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The collapse of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan earlier this year has led most nations to review their nuclear safety measures. India is no exception. Last month the government tabled a bill to set up a new nuclear watchdog in the country. However, the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, which is being touted as a measure to give the nuclear regulator more powers and independence than the current one, has failed to enthuse independent experts and civil society activists.

The main grouse against the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), which is the current nuclear watchdog in the country, is that it is answerable to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The chairman of the AEC is also the secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), which owns the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), a public sector undertaking that operates all nuclear plants in the country.

The salient features of the new bill include the constitution of a Council of Nuclear Safety headed by the Prime Minister and a new Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA), which will oversee and regulate all activities relating to the production, development and use of atomic energy and radiation in the civilian sector.

The council, on the other hand, will oversee policies on nuclear safety and regulation and will constitute search committees for appointing a chairperson and two full-time and up to four part-time members of the NSRA. The other members of the council will be the Union ministers of environment, home, external affairs, and science and technology, the Cabinet secretary, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and experts nominated by the government.

Under the new bill, the nuclear watchdog ceases to be answerable to the AEC. Instead, it becomes answerable to the central government. “The enhanced legal status was expected for some time. This makes it a statutory body,” says K.S. Parthasarathy who served as the AERB secretary from 1987 to 2004.

“AERB has been enforcing its mandate notwithstanding its perceived legal infirmities. I am sure this enhanced legal status will make the nuclear regulator even better,” says Parthasarathy.

But not everyone shares his enthusiasm. “The NSRA Bill will create a regulatory body which will be much more under the government’s direct control than the existing AERB,” says former AERB chairman A. Gopalakrishnan.

Experts are particularly critical of two clauses in the bill that they feel will tie down the new regulator’s hands.

Clause 20 (2)(e) of the bill, for instance, insists that the NSRA has to take prior approval of the government even to interact with nuclear regulators in other countries or even international organisations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency. Clause 21 is even more contentious. It says the regulator can’t act against friendly relations with foreign states.

“Under the guise of ushering in an ‘independent’ regulator, the government is creating an NSRA through which it can continue to hide nuclear safety deficiencies and set up imported foreign reactors of dubious safety characteristics, without allowing the NSRA to examine their safety before import decisions are taken,” says Gopalakrishnan.

Rather than bringing in greater independence and transparency to nuclear safety evaluation and implementation, the NSRA will be boxed in from all sides by government controls, diktats, and threats of retaliation, he adds.

“There are absolutely no processes or procedures outlined in the bill that will lead to the increased transparency of the NSRA’s actions or promote the dissemination of information on salient nuclear safety occurrences or regulatory actions of interest to the public,” he observes.

Gopalakrishnan further alleges that “the Council of Nuclear Safety to be formed under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister is merely an instrument to coerce the NSRA into obeying the Cabinet’s decisions in the nuclear power sector, including primarily nuclear reactor imports to benefit the corporate sector.”

The government does not wish to get drawn into these charges as yet. Swapnesh Kumar Malhotra, who heads the DAE’s public awareness division, refused to comment on the bill, saying that it was under Parliament’s consideration.

However, many experts do feel that with 40,000 MWe (megawatt electrical) reactor imports slated to take place over the next 20 years or so, the government would not want an independent NSRA assessment of their safety features for fear that it may jeopardise the imports.

MV. Ramana, an associate research scholar at the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University in the US, shares many of these concerns. “The current bill has various clauses that allow the government to declare one or more issues off limits to the NRSA,” says Ramana, who is also the author of the book, The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India, to be published later this year. “Both the NSRA and AERB have only as much power as the government gives them in any given situation,” he says.

Ramana feels that the proposed set-up, if compared with that of a country like Germany, which has a strong independent regulator, leaves much to be desired. “The preliminary expectation about the proposed regulatory authority is that it will lead to a situation somewhat like that in Japan, where, as we saw in journalistic expose after expose following Fukushima, there has been a great deal of collusion between the regulatory agency and the regulated utilities,” says Ramana, who is on the science and security board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Besides, the bill does not introduce effective separation between the regulator and the DAE. Many of the key processes involved in ensuring effective regulation, such as the appointment of members, will continue to be controlled by the AEC, points out Ramana.

Experts are also surprised by the relatively small amount of funds allocated for the proposed NSRA in the 12th Plan period. According to the bill, Rs 146 crore will be allocated to it. “The budget seems to be continuing at the current, or even lower, levels,” says Ramana. “There is a discrepancy between such allotments and plans for a rapid expansion of nuclear power in the country.”

Besides, Ramana points out that a number of provisions in the bill pertain to the maintenance of secrecy. For example, members and employees of the NSRA are required to declare that they “will not communicate or allow to be communicated to any person not legally entitled to any information relating to the affairs of the Authority”.

“When it comes to the nuclear arena where there is widespread mistrust and concern about the safety of facilities, such provisions suggest that the NSRA simply represents a continuation of business as usual,” Ramana observes.

As experts and activists tear into the NSRA bill, and as concerns mount over the safety of India’s current and future nuclear facilities, it remains to be seen if the government will indeed come up with a nuclear regulatory authority whose independence cannot be easily compromised.

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