nuclear power

Are there enough regulatory safeguards against nuclear power?

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.


 

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.