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Home News Power Sector News Tritium added to drinking water in Kaiga - sabotage confirmed

Tritium added to drinking water in Kaiga - sabotage confirmed

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Kaiga Atomic Power StationThe Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) confirmed that radioactive tritium was deliberately put in a water cooler at the high-security Kaiga Nuclear Power Plant, in Karnataka, exposing about 50 workers to increased level of radiation. The water cooler is located outside the reactor area and was found contaminated by radioactivity on the night of November 24. Minister for science and technology Prithviraj Chavan confirmed that the Kaiga incident was an act of sabotage and added that the Centre will order a probe into what looks like an insider job.

“The Kaiga incident is an act by a disgruntled employee. He mixed a small unit of tritium (radioactive isotope of hydrogen, D20), in a water cooler. All those who drank water from the particular cooler showed a high level of radiation effects,” he told reporters. The heavy water, used as a coolant in the nuclear plant, is collected for lab tests before being released for use. It is suspected that some vials of heavy water were diverted to ``spike'' the water cooler instead of being released into specified areas. The heavy water was pushed into the cooler through an outflow pipe as the machine itself is sealed and authorities do not rule out the act of sabotage being carried out by a disgruntled nuclear scientist.

Though prima-facie it appeared to be the work of an employee who was trying to grab media attention, the government will initiate a high-level inquiry into the episode and probe the influence of “other elements” on employees. The minister also said he had spoken to Atomic Energy Commission chief Anil Kakodkar, who has also maintained that the contamination was an insider job.

“Somebody deliberately put the tritiated water vials into a drinking water cooler. Therefore, we are investigating who is behind the malevolent act,” Mr Kakodkar said.

He said investigations were being carried out to ascertain who contaminated the water cooler with tritiated heavy water and probe from the radiation protection angle was also being done.

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) has already ordered a probe into how a drinking water cooler in a highly restricted zone was contaminated with tritium.

“Preliminary enquiry does not reveal any violation of operating procedures or radioactivity releases or security breach. It is possibly an act of mischief,” NPCIL chairman and managing director S K Jain said in a statement. He expressed concern over the radioactive contamination of the water cooler located outside the reactor building.
Kaiga Nuclear Plant station director J P Gupta was quoted by a news agency as saying that around 50 employees were subjected to treatment on November 25 to quickly reduce tritium dosage in their bodies, after they drank water from the cooler.

However, he said tritium was not poisonous and its presence in the body would come down on its own. He said that the incident has been reported to the intelligence department. “A committee has been formed.” Nuclear scientists are in the committee.

Outgoing chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar, who is laying down office on Monday, was quoted as saying that it ``clearly is a malevolent act''. Sabotage has not been ruled out, he said, adding that somebody had ``deliberately'' put radioactive vials in a water cooler.

The heavy water samples need to be accounted for more carefully in future, sources admitted. Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, which is used for research, and in fusion reactors and neutron generators.

The alleged act of sabotage took place a fortnight after intelligence agencies warned of a terrorist attack on the country's atomic plants. After the alert, security at all the units had been stepped up. Years ago, a similar incident took place at the Tarapur atomic power station. An inquiry was held, leading to the dismissal of an employee.

According to the AEC chief, investigations are now focusing on two angles. The authorities are working to identify the worker who contaminated the water cooler with tritiated (or super heavy) water. They will also review security aspects related to radiation hazard.

Kakodkar said normally small quantities of tritiated heavy water are tested for chemical parameters.
Speaking to TOI on Sunday, chairman and managing director of Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC), S K Jain, said the water cooler had been padlocked and the person in charge of maintenance on the night of November 24 was being examined. ``The whole area has computer-accessed control. So in course of time we will be able to narrow down on the person who did the mischief,'' he said.

``I will certainly describe this as a very serious incident because it has taken place even after we initiated special security checks following the advice of the Intelligence Bureau recently,'' he said.

Asked why any staffer should resort to sabotage, Jain, said he could not rule out a ``small percentage of employees being disgruntled for one reason or the other''. ``In a place with a manpower strength of nearly 700, discontent among a small section of workers is inevitable,'' he said.

He said that credentials of workers at the plant are cleared by intelligence agencies prior to their appointment.

In an earlier statement, Jain said there were a number of measures for routine monitoring of radiation exposure of workers at a nuclear power plant. One of them is urine sampling, in which some samples had indicated contamination.

NPC chief engineer N Nagaich said the water cooler served both Kaiga 1 and 2 units, which are 220 megawatt pressurized heavy water reactors. Kaiga 1 has been shut for maintenance. ``Not a single person was hospitalized because their condition was not serious,'' he said. Kaiga 2 was operating normally.

Preliminary investigations were being conducted by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and NPC.

Former chairman of AEC, P K Iyengar, told TOI that prima facie it appeared that the primary motive of the employee who contaminated the water cooler was ``merely to create a scare''. Another former AEC chief, M
R Srinivasan, has called for strengthening of nuclear security.

The reported act of sabotage at Kaiga has triggered speculation among a section of nuclear scientists as to whether it could possibly be a ``dry run'' by a disgruntled staffer.

``By resorting to such mischief he perhaps wanted to gauge the reaction of other employees and the department as a whole,'' a scientist said on condition of anonymity.

Source - PTI


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