The public outrage over the mild punishment given to the convicts in the Bhopal gas disaster case has intensified the debate over the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010.
Opposition parties and environmental activists are crying foul over the absence of a provision ensuring the suppliers’ liability.
Main opposition party BJP and the CPI has now sought its withdrawal for its supposed pro-US tilt. “It is only designed to insulate the liability of the American suppliers of nuclear power plants,” BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad said. Introduced in Lok Sabha in March 2010, the Bill is being examined by a parliamentary standing committee.
In the aftermath of the Bhopal verdict, the government is understood to have agreed to certain changes in the Bill.
Why the Bill?
India is expected to grow at 8.5 per cent in 2010-11 and a faster-growing economy will need more power. At present, the nuclear power plants and facilities are owned by the Centre or PSUs, and if an accident happens, liability is the responsibility of the Centre.
India is not a party to any nuclear liability convention and the Indian nuclear industry has been developed in a domestic framework without any provision about liability for nuclear damage.
The Bill proposes to address both these concerns by providing for nuclear liability in the case of a nuclear incident and also the necessity of joining an appropriate international liability regime.
What is there in the Bill?
In the case of an accident, the Bill proposes to enforce strict liability. It wouldn’t matter who was at fault; the victims would get paid. The Nuclear Power Corporation would have to shell out Rs 500 crore.
If the liability exceeds the amount to be paid by the operator or where such nuclear damage occurs in a nuclear installation owned by it or where it occurs due to a natural disaster, armed conflict, civil war or terrorism, Section 7 makes the Centre liable to pay.
It also sets up claims commission/s to dispose of compensation claims within three months.
The problem with the Bill
The Bill limits the liability of an operator to Rs 500 crore. However, the Centre can increase or decrease the amount keeping in view the extent of risk involved. But this is a pittance compared to the US, where the liability limit is $11.6 billion.
The main criticism is about freeing the nuclear reactor/equipment supplier of any liability even if the accident occurs due to defects in equipment or design flaw in the reactor system.
Section 17 only mentions that nuclear operators will have a “right of recourse” (a) where such right is expressly provided for in a contract in writing; (b) the nuclear incident has resulted from wilful or gross negligence on the part of the supplier or his employee; and (c) the nuclear incident has resulted from the act of commission or omission of a person done with the intent to cause nuclear damage. However, the provision dealing with suppliers’ negligence has reportedly been deleted in the model law specified by the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage.
Prasad said this was only aimed at saving the US suppliers from any possible liability in the case of an accident.
Asked about government’s response on the criticism of the Bill in the aftermath of Bhopal verdict, a top official of the Ministry of External Affairs said the government would take into account public opinion on the issue.
“The government’s mind is in favour of suppliers’ liability in line with the prevailing public opinion,” the official said.
Senior advocate Rajiv Dhavan said there had to be absolute liability in all such cases. “The liability has to be that of the nuclear plant supplier. Such liability should not be transferable to the government or operators,” he said.
Environmental activist Vandana Shiva wondered why the government was so desperate to buy nuclear plants from the Americans on their terms. “In any reasonable and rational economy the player who reaps the benefits has to share the liability in the case of a disaster. This is the basic norm of ethical business.”
Bhopal vs oil spill
More than 15,000 people were killed, lakhs were maimed and generations suffered from genetic deformity due to the Bhopal gas tragedy. Almost 26 years later, seven former officials of Union Carbide India Ltd were convicted and given a two-year jail term. But the main accused, former Union Carbide Corporation chief Warren Anderson, virtually went scot-free.
What if a nuclear disaster happens?
“We are not ready to learn lessons from Bhopal. See what President Obama has said on the oil spill by British Petroleum (BP) in the Gulf of Mexico. Obama wanted to know ‘whose a** to kick’ over the oil spill, affecting the American economy and environment. “This is the stand of the US president when only 11 persons have died and some damage has been caused to marine life. Why can’t the same standard be applied in India?” Prasad asked.
Greenpeace India Campaigner Karuna Raina said: “The case shows striking similarity. BP as a foreign firm in the US is being asked to pay $1.5 billion. Whereas in the Bhopal gas tragedy, how much did they get in compensation? $470 million.
Rethink in the government
Forced on the backfoot by the criticism of the manner in which the Bhopal case was handled by the government and the judiciary, the Centre is understood to have communicated to the parliamentary panel that the liability cap of Rs 500 crore may be raised.
One does not know what changes the government would agree to effect in the Bill. But such changes might make it difficult for India to negotiate with the US for nuclear supply.