Kaiga’s tritium lesson

17 May 2010

Sometimes the most potent and unexpected threat to security systems comes from the inside. This was once again brought into focus by the recent radioactive contamination incident at the Nuclear Power Corporation India Limited (NPCIL)’s Kaiga-I pressurized heavy water reactor in the Indian state of Karnataka on 24 November 2009. An employee poured tritium into a water cooler in the service building. About 50 personnel were affected, although no-one was seriously hurt.

There are short-term and long-term measures to prevent this kind of thing happening again.

Some contributing factors, such as the design of the water cooler, were specific to the Kaiga plant. In addition, there were issues of inadequacy of camera surveillance and dim lighting. Apparently there were blind spots in the plant and the water cooler might have been near one of them. The best international practice today is to install dome surveillance cameras that give a 360-degree view of their surroundings. Needless to say, camera placement needs to be optimized in order to remove blind spots. The cameras should also be connected to a recording device to provide evidence for prosecution. Infrared cameras may also be considered in the event of a failure in the lighting system.

Procedural changes in the way personnel function may involve the introduction of a compulsory two-man team system for handling all sensitive tasks, whether scheduled or otherwise. The composition of such teams must be rotated regularly and it must be ensured that handling of all radioactive material – and not just fuel bundles – be processed through the most stringent inventory management procedures. In fact there is a case for making unescorted employee access to any part of the facility a subject of scrutiny.

A policy of random checks may be instituted which includes spot questioning of workers on current activities and searches. There also must be mock drills of specific scenarios to check the responsiveness of the system. Such drills could be done with only a few security personnel kept in the loop to ensure the safety of the mock perpetrator.

Longer-term remedies must include the strengthening of a so-called human reliability program. Human reliability programs typically involve psychological profiling, background checks, periodic re-investigations, substance abuse testing and annual supervisory review.

“Increasing the number of surveillance devices at the plant will not work in the event of absenteeism”

Psychological profiling may go beyond the usual interviews and questionnaires. It may involve the use of information capture and management systems which are usually employed at industrial facilities to improve productivity and systems maintenance. This should be prioritized at the same level at which the analysis of maintenance reports are reviewed. Only in this case could experts look at patterns of variance in employee behaviour, which could prove invaluable in preventing the possibility of a disgruntled worker escalating matters to a serious level. Such a programme will also help in determining the existing state of relations between workers and management at the plant.

It has been observed that over the years there has been a steady increase in the number of contract employees used in nuclear plants. While contract employees are typically hired for non-core tasks such as cleaning and apparel maintenance, they may eventually be hired directly by the plant. Contract employees must also be brought within the purview of plant intelligence, and parts of the human reliability program, especially background checks.

Aside from the human reliability programme, there is probably a need to institute what this writer deems a ‘happiness programme’. Augmenting technology or increasing the number of surveillance devices at the plant will not work in the event of absenteeism. There is a need to limit work hours and possibly increase the number of security personnel at the plant. There is also a need to provide recreational facilities within plants to unwind employees and help relieve stress. The happiness program must also include a proper monetary incentive structure for employees as a motivational tool. For example, there are reports that suggest inter-union rivalry over a new incentive scheme introduced by NPCIL might have contributed to the devious incident at Kaiga.

It is as important to wield a stick to educate against errant behaviour as it is to confer a sense of responsibility. The punishment for transgressors must be, to say the least, substantial. In fact, regardless of the motive, serious violations within a nuclear facility can arguably be brought under the purview of anti-terrorist laws. The message should be clear – a nuclear facility is unlike an ordinary industrial unit, and therefore mischief will not be tolerated to the same extent as it might be elsewhere.

Such changes come at a considerable price. A study by the US Nuclear Energy Institute found that the nuclear industry in that country had been unable to identify cost-effective solutions to defend against an active violent insider, and that costs would range from $2 million to $8 million per site for equipment, and $5 million per site per year for additional personnel.

It is vital that international cooperation in nuclear plant security continues, because it is likely some countries may need more help than others to implement changes. For, as we know, an unsavoury incident anywhere is likely to have worldwide implications for the future of nuclear power.

Author Info:

Saurav Jha, Energy India Solutions. His book 'The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power' is published by HarperCollins India.

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