By Jayasmita Ray:
I have a lot of doubts about the impending Indo-Japanese nuclear deal. This agreement is supposed to help civilian electricity needs. Nonetheless, there are several reasons to reconsider proceeding with such a deal in the first place.
Firstly, India has continued to display an unusual combination of zest and secrecy about its nuclear ambitions. Since the early 1970s, it has engaged in an arms race with Pakistan. It has consistently refused to be a part of the “Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT)”, which would pave the way for disarmament of nuclear weapons. After 2008, it received a special exemption from NPT countries to import nuclear materials and technology. Since then, it has signed nuclear agreements with 7 countries, including France, USA, etc. This new deal is likely to fuel the Indian government’s nuclear expansion drive even further.
Such zeal is more alarming in a post Fukushima world. Japan’s economy suffered. In the first half of 2012, it had a gigantic trade deficit of $31.78 billion dollars due to increased fossil fuel imports. The total cleanup cost is estimated at a whopping $500 billion dollars and about 1,60,000 people have been displaced. Considering this, can our economy really afford a nuclear disaster, especially one that happened after a tsunami? Several parts of India are at risk of being hit by a tsunami again.
Secondly, the picture of government regulation is bleak when the poor performance of the nation’s nuclear watchdog Atomic Energy Regulation Board (AERB) is considered. According to the 2012 CAG report, the AERB has not come up with any radiation safety policy since its set-up about three decades ago. It reports directly to the government and thus, can’t function as an independent regulator. A maximum fine of only Rs. 500 can be imposed in case of any nuclear oversight. Inspection rates of existing nuclear plants are poor — 60% were delayed up to 153 days or didn’t happen at all.
In 2013, the Public Accounts Committee report revealed the loophole in disaster preparedness. The actual implementation rests with district authorities and the AERB doesn’t have much involvement. There is a huge manpower shortage for monitoring radiation safety rules. They have also been slow in adopting international benchmarks and have not availed of any peer reviews.
The AERB itself admitted that “Presently there is no network of hospitals in the country which can manage radiation induced injuries on a large scale”.
Thirdly, the controversial Nuclear Liability Act (2010) has limited the ability of victims to receive any real help. Only the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCL) can sue the manufacturers or suppliers. Clearly, the accountability of the NPCL becomes questionable.
There is a limited time period of 10 years to claim damages. This is too short to measure long term nuclear damage. The aspect of compensation, limited to a meagre Rs. 1500 crore, mainly helped US companies get insurance in their home states.
Interestingly, the UPA-II government was so keen on passing this bill that the draft wasn’t even sent for public discussion initially. This was done during the last stages of the Indo-US nuclear deal. It clearly showed the government’s intent on focusing on the supplier’s needs. The draft was actually opposed by as many as eight ministries who said they weren’t prepared to deal with so many nuclear accidents in India.
Following the Fukushima incident, the Nuclear Safety Regulation Authority Bill (2011) was introduced in the parliament to replace the AERB. However, despite its attempts to create more autonomy, the NSRA would still be answerable to the government and not included for strategic nuclear matters. The only respite is increased compensation.
Fourthly, the civil nuclear industry remains shrouded in secrecy about any accidents. Accidents have happened before while the authorities remain in denial mode. The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is not obliged to reveal any details. This is a poor reflection of transparency and also proves to be dangerous for thousands of uneducated day-workers who work near those plant sites. The demands of anti-nuclear activists have long been ignored as well in several instances, such as the Koodankulam power plant protest.
Ironically, despite all this trouble, nuclear power serves less than 2.7% of electricity production. Our Government believes that nuclear power is the way of the future. Needless to say, several safety hazards exist. The Indian government has a poor record of nuclear safety with an ineffective AERB and non-transparent NPCIL. The present legal framework isn’t satisfactory for such a large scale expansion and there will be more displacement of people from such projects. Clearly, our Government needs to slow down this relentless expansion and actually reconsider the safety of its own citizens.