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INDIA: Fukushima Revives Debate Over Nuclear Liability

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Mar 30 2011 (IPS) - The Fukushima disaster has prompted calls to review legislation passed by the Indian parliament in August 2010 that capped compensation payable, in the event of a nuclear accident, at 320 million U.S. dollars.

“Fukushima showed what the potential damage from an accident could be,” M.V. Ramana, physicist and well-known commentator on nuclear energy safety issues, told IPS.

“The economic damages [at Fukushima] must have certainly exceeded the compensation allowed in the nuclear liability bill,” said Ramana, currently a researcher with the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and Programme on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

“Even though the Fukushima accident is very severe, it is far less severe than the worst case accident that is possible at such a reactor,” Ramana said, arguing in favour of a review of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill.

According to the legislation, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd., the state-run operator of nuclear facilities, will pay out the maximum permissible compensation and then seek damages from suppliers if their equipment was found to be defective.

But, the U.S. government, which concluded a civilian nuclear cooperation deal with India in October 2008, has been demanding that supplier liability be reduced or eliminated. This is mainly to accommodate U.S. nuclear equipment manufacturers like General Electric and Westinghouse.

Since the U.S. deal was concluded, state-owned French and Russian nuclear suppliers – covered as they are by sovereign immunity in case of liability issues – have moved in to strike major deals to set up nuclear parks in India.

The Fukushima disaster is certain to have made it difficult for the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to accede to Washington’s demands to ease the liability legislation.

India acceded to the international Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC) for nuclear damage in October 2010, but has not yet ratified it.

Adopted in 1997, Argentina, Morocco, Romania and the U.S. have ratified the CSC – but five countries with at least 400,000 megawatts of combined nuclear capacity must ratify the convention before it can come into force.

On Mar. 25, the Anti-Nuclear Struggles Solidarity Forum staged a rally in the national capital demanding a moratorium on new nuclear projects and an independent review of existing nuclear power plants in India.

Members of the forum said the liabilities bill was rushed through in spite of grave apprehensions put forth by India’s top bureaucrats at hearings of a parliamentary standing committee formed to study the legislation before its passage.

For example Secretary for Health Sujata Rao testified before the committee that the health ministry was not consulted while drafting the bill.

Rao warned that because hospitals are not well-equipped “it is natural that mortality and morbidity due to multiple burns, blasts, radiation injuries and psycho-social impact could be on a very high scale and medical tackling of such a large emergency could have enough repercussions in the nearby areas of radioactive fallout.”

She had also pointed out that the bill had no provision for healthcare during radiological emergencies, but only talked about payment of compensation in the event of health impacts from radiation.

Rao, the committee noted, suggested the setting up of hospitals with specially trained doctors near nuclear establishments and for arrangements to be made for free treatment of people affected by nuclear fallout.

Objections also came from several top officials to clauses in the bill that protect a plant operator from liability in case of nuclear damage arising from a “grave natural disaster of an exceptional character”.

Vinuta Gopal, climate campaign manager with Greenpeace, India, told IPS that the liability bill is such that Indian taxpayers get to pay “not only for the setting up of nuclear power plants reactors but also for the consequences”.

Much of what happens to the liability law is linked to how much transparency India can bring into the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) which functions under the official secrets act (OSA) and tightly controls the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).

A. Gopalakrishnan, a former chairman of the AERB, said in an interview given on Mar. 25 to ‘Newsclick’, an alternate media portal, that Fukushima has brought back into the focus the issue of “subservience of regulators” to nuclear establishments.

“In this country, the AERB is directly reporting to the secretary, DAE, and as such it is, formally, not independent,” Gopalakrishnan said, adding that safety issues as well as the economics of nuclear power plants demand that the sector should no longer be kept under the OSA.

Gopalakrishnan and Ramana have both pointed to nuclear “incidents” in India that could have turned disastrous, but were quickly hushed up by the DAE.

In November 2009, for instance, some workers of the Kaiga nuclear power plant in southern Karnataka state were discovered to have radioactive traces in their urine samples.

Little official news was available after the incident and AERB issued a press release stating that it “would like to assure everyone that the incident is well under control and there is no cause whatsoever for any radiation safety concern”.

The Fukushima disaster has prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to declare that his government intends to bring greater transparency to India’s nuclear establishment, in the interests of safety.

Addressing a gathering of nuclear scientists in the national capital on Tuesday, Singh promised to “strengthen the AERB and make it a truly autonomous and independent regulatory authority”. Singh said all reactors would have to be certified by the regulatory authority and that this would “apply equally to reactors and technologies that are imported from abroad”.

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