The Government on Monday maintained that the proposed Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010 was the “best possible regime” for putting in place for the first time a legal framework to provide compensation in the event of an accident involving a nuclear installation.

The law would provide speedy compensation to victims in the unlikely case of an accident, prevent operators from passing the buck to suppliers, ensure a reliable regime specifying the relief to be extracted from the operator and was in line with a majority of legislation in other countries, the government maintained.

Denying that the Bill was country-specific, official sources said France and Russia had also approached the government and sought a Bill on similar lines but they admitted that only U.S. companies would find it impossible to enter the country in the absence of a law of this kind. It also put a time limit of 10 years so that operators would not face endless litigation. “The Bill does not create any new principles. We looked at our development needs as also the fact that nuclear energy in India is in a state of infancy. And we tried to strike the right balance,” they said.

The aim was to reconcile different interests — protect the public, secure economic benefits through a reliable regime and protect operators from ruinous claim for damages. “The Supreme Court has time and again given rulings on similar lines, that there has to be the right balance between developmental and environmental needs, reliability and adequate compensation to the victims. That has been the basis for liability legislation all over the world especially in the nuclear industry,” said the sources. The proposed Bill was based entirely on international practice and legal regime.

They defended the Rs. 500-crore limit on compensation payable by operators on ground that the proposed Bill gave the government flexibility to increase or decrease the amount. Moreover, there was a tier-II provision in the form of compensation from the Central exchequer and even a tier-III proviso provided an international convention came into force.

Talking to journalists here, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Prithviraj Chavan said the efforts to bring in legislation on civil liability on nuclear damage were initiated by the NDA regime in 2000 when Russian-made atomic plants were being set up at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu. “So this was much before the recent events unfolded,” said government sources. “We continued with that effort which was left unfinished,” said Mr. Chavan.

Global convention

Dismissing allegations that the UPA government was acting under U.S. pressure, he said the law, once enacted, would enable India to be part of the international Convention of Supplementary Compensation (CSC). The CSC had already been signed by four countries and at least 55 others were signatories to either the Paris or Vienna Convention.

“There is no comprehensive legal regime for compensation of nuclear damage and the sooner we do the better it is for us,” Mr. Chavan said. Referring to the BJP's objection, he said: “Opposition to the introduction of the Bill can only be on the legislative competence of the House and constitutional validity. The merits of the Bill will be discussed when it is taken up for consideration and debated in the House.”

Bhopal gas tragedy

Referring to the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984, the Minister said had a legal framework been in place victims would not have had to run from pillar to post for compensation in the event of a nuclear accident. The government passed a law in 1991 to address issues arising out of industrial accidents but it left out radiological accidents. Currently, there was no law to govern the award of compensation in case of a nuclear accident.

“In India, the government is the sole operator and it is responsible for running nuclear plants. Subsequently when it is decided to bring in private players with minority stakes, the law governing compensation can be modified. Right now there is no intention on the part of the government to bring the private sector in the nuclear sector,” Mr. Chavan said.

“Changes to the regulatory framework are under consideration. Private operators will come in after that. For the foreseeable future, the state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited will remain the sole operator,” said the government sources.

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