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Leak in Kalpakkam plant was due to `staff error'

By R.K. Radhakrishnan

KALPAKKAM AUG. 6. The Director, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), B. Bhattacharjee, said today that the radiation leak at a BARC facility here in January, which affected six employees, was due to a "little bit of error in judgment, miscalculation and over-enthusiasm" on the part of employees. Also, "failure of equipment went unnoticed" in the facility.

BARC officials said the prescribed safety procedures were not fully followed by the personnel in charge of emptying a tank of low active waste. This had to be done to keep it ready to receive high-level waste. The officials, including the Director, Health, Safety and Environment Group, V. Venkat Raj, denied that fresh instructions had been sent to staff at the various facilities after the incident; the staff had only been told to adhere to the laid-down norms and not cut corners.

The incident which should be rated between levels "one and two" in the International Nuclear Event Scale, was not serious. (The Scale ranges from level 1 (anomaly) to 7 (major accident). Deviations of no safety significance are classified level 0).

Dr. Bhattacharjee said the Three Mile Island disaster was classified as level five and the Chernobyl meltdown was rated seven. Any event between one and four were classified as "incidents" and any problem above, were rated as "accidents" in the International Atomic Energy Agency lexicon.

The cause of the incident, as identified later by a specially constituted technical committee, was a minor leak in an isolation valve separating a high level liquid waste tank from a low level liquid waste tank. This resulted in an increase in radioactivity in the low level liquid waste tank. While conceding that this was the worst nuclear accident in the country, he insisted that this statement of his should be viewed in the context of the fact that India has had no nuclear accident at all. "Yes, this is the worst accident. But the point is that this is a minor incident. There has been no damage even to the surrounding environment. It is unfair to yank one statement out of context and sensationalise the issue," he said.

BARC officials said the incident at one of its facilities here, the Kalpakkam Reprocessing Plant (KARP), was blown out of proportion by some employees. Addressing presspersons here, Dr. Bhattacharjee said that he had met the six employees early today and that they were all fine.

They have been assigned tasks in the "white areas," meaning offices, where the radioactivity was nearly zero. This was because they had received high doses as they were exposed to the leak.

He refused to reveal the exact amount of radiation the workers received, and also admitted that he was not in a position now to comment on the long-term affects of the radiation. Also, there would be no disciplinary action against the "erring" employees who had failed to follow the laid-down safety procedures. This was because the actions of the employees were "not intentional."

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