Death Toll Rises at Indian Power Plant 7 Months After Start

Updated on
  • Accident happened at NTPC unit in northern Indian state Nov. 1
  • Company shuts the newly-commissioned 500MW unit at plant

Smoke billows from a coal-fired power plant after a boiler unit exploded in the town of Unchahar in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on Nov. 1, 2017. 

Source: AFP via Getty Images

An explosion at a newly commissioned unit of a coal-fired power plant in northern India killed 32 people, while about 80 are still recovering from injuries in one of the nation’s worst industrial disasters in recent years.

Flue gases and steam were released by the blast Wednesday afternoon at NTPC Ltd.’s Unchahar power plant, India’s biggest electricity producer said in a statement. NTPC has shut the unit, which was commissioned in March and began commercial operations in September, while the rest of the facility is operating. The company raised the number of casualties at a press briefing in New Delhi on Friday from 29 earlier.

NTPC has formed a committee to investigate the accident, Federal Power Secretary A.K. Bhalla said by phone Friday. Officials from Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd., which supplied the boiler, are also at the site to investigate, he said.

“Until now we were busy with rescue operations,” Bhalla said. “From today onward we will try to find out what went wrong and accordingly take action.”

The death toll ranks among one of the highest from a power-plant accident in recent years.  Seventy-five people lost their lives following an explosion at a hydropower station in Siberia in 2009. Dozens of fatalities have also been reported at Chinese plants.

Industrial Accidents

The Unchahar blast is the deadliest industrial accident in India since the 2009 collapse of an under construction power-plant chimney at Bharat Aluminium Co.’s Korba project that killed 45 people, according to the Hindustan Times. India reported 809 accidental explosion incidents in 2015, causing 831 deaths, federal home ministry data show.

NTPC was little changed at 180.40 rupees as of 2:36 p.m. in Mumbai on Friday. Bharat Heavy Electricals gained 2.6 percent to 100.15 rupees. The benchmark S&P BSE Sensex rose 0.3 percent.

While India relies on coal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made surprising progress on his ambitious goals for developing the country’s renewable energy, said Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Renewables are the fastest-growing form of power and stand to challenge coal’s dominant position in the utility space.

“As a share of the total energy mix, renewables will grow and coal will fall,” Bordoff said. “But that’s a share of a pie that’s getting massively bigger. That still means a lot more coal a decade or two from now than it does today.”

The plant in Uttar Pradesh state has a total capacity of 1,550 megawatts, according to the company. NTPC has generating capacity of 51.7 gigawatts, almost 16 percent of India’s total 329.3 gigawatts capacity.

While safety standards at Indian power plants have improved in recent years, there’s still some way to go, said Ravi Krishnan, who runs a specialized energy consultancy with offices in the U.S. and India. NTPC has had an impressive safety record overall, he said.

“They have some of the best operating practices,” he said. “It surprised me when I saw this, it doesn’t happen very frequently.”

— With assistance by Debjit Chakraborty, and Tim Loh

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