Atomic regulatory body ineffective, says CAG

Maximum fine for safety violation by a nuclear installation is just Rs 500; 91 per cent of the medical X-ray units not registered with AERB

By Ankur Paliwal
Published: Thursday 23 August 2012

CAG report says that India's atomic authority, AERB, has failed to prepare a nuclear and radiation safety policy for the country.   Credit: Amritraj Stephan

Amidst the hue and cry over Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India’s reports on coal block allotment and ultra mega power projects, an important audit report—the one on the country’s nuclear safety—seems to have been conveniently overlooked.

The CAG report on Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), the nodal agency to monitor safety in installations using radioactive materials, like nuclear power plants and X-ray machines, raises serious questions over its independence and effectiveness. Going by report findings, AERB has done precious little to protect public interest in case of accidents involving nuclear radiation. It also found the authority has been lax in monitoring the proliferation of unregistered medical X-ray facilities in the country.

 “AERB failed to prepare a nuclear and radiation safety policy for the country in spite of a specific mandate in its Constitution Order of 1983. The absence of such a policy at a macro-level can hamper micro-level planning of radiation safety in the country,” says the report.

Negligence at peak

In its report submitted to Parliament’s Public Account Committee on August 22, CAG has also criticised AERB for not being independent in its working. “The legal status of AERB can be seen to be more of a subordinate authority with powers delegated to it by the Central government than of a statutory body with independent powers. AERB has, thus, not been created by any specific legislation,” reads the report. Though, it is not for the first time that AERB has been criticised for failing to take strict regulatory steps against the nuclear establishment, the latest audit has put a stamp on it.

A Gopalakrishnan, former head of AERB, concurs, “In India, safety and promotion are under one roof.” Both the AERB, which is entrusted with the task of conducting safety audits, and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), which sets up nuclear plants, report to the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), he points out. 

Its impacts are showing. The system of monitoring radiation facilities was found to be weak. As a result, a large number of radiation facilities were operating without valid licence. Moreover, 91 per cent of the 57,443 medical X- ray facilities are not registered with AERB. The report mentions that in its order of 2001, the Supreme Court of India had ordered the Centre setting up of Directorate of Radiation Safety (DRS) for regulating the use of medical diagnostic X-rays in the country. However, as of July 2012, only two states—Kerala and Mizoram —have DRS.

In fact, AERB has not even framed rules for regulatory inspections, a must for radiation facilities. In the absence of such benchmarks, CAG found that AERB has not conducted regulatory inspections for 85 per cent of industrial radiography and radiotherapy units, even though these were identified as having high radiation hazard potential. There was a shortfall of 97 per cent of regulatory inspection of diagnostic radiation facilities every year. “It shows that AERB has not been exercising effective regulatory oversight over units related to the health of the public,” adds the CAG report.

What about nuclear security?

Moreover, if any nuclear accident occurs, AERB has no role in deciding the quantum of penalty. CAG brings to light the meagre fine of just Rs 500 imposed on the defaulter in case of violation of any safety rules under the Atomic Energy Act.

CAG says that AERB also has no direct role in ensuring safety of workers in power plants as the functions of monitoring radiological exposure and responsibility of radiological surveillance lies with operators of nuclear power plants.  “AERB, despite having the opportunity of peer review by International Atomic Energy Agency, has not availed the opportunity to get its regulatory framework and effectiveness reviewed by them,” states the report.

The report also highlights the complacency about safety culture and non-engagement of the regulator around emergency preparedness exercises. “AERB did not associate or engage itself with any exercise around nuclear facilities. All they did was to review reports, even though they had the option to be directly present during the exercise, monitor it, steer it. They even did not evaluate any exercise as an observer.”

CAG has also touched upon the important point of decommissioning of nuclear power plants. It says that the country does not have any legislative framework in India for decommissioning of nuclear power plants. Department of Atomic Energy in its reply to the report has said that it will look into the matter.   


Where AERB faltered

Audit Objective

Where AERB faltered

Whether AERB has the necessary legal status, authority, independence and adequate mandate to fulfill the responsibilities expected of a nuclear regulator

The legal status of AERB can be seen to be more of a subordinate authority with powers delegated to it by the Central government than of a statutory body with independent powers. AERB has thus not been created by any specific legislation. Even the Pakistan government enacted an ordinance in 2001 to establish the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority for regulation of nuclear safety and radiation and has protection to the extent of civil liability for nuclear damage resulting from any nuclear incident. In the past, 23 various committees and reviews have dealt with the independence issue

Whether AERB, keeping in view international recommendations and local requirements, has been able to develop safety policies in nuclear, radiological and industrial safety areas and safety codes, guides and standards for siting, designing, constructing, commissioning, operating and decommissioning different types of nuclear and radiation facilities

AERB failed to prepare a nuclear and radiation safety policy for the country in spite of a specific mandate in its Constitution Order of 1983. The absence of such a policy at a macro-level can hamper micro-level planning of radiation safety in the country

Whether AERB has been able to effectively regulate nuclear and other radiation utilities through a system of consents

The processes prescribed in issuing consents in the case of nuclear power plants and radiation facilities by AERB is being followed properly. However, there have been some delays in the cases of siting. Licencing process for radiation facilities was adequate only in respect of gamma irradiators and medical cyclotrons. In all other types of units, the licensing and renewal process was unsatisfactory, including units relating to
research accelerators, industrial radiography and radiotherapy, all of which were categorized as having “high” radiation potential hazards. Further, the non-availability of  basic licence documents in files and the failure of AERB to monitor the renewal of licences indicated deficiencies in the maintenance of important files relating to licences. As a result, a substantial number of units of radiation installations with high radiation hazard potential, were operating without valid licences

As of February 2012, there were 57,443 medical X-ray facilities operating in the country. Of these, only 5,270 units had been registered and were under the regulatory control of AERB. The balance 52,173 units, constituting 90.82 per cent of the total units
were functioning without AERB registration and were, therefore, out of their regulatory control

Whether AERB has been able to ensure compliance of the prescribed regulatory requirements by nuclear power plants, other nuclear facilities and radiation
facilities through a system of efficient regulatory inspections and enforcement

AERB has not conducted regulatory inspections in 85 per cent industrial radiography and radiotherapy units even though these have been identified as having a high radiation hazard potential Shortfall of over 97 per cent in regulatory inspections in the case of diagnostic radiology
facilities every year shows that AERB is not exercising effective regulatory oversight over
units related to the health of the public

Whether AERB was monitoring and discharging responsibilities relating to radiation exposure to occupational workers and members of the public and to the release of radioactive substances in the environment in an efficient and effective

In  respect of the critical issues of radiological protection of workers, AERB's role in verification of compliance, an essential requirement for any regulator, has not been provided for, in a direct way. In view of AERB’s role as the nuclear regulator of India, independent assessments and monitoring can be ensured only if these HPUs are placed under its direct control It was observed that  there were 89 cases of excess exposure, i.e. exceeding 30 millisievert (mSv) at radiation facilities during the period from 2005 to 2010. Out of this, the exposure was more than 50 mSv in 41 cases. This indicated that wrong work practices were prevalent
among radiation workers and the excess exposures would have negative consequences and adverse effects on the health of workers in the short as well as long term

AERB does not have a detailed inventory of all radiation sources to ensure effective compliance of regulations for safe disposal of disused sources. No proper mechanism is in place to ensure that waste radioactive sources have actually been disposed of safely after utilisation. Forty-eight cases of loss, theft or misplacement of radioactive sources reported since 2000, in which radioactive material found its way into the environment and in 15 cases the source was never found

Whether emergency preparedness plans are in place for nuclear and radiation facilities and during transport of large radioactive sources, irradiated fuel and
fissile material

These emergency preparedness plans are tested by actual periodic exercises prescribed, based on the types of emergencies, by the plant managements. Plant emergency exercises (PEE) are conducted once in a quarter, while site emergency exercises (SEE) are conducted once a year. AERB only reviews the reports of these exercises conducted by the plant managements and does not directly associate itself in the exercises even as observers of PEE. Off site emergency exercises carried out highlighted inadequate emergency preparedness. AERB is not empowered to secure compliance of corrective measures suggested by it

Whether there exists an adequate and effective regulatory system in the country for the decommissioning of nuclear and radiation facilities as well as a system for creation of decommissioning reserves.

There is no legislative framework in India for decommissioning of nuclear power plants. Of the 20 units of nuclear power plants operating in the country at present,10 plants came into operation before the publication of the AERB Safety Manual on ‘Decommissioning o Nuclear Facilities’. None of these10 plants had prepared preliminary decommissioning plans so far. We observed that even after the lapse of 13 years from the issue of the Manual, NPCIL, the agency responsible for drawing up decommissioning plans for nuclear power plants, had not submitted decommissioning plans for any of its plants despite the fact that Tarapur Atomic Power Station (TAPS) 1 and 2 had already completed over 30 years of operation and the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station (RAPS) 1 was under shutdown condition since 2004

We observed that NPCIL had accumulated  Rs 920.22 crore in the decommissioning fund as of March 2011, along with a corresponding earmarked investment. As per a notification dated December 1988, NPCIL was to hold and manage the decommissioning fund on behalf of the government



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