atomic energy

N-power in India. How safe are our plants?

In the aftermath of the nuclear leaks in Japan, there have been concerns regarding the safety of nuclear power plants around the world. There are some proposals to change the regulatory framework in India to ensure the safety of these plants. We examine some of the issues in the current structure.   Which body looks at safety issues regarding nuclear power plants in the country?   The apex institution tasked to look at issues regarding nuclear safety is the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. The AERB was set up in 1983 to carry out regulatory and safety functions regarding nuclear and radiation facilities. The agency has to give clearances for establishing nuclear power plants and facilities.   It issues clearances for nuclear power projects in stages after safety reviews. The safety of setting up a nuclear plant in any given area is also assessed by the AERB. For example, it would have looked into the safety of setting up a nuclear power project in Jaitapur in Maharashtra.   AERB also reviews the safety mechanisms within existing nuclear plants and facilities. To do this, it requires nuclear facilities to report their compliance with safety regulations, and also makes periodic inspections.   Under the recently passed Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010 the AERB is also the authority responsible for notifying when a nuclear incident takes place. Mechanisms for assessing and claiming compensation by victims will be initiated only after the nuclear incident is notified.   Why is the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board in the news?   Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced on March 29, 2011, "We will strengthen the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board and make it a truly autonomous and independent regulatory authority."   This announcement came in the backdrop of the continuing crisis and high radiation levels at the Fukusima nuclear plant in Japan.   News reports opined that the lack of proper autonomy of Japan's nuclear regulator curbed its effectiveness. Japan's ministry of economy, trade and industry regulates the nuclear power industry, and also promotes nuclear technology. These two aims work at cross-purposes. India's regulatory structure is similar to Japan in some respects.   What measures has the AERB taken post the Fukushima nuclear incident in Japan?   Following the nuclear incident in Japan, a high-level committee under the chairmanship of a former AERB chairman has been set up to review the safety of Indian nuclear power plants.   The committee shall assess the capability of Indian nuclear power plants to withstand earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones, floods, etc. The committee will review the adequacy of provisions for ensuring safety in case of such events.   Is there any issue in the current regulatory structure?   The AERB is a regulatory body, which derives administrative and financial support from the Department of Atomic Energy. It reports to the secreatry, DAE.   The DAE is also involved in the promotion of nuclear energy, and is also responsible for the functioning of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, which operates most nuclear power plants in the country.     The DAE is thus responsible both for nuclear safety (through the AERB), as well as the operation of nuclear power plants (through NPCIL). This could be seen as a conflict of interest.   How does the system of independent regulators differ from this?   The telecom sector provides an example of an independent regulator.   The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India does not report to the Department of Telecommunications. The DoT is responsible for policy matters related to telecommunications, promoting private investment in telecom, and also has a stake in BSNL. Had TRAI reported to the DoT, there would have been a conflict of interest within the DoT.   What will the proposed legislation change?   Recent news reports have stated that a bill to create an independent regulatory body will be introduced in Parliament soon.   Though there is no draft bill available publicly, news reports state that an independent Nuclear Regulatory Authority of India will be created by the bill, and the authority will subsume the AERB within it.   This post first appeared as an article on rediff.com and can be accessed here.

Parliament’s Recommendations on the Nuclear Liability Bill – Why the “and”?

In law, the addition or deletion a single punctuation or a single word can have a major impact on the effect of that law.  One such example can be seen from the recommended changes in the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010 by Parliament’s Standing Committee. The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on May 7, 2010.  The Bill was referred to the Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests, which submitted its report on the Bill yesterday (August 18, 2010).  The Committee has made a number of recommendations regarding certain clauses in the Bill (See summary here).  One of these may have the effect of diluting the provision currently in the Bill.  The main recommendations pertain to:

  • Preventing the entry of private operators.
  • Allowing the government to increase the total liability for a nuclear incident by notification, but not decrease it.
  • Increasing the liability of the operator to Rs 1,500 crore from Rs 500 crore.
  • Increasing the time limit for claiming compensation to 20 years from 10 years.
  • Changing the provision giving operators a right of recourse against persons actually responsible for causing damage.

Clause 17 of the Bill which gives operators a right of recourse against those actually causing damage had been opposed as it was felt that it was not strong enough to hold suppliers liable in case the damage was caused by them.  Clause 17 gave a right of recourse under three conditions.  The exact clause is reproduced below: The operator of a nuclear installation shall have a right of recourse where — (a) such right is expressly provided for in a contract in writing; (b) the nuclear incident has resulted from the wilful act or gross negligence on the part of the supplier of the material, equipment or services, or of his employee; (c) the nuclear incident has resulted from the act of commission or omission of a person done with the intent to cause nuclear damage. Under this clause, a right of recourse exists when (a) there is a contract giving such a right, or (b) the supplier acts deliberately or in a grossly negligent manner to cause nuclear damage, or (c) a person causes nuclear damage with the intent to do so.  If any of the three cases can be proved by the operator, he has a right of recourse. The Committee has stated that “Clause 17(b) gives escape route to the suppliers of nuclear materials, equipments, services of his employees as their willful act or gross negligence would be difficult to establish in a civil nuclear compensation case.” It recommended that Clause 17(b) should be modified to cover consequences “of latent or patent defect, supply of sub-standard material, defective equipment or services or from the gross negligence on the part of the supplier of the material, equipment or service.” The Committee also recommended another change in Clause 17.  It recommended that clause 17(a) may end with “and”. This provision may dilute the right of recourse available to operators.  The modified clause 17 would read as: The operator of a nuclear installation shall have a right of recourse where — (a) such right is expressly provided for in a contract in writing; and, (b) the nuclear incident has resulted as a consequence of latent or patent defect, supply of sub-standard material, defective equipment or services or from the gross negligence on the part of the supplier of the material, equipment or services.; (c) the nuclear incident has resulted from the act of commission or omission of a person done with the intent to cause nuclear damage. This implies that for Clauses 17(b) or (c) to be applicable, the condition specified in clause 17(a) has to be compulsorily satisfied.  Two examples highlight the consequence of the recommended change in Clause 17(a) of the Bill:

  1. A person X deliberately commits sabotage in a nuclear plant and causes damage.  Under the Bill, the operator has recourse under Clause 17(c).  If the recommendation regarding clause 17 is accepted, the operator may also have to also prove the existence of a pre-existing contract with X in addition to clause 17(c).
  2. If a supplier supplies defective equipment, but does not have a contract in writing stating that he will be liable for damage caused by defective equipment, the operator may not have a right of recourse against the supplier under 17(b).

The effect of the changes recommended by the committee may thus dilute the provision as it exists in the Bill.  The table below compares the position in the Bill and the position as per the Standing Committee’s recommendations:

Right of recourse - The Bill gives operators a right to recourse under three conditions:  (a) if there is a clear contract; (b) if the damage is caused by someone with intent to cause damage; (c) against suppliers if damage is caused by their wilful act or negligence. In the Bill the three conditions are separated by a semi-colon.  The Committee recommended that the semi-colon in clause 17(a) should be replaced by “and”. This might imply that all three conditions mentioned need to exist for an operator to have recourse.
Right to recourse against suppliers exists in cases of “willful act or gross negligence on the part of the supplier”. (Clause 17) The Committee felt that the right of recourse against suppliers is vague.  It recommended that recourse against the supplier should be strengthened.  The supplier is liable if an incident has occurred due to (i) defects, or (ii) sub-standard material, or (iii) gross negligence of the supplier of the material, equipment or services. The variance with the Convention continues to exist.