How to communicate in a crisis

The Business Standard, 10/11 June 2017*

M P Ram Mohan**

It is more than a year since the nuclear incident at the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station (KAPS) in Gujarat, and even now the plant is in the safe shutdown state. At 9 am on March 11, 2016, Unit I of KAPS underwent an emergency automatic shutdown, following a heavy water leak in the primary heat transport system. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) reported that the reactors’ safety systems, including the backup cooling systems, worked as intended. The incident is provisionally rated at level-1 in the IAEA International Nuclear and Radiological Event scale, corresponding to an anomaly in the plant.

Press releases from AERB and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) stated that there was no surge in radiation after the incident and no worker at the site or involved in inspection operations was exposed to undue radiation (AERB, March 22, 2016 and March 8, 2017; NPCIL, March 22, 2016). AERB maintains that until investigations and corrective actions are completed, the plant remains in the safe shutdown state. The incident is however an opportunity to review the regulatory response in light of the heightened regulatory vigil that followed in the wake of the Fukushima accident in Japan.

Immediately after the Fukushima accident, safety systems and structures the world over — at both the nuclear power plant (NPP) and the regulatory level — were reviewed and updated. In India, safety audits of NPPs were undertaken by both AERB and NPCIL. The public was assured that the new technical and regulatory modifications meet all new known safety parameters. Overall, one assumes the set of measures that is in existence now would meet all that is required to overcome an emergency. However, what is not fully known is whether the public knows how safety inspections are carried out, the test of quick response individually and collectively by the community in assisting the emergency team following an incident/accident, and how, as stakeholders, they effectively contribute to the safe operation of an NPP.

According to AERB, a plant emergency refers to the declared conditions in which radiological or other consequences are confined to the plant or a section of the plant. The Kakrapar incident has been declared as a plant emergency. The Nuclear Radiation Safety Policy of the AERB (2014) states that the operator (NPCIL) should have comprehensive plans to deal with emergencies and that the operating organisation is “fully responsible” for handling a plant emergency in accordance with emergency preparedness and response (EPR) plans.

Procedurally, EPR plans aim to effectively manage any eventuality that poses an undue radiological risk to plant personnel and the public. And this plant emergency exercise must be carried out once a quarter by each NPP (AERB Annual Report 2014-15). Overall, in terms of information sharing and communication, AERB takes necessary steps to keep the public informed on safety issues of radiological safety significance. It is doubtful whether occasional press releases on the investigation into the KAPS incident are a serious method of public communication on such an important issue.

Proactive information sharing on the periodic regulatory inspections could be a powerful way to engage with local communities. A quick web search on inspection reports does not give much; some information can be found in AERB annual reports. Knowing about their own safety and the safety of the community in which they live empowers individuals to assist in effective pubic communication that is devoid of malice, particularly in the world of social media. Access to safety inspection and “action taken” reports in vernacular languages and an interaction immediately after safety inspections would build trust and confidence. This allows the community to become serious partners in a project, supporting both regulator and operator in the safe operation of an NPP.

Candid statements made immediately after the incident by former and serving senior officials of the department of atomic energy and AERB — such as, “there was a failure of the in-service inspection mechanism and lessons need to be learnt”, and the leak was “a serious incident and a big surprise” (PTI, March 20, 2016) — did force many to question the reliability of these inspections. Inservice inspections were supposed to help improve the safety of the plant. Nuclear projects always carry an element of risk from both equipment and human failure; regulatory inspections are designed to prevent such failures.

AERB’s own safety guidelines state that stringent methods should be applied while identifying and resolving such issues. This being a comprehensive mechanism, inspectors are expected to carry out the inspections in a professionally trained manner. IAEA’s Integrated Regulatory Review Services Mission on the AERB in 2015 observed that “AERB places a large burden of their inspection activities upon the information received from the NPP”, and suggested that the Board “should consider increasing the frequency of routine on-site inspections at NPPs commensurate with the size of India’s nuclear programme”.

When AERB and NPCIL conclude the enquiry, in line with recent initiatives in openness in public engagement, these questions should find satisfactory answers. Since India plans to substantially expand nuclear capacity, there are many lessons to be learned in crisis communication and management.


** M P Ram Mohan is an Associate Professor, Business Policy Area, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad