working conditions for the workers. U/Rule 11 workers are required to have access to 25% fresh air and ventilation and optimal temperature and proper illumination at all times through the use of exhaust fans, windows and lighting.
Rule 12,13,14,15,17 discusses the access to clean cool drinking water for the personnel as the heat in the NPP can only be offset by cold water and emergency iodine supplements to counteract radiation effects. Rule 57 and 58 prescribe the quality and necessity for personal protective equipment. Rule 62 puts the onus of informing the employees and residents in the vicinity of the NPP on the managing authority. The rest of the act provides guidelines for other operations within the NPP and monitoring guidelines.
The biggest aid to workers in the radioactive industry is the Contributory Health Services Scheme (CHSS) rules, 1998, that outline the medical cover for workers under the Department of Atomic energy and NPCIL And various other departments that qualify for the scheme. It ensures that all the qualifying workers and their spouses and dependent parents and children shall receive free medical attendance and treatment at prescribed centres (BARC Hospitals) and can avail the assistance of a physician at their home if necessary. If any of the eligible members require serious treatment they can be admitted to other hospitals approved by the director, BARC. The employees are entitled to maternity benefits as long as they register with the BARC hospital and outside expenses will only be reimbursed to a prescribed limit. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has also approved the reimbursement of IVF procedures to eligible employees and wives of employees subject to guidelines prescribed.
Finally the Government enacted the Civil liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010 that discusses the compensation in the event of a nuclear disaster wherein a claims commissioner is appointed to oversee the eligibility and award compensation to the victims. Finally under the Right to Information Act, 2005 the government is liable to give an explanation to anyone who requires it.
Russian Nuclear Industry
Russia earlier a part of the USSR has communist origins however the Russia of the 21st century is a republican federation on paper. However, owing to their strict authoritarian rule, the Russian nuclear Industry is strictly controlled by the government and operates under the department of ‘State Atomic Energy Corporation Rosatom’. Rosatom oversees the nuclear fuel and energy production, research and development of nuclear energy, and radiation safety; it is a wholly state owned corporation and is even invested in nuclear medicine, renewable energy and other nuclear equipment. They also trade internationally developing nuclear power plants and have an overseas NPP portfolio worth USD 140 Billion. Since Russia is a rich source of radioactive minerals 29 like uranium and plutonium they are one of the worlds largest suppliers of nuclear fuel having been pioneers in the industry starting research in the 1900s.
Article 16. The Rights of the Workers at Nuclear Facilities of the Russian Federal law guarantees social benefits for workers engaged in work with nuclear or radioactive materials. Existing and previous employees are both entitled to medical care to combat the effects of irradiation. Article 226. ‘Funding the activities aimed at improving labor conditions and labor protection’ of the Russian Labour Code states that all finance towards labour conditions and protection will be put up by the Russian government and employees will not have to pay any expenses. This also provides safety from the government towards their workers in all industries and especially the radioactive industry. Article 221 and 224 of the same code guarantee all personal protective equipment by the state.
‘Rosenergoatom’ is a subsidiary company under Rosatom and the holding company ‘Atomenergoprom’. They are incharge of all NPP safety protocols and regularly visit the field sites and answer all personnel questions and queries. They even regularly conduct training to teach the personnel safety measures and consequences of breach pf protocol. They have even provided social security benefits such as zero interest housing loans, waiving interest on mortgage, financial welfare assistance and free medical care.
‘Standard Remuneration Procedure of Employees of Rosenergoatom’ and ‘Provisions on the Final Safety Culture Day in Rosenergoatom’ govern the operating procedure of personnel where there are guided minutely. The regarding their functions and failure to undertake designated duties bringing in a safety culture into their organisation. The Federal Antimonopoly Service of Russia is charged with drawing up funds for NPP’s from start to finish, the Rosenergoatom undertakes training all the personnel through class and simulators and is personally responsible for any civil liability. Personal are even provided psychological and physiological support. The perosonnel are trained intensively before they are allowed to operate NPP’s and are tested periodically to minimise any possible errors.
India vs Russia
Considering their economic standing on a global scale, Russia is far more advanced in terms of safety protocol and personnel training. Russia’s intonational nuclear trade brings in vast amount of capital to the entire industry as a whole helping them constantly innovate through R&D and truly stay a mile ahead on the global scale. India as we’ve early evaluated could not get into the commercial nuclear market because of their refusal to sign the ‘Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ’ which kept them out of global nuclear 35 trade, which does hinder its progress compared to its counterparts but with the latest research with thorium based fuel cells they could join the race in nuclear energy.
India has one of the highest deposits of thorium (almost 25% of global deposits) in its southern states and although thorium isn’t directly fissionable like uranium-235 it can be charged with neutrons and converted into uranium-233 which release a considerably lower level of nuclear waste and lack of its immediate fissionable properties curb any possible illegal activity though its use. Since there’s an abundant presence of thorium in India, outside imports of nuclear material can be reduced and fuel can be produced indigenously. Mining local thorium can create a lot of jobs for the indian market and greatly help flourish the nuclear industry in India. These funds can help them slowly enter the global nuclear trade and spend more money on R&D and safety protocol and practices for radioactive workers in India.
Major Nuclear Accidents in India and around the World
India is not fraught without minor nuclear mishaps in the past. In a tell all by George Iype in 2001, its reported that Indian NPP’s lack adequate cooling systems in their sites based in Kalpakkam, Madras and Tarapur, Maharashtra ( claimed to have outdated systems ). In 2016 a NPP in Kakrapar, Gujarat declared emergency and was closed after a mishap involving water leakage. In 2009 radioactive material was consumed by 55 employees at the Kaiga Generating station and in 2003 at Kalpakkam plant in Tamil Nadu employees were exposed to high levels of radiation due to safety valve failure.
Chernobyl, Ukraine (INES – Level 7)
Considered one of the worst nuclear disasters in human history rating 7 on the INES scale, Chernobyl 1986 victims suffer till date with the radiation induced diseases in the region and many sites around it have become absolutely uninhabitable upto an estimated 20,000 years. What was supposed to be a routine test to check if the NPP would work in power outage went out control and the cooling systems failed and ensued a chain reaction of cores heating up and ultimately bursting into the atmosphere. This accidents completely affected everything in its vicinity rendering the town Pripyat uninhabitable.
It has affected thousands of people resulting in cancers and genetic mutations and continues till date. There’s a popular Netflix show that goes in detail with what went wrong and what can be seen is the negligence of the station head to immediately take a report by a worker seriously, the slow response time and information relay to relevant authorities rendered it too late to contain the issue. The USSR government can be blamed in part for delaying evacuation and announcing it on the global pane.
In 2011 a massive tsunami caused by an earthquake hit the shores of Okuma japan that disabled the Fukushima power plant, similar to the Chernobyl incident the power shut down disabled the coolant system which led to overheating of the cores and subsequent reactor meltdown and explosion yet again affecting everything in its vicinity rating 7 on the INES scale.
Although triggered by a natural disaster it highlighted the risk of coolant systems failing in a power plant firstly affecting personnel and causing irreversible damage to life. Many towns around the region had to be evacuated, However the Japanese government’s immediate response in evacuating personnel and people helped curb the effects better than Chernobyl as there were no reported deaths directly from the reactor incident.
3 Mile island, Pennsylvania, USA (INES -Level 5):
A cooling valve malfunctioned in the plant and this led to increased temperatures in one the reactors and the heat continued to build up as the coolant leaked away leading to release of radioactive elements into the atmosphere. The employees on site tried to induce more water into the reactor to cool it down but the built up pressure ended up leaking it into the air however there were no major health concerns as it was reported that only noble gases leaked into the air and later records of 30,000 people in the vicinity of 3 mile island were kept. However no abnormal levels of radiation or medical issues weren’t.
Protective Mechanisms 2020 : ILO guidelines and BSS
After learning from various nuclear disasters international bodies such as the IAEA and ILO and others like the NRC have required stringent security on the latest nuclear 48 reactor design such as remotely controlled coolant systems and no reactor can be commercially sold without passing the design review of the IAEA. Furthermore importance is being ushered in nuclear safety culture in every country and care being taken to build NPP’s in remote areas and away from seismic regions. The ILO prescribes standards of safety at radioactive workplaces and basic safety standards w.r.t radiation 50 that have been adopted into most domestic legislations across the globe.
Adopting safety standards isn’t all there is to protecting employees and citizens against radiation. The government must be proactive and transparent regarding their measures and legislation. One key feature that’s troubling is that nuclear accidents are not covered in accident insurance claims which can greatly disadvantage the employees family as accidental insurance is higher than a normal death. Although the government takes responsibility for providing medical care to radioactive personnel and their family there are monetary limits and procedural nuances that can be hard to grasp. The workers must be intensively trained to deal with emergency situations and must be taught to operate preventative mechanisms. The nuclear industry must move towards more remotely operated equipment to minimise any possible accidents towards workers or civilians. It is great to note that there haven’t been any major nuclear disaster’s in India however this record must be continued if India is to ever join the global race of nuclear energy producers.
Furthermore in the Nuclear Civil liability Act(2010) the compensation process is extremely tedious inaccessible to the layman. The Code on Social Security also make hiring and firing practices flexible and often times migrant workers are hired to clean up radioactive waste etc this puts them at a vulnerable position. The atomic energy act of 1962 needs an amendment if India is considering commercial production of nuclear energy and even if the government is taking liability for nuclear accidents they do not clarify how much compensation ends the liability on their part. One of the biggest concerns is the AERB being under control of the DAE while international authorities prescribe an independent oversight committee, doing so would increase the transparency of the nuclear industry in India. Stephen Hawking says this,
“I would like nuclear fusion to become a practical power source. It would provide an inexhaustible supply of energy, without pollution or global warming.”
And for a third world nation clean energy would be a great boon for the economy and the thriving and major agricultural economy of India. I would recommend that India achieves more openness and clarity regarding their nuclear safety protocol and contingency measures for workers and increase their social security benefits and move towards a clean nuclear energy future.
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