The protests against the nuclear power plant at Kudankulam have intensified over the recent weeks. The Kudankulam plant is expected to provide 2 GW of electricity annually. However, activists concerned about the risks of nuclear energy are demanding that the plant be shut down. The safety of nuclear power plants is a technical matter. In this blog post we discuss the present mechanism to regulate nuclear energy and the legislative proposals to amend this mechanism. Atomic materials and atomic energy are governed by the Atomic Energy Act, 1962. The Act empowers the central government to produce, develop and use atomic energy. At present, nuclear safety is regulated by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). Some of the drawbacks of the present mechanism are discussed below. Key issues under the present nuclear safety regulatory mechanism The AERB is not empowered to operate as an independent operator. The AERB was established by the government through a notification and not through an Act of Parliament. Its powers and functions are therefore amendable by the Department of Atomic Energy through executive orders. The parliamentary oversight exercised upon such executive action is lower than the parliamentary oversight over statutes. [1. The executive action or the Rules are in force from the date of their notification. They are to be tabled before Parliament mandatorily. However, an executive action is discussed and put to vote in Parliament only if an objection is raised by a Member of Parliament. The executive orders may be reviewed by the committee on sub-ordinate legislation. However, this committee has to oversee a large volume of rules and regulations. For instance, there were 1264 statutory notifications that were tabled before the Rajya Sabha in 2011-12.] Furthermore, the Atomic Energy Commission that sets out the atomic energy policy, and oversees the functioning of the AERB, is headed by the Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy. This raises a conflict of interest, as the Department exercises administrative control over NPCIL that operates nuclear power plants. It is pertinent to note that various committee reports, including a CAG Report in 2011, had highlighted the drawbacks in the present regulatory mechanisms and recommended the establishment of a statutory regulator. A summary of the Report may be accessed here. Proposed mechanism Following the Fukushima nuclear incident in 2011, the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, 2011 was introduced in Parliament to replace the AERB. The Bill establishes the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) to regulate nuclear safety, and a Nuclear Safety Council to oversee nuclear safety policies that the NSRA issues. Under the Bill, all activities related to nuclear power and nuclear materials may only be carried out under a licence issued by the NSRA. Extent of powers and independence of the NSRA The Bill establishes the NSRA as a statutory authority that is empowered to issue nuclear safety policies and regulations. The Nuclear Safety Council established under the Bill to oversee these policies includes the Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy. The conflict of interest that exists under the present mechanism may thus continue under the proposed regulatory system. The Bill provides that members of the NSRA can be removed by an order of the central government without a judicial inquiry. This may affect the independence of the members of the NSRA. This process is at variance with enactments that establish other regulatory authorities such as TRAI and the Competition Commission of India. These enactments require a judicial inquiry prior to the removal of a member if it is alleged that he has acquired interest that is prejudicial to the functions of the authority. The proposed legislation also empowers the government to exclude strategic facilities from the ambit of the NSRA. The government can decide whether these facilities should be brought under the jurisdiction of another regulatory authority. These and other issues arising from the Bill are discussed here.
Discussion on the first no-confidence motion of the 17th Lok Sabha began today. No-confidence motions and confidence motions are trust votes, used to test or demonstrate the support of Lok Sabha for the government in power. Article 75(3) of the Constitution states that the government is collectively responsible to Lok Sabha. This means that the government must always enjoy the support of a majority of the members of Lok Sabha. Trust votes are used to examine this support. The government resigns if a majority of members support a no-confidence motion, or reject a confidence motion.
So far, 28 no-confidence motions (including the one being discussed today) and 11 confidence motions have been discussed. Over the years, the number of such motions has reduced. The mid-1960s and mid-1970s saw more no-confidence motions, whereas the 1990s saw more confidence motions.
Figure 1: Trust votes in Parliament
Note: *Term shorter than 5 years; **6-year term.
Source: Statistical Handbook 2021, Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs; PRS.
The no-confidence motion being discussed today was moved on July 26, 2023. A motion of no-confidence is moved with the support of at least 50 members. The Speaker has the discretion to allot time for discussion of the motion. The Rules of Procedure state that the motion must be discussed within 10 days of being introduced. This year, the no-confidence motion was discussed 13 calendar days after introduction. Since the introduction of the no-confidence motion on July 26, 12 Bills have been introduced and 18 Bills have been passed by Lok Sabha. In the past, on four occasions, the discussion on no-confidence motions began seven days after their introduction. On these occasions, Bills and other important issues were debated before the discussion on the no-confidence motion began.
Figure 2: Members rise in support of the motion of no-confidence in Lok Sabha