Minimum nuclear liability

By Savvy Soumya Misra
Published: Monday 31 August 2009

-- (Credit: Divya) In case of accident, US does not want firms to pay it all

nuclear reactor suppliers will not be liable if there is an accident in an atomic power plant in India. The onus of the accident would be on the operator, only partly. The rest would be on the Indian government. This, if India clears the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill. The bill, though, has not been put up for public discussions in India and its clauses are not known.

Sources said the bill, if passed, would allow private companies from abroad to set up and operate power plants in India, currently proposed in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. American companies like GE and Toshiba Westinghouse are keen. It is in their interest that the US wants India to cap liability of the operator company.

"...we are hoping to see action on nuclear liability legislation that would reduce liability for American companies and allow them to invest in India," said Robert Blake, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs on June 25. American companies are clear they will not invest in the country till India ratifies the bill.

Under an international nuclear treaty, the operator of a nuclear plant has a liability of US $450 million (about Rs 2,000 crore) in case of an accident. Media reports say India plans to impose Rs 300 crore liability on the operator. Either of the liability amounts is peanuts for a nuclear disaster, said Anil Chaudhary of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace.

The Indian government had estimated losses worth US $3 billion for the Bhopal gas tragedy at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in 1984. Union Carbide gave compensation of US $470 million to the victims--about US $500 per victim. "Fixing liability is fine but letting suppliers go scot-free is not," said Chaudhary. "This mean the Indian government would have to pay for someone else's faulty design or technology if that is the cause of the accident. Everybody in the process should be held liable."

Nuclear scientist M V Ramana said there has to be a comprehensive evaluation of what the likely financial damages will be in the event of a nuclear accident. There is also pressure from private companies in India who want to take up operations of nuclear reactors. Even they want the liability cap to be minimum. D Raja of cpi, however, assured the bill would be vetted before any decision was arrived at.

But, does India have any regulation in place to import nuclear reactors? Members of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, constituted under Atomic Energy Act, said nuclear power plants would be built on the basis of standards laid down in the board's safety codes and guidelines. There is a problem here American companies will supply enriched uranium fuel reactors, so India will have to shift from natural uranium to enriched uranium fuel reactors. S K Sharma, chairperson of the board, said that shouldn't be a problem because the board would test and accept any new design.

The board's resources are limited, said Ramana. "It would perhaps take decades to train safety experts on each of these different reactor systems if they want a thorough evaluation."

How reliable is the US
Another concern is the US hasn't received orders for nuclear reactors in the past 36 years. Sources familiar with the Indo-US nuclear deal said the US might not sell outdated technologies to India but that did not guarantee that the technology has been tested.

Other options should be explored, said Ajay Lele of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a security think tank in Delhi. "We need not go overboard and allow the US to test their technology on our land. The French have approached to do business with us and we must explore that."

It is expected that parliamentarians would discuss the bill in the winter session later this year.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.