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Nuclear Liability Bill: More trouble likely

Among the 18 amendments the Indian government has moved in the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill is a clause providing for a future situation in which the government covers the liability for a private nuclear operator. The amendment to this - clause 7 - may raise controversy too. Jayanth Jacob reports. See graphics

india Updated: Aug 23, 2010 12:02 IST
Jayanth Jacob
US-has-won-over-Indians-with-nuclear-deal
US-has-won-over-Indians-with-nuclear-deal

Among the 18 amendments the Indian government has moved in the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill is a clause providing for a future situation in which the government covers the liability for a private nuclear operator.

As is international norm, this would be compensation in case of a nuclear accident, irrespective of who is to blame. The private operator would remain liable for fault-based civil damages.

At present, as per the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act no private players can operate nuclear plants in the country. This act will have to be amended before private players can operate a reactor.

However, a future scenario in which such a change has been made in the Atomic Energy Act, and there are private players in the field, is envisaged in the amendment sought to Clause 7 (1) of the existing nuclear liability bill.

The proposed amendment says: “Provided that the central government may, by notification, assume full liability for a nuclear installation not operated by it if it is of the opinion that it is necessary in public interest.”

This means that the government — looking into the future — agrees to handle compensation for victims of a nuclear accident even if the operator is someone other than the government.

The amendment has been sought despite the standing committee which examined the original bill having recommended to the government to make the “position clear that there will be no private operator of nuclear installations.”

There is already a growing disquiet among opposition parties over the amendment suggested to Clause 17 in the Bill, which dilutes the liability of the supplier of nuclear technology.

The amendment to Clause 7 may raise controversy too. Government sources said that at the nascent phase of an Indian nuclear expansion there would be little scope for the private sector. Nuclear power would be especially capital intensive at this point.

At a later stage, however, when the industry is more mature, private participation will be crucial if India is to reach its ambitious targets for nuclear power.

India plans to generate 20,000 MW of nuclear power by 2020. It presently produces about 4,500 MW. In the immediate future, nuclear expansion will be achieved through overseas collaborations with Indian public sector undertakings.

The state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation has already signed agreements with three state-run companies — Indian Oil Corporation, National Aluminium Company and NTPC. Indian private firms like L&T are already committed to supplying parts for the nuclear plants.

However, they are many years away from being allowed — or able — to run a nuclear power plant by themselves.

The existing provisions of the Atomic Energy Act speak only of a government owned company” being allowed to run nuclear plants.