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No power to the people

The Nuclear Liability Bill cannot only protect suppliers, write MV Ramana and Suvrat Raju.

india Updated: Nov 29, 2011 23:04 IST

India has witnessed a strange display of double standards over the past few weeks. The government dismissed the fears of the locals at Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu, that the nuclear reactors there might undergo an accident. However, the fears of international nuclear suppliers — that if a major accident were to occur, the Indian Nuclear Liability Act might force them to pay large sums in compensation — were treated as serious and the government has just come out with rules that almost completely indemnify them. This undermines the bill passed by Parliament in 2010.

The original liability act made reference to three parties: the victims, the government and the supplier, which might be a multinational company like Westinghouse or Areva. In the event of an accident, the law allows the victims to collect a maximum of Rs 2,500 crore from the government but it takes away their right to sue the supplier. However, it allows the government itself to seek recourse from the vendor and recover its losses. The government repeatedly tried to delete this clause when the Bill was debated in Parliament. But it was forced to retain it after popular outrage and allegations that it was putting public money at risk to favour foreign companies.

A year later, the government has finally announced the rules that will guide the implementation of the Act. Read closely, the rules are indicative of the regressive mindset of the bureaucrats who framed them. For example, Clause 19 explains that whenever the compensation is “payable to a woman” the adjudication authority may decide to invest the amount or have it redirected to a “dependent” or an “heir” who is “best fitted to provide for the welfare of the woman.” This places women on the same footing as people with “legal disability” — for example, mentally impaired people — who are covered in the next clause.

The central object of the new rules, however, is to allow the government to effectively renounce its own legal rights to seek redress against the supplier. The new rules limit the vendor’s liability to the duration of the initial license, currently just five years. If an accident happens after that, the government and the victims will bear the cost. Moreover, a severe accident might destroy the reactor and cause large capital losses. Some of the newer reactors can cost up to Rs 30,000 crore. The 2010 law left open the possibility that the government could recoup this loss from the supplier. The new rules make this impossible.

The limitation of liability to just five of the promised 60 year lifespan of a reactor is especially problematic because all reactors face greater risks of accidents as they age.

This sordid story is indicative of two deeper problems. The first has to do with nuclear safety. Nuclear vendors claim that an accident is almost impossible; Westinghouse puts the chance of a severe accident in its AP1000 reactor at one in two-million per year that the reactor operates. But if an accident is indeed unlikely, why is it unwilling to sell reactors without being indemnified?

It’s impossible to accurately predict the probability of an accident and past record suggests that the industry significantly underestimates this risk. Nuclear vendors are obviously unwilling to take even a small chance of having to pay the price. The UPA should explain why it’s willing to have this risk transferred onto the Indian taxpayer.

Second, the new rules indicate a structural problem with the Act: it takes away the right of victims to approach the courts against the supplier. This right reposes with the government, which often seems more concerned with appeasing the nuclear industry, as was evident in the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984. Unless the government withdraws its new rules and amends the Act itself to grant people their constitutional right to justice, it can’t expect the locals at Koodankulam or Jaitapur to trust it on any other matter of nuclear safety.

( MV Ramana and Suvrat Raju are physicists with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace­ )

The views expressed by the authors are personal