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Updated: March 15, 2010 12:41 IST

Govt faces tough task on nuclear liability bill

PTI
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A view of Tarapur Atomic Power station. A crucial bill that provides for compensation in case of a nuclear accident is slated to be introduced in the Lok Sabha on Monday. File Photo: Vivek Bendre
The Hindu A view of Tarapur Atomic Power station. A crucial bill that provides for compensation in case of a nuclear accident is slated to be introduced in the Lok Sabha on Monday. File Photo: Vivek Bendre

With the BJP and the Left parties having strong reservations over the nuclear liability bill, Government faces an uphill task in getting the measure approved in Parliament this week.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is keen to secure Parliament’s nod for the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill before he leaves for Washington around the middle of next month to attend a summit meeting on nuclear security.

Both House of Parliament will go into recess later this week to enable the Standing Committees to consider a number of bills and re-assemble on April 12 for the second part of the Budget session which will continue till May seven.

The BJP and the Left parties want the Government not to rush with the bill. It has strongly pitched for the the bill being referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee for considering in detail all aspects.

The bill, a key element of operationalise the landmark Indo-US nuclear deal, provides for compensation in case of a nuclear accident.

It pegs the maximum amount of liability in case of each nuclear accident at Rs 300 crore to be paid by the operator of the nuclear plant.

However, the draft bill also has provisions that would enable the government to either increase or decrease the amount of liability of any operator.

But it provides that the operator would not be liable for any nuclear damage if the incident was caused by “grave national disaster of exceptional character, armed conflict or act or terrorism.

“The BJP has serious reservations on the bill since it caps the liability of American firms,” BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad said noting, “we have the painful experience of the Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal in 1984. The victims are still languishing and fighting their legal battle“.

Voicing apprehensions of Left parties, CPI—M leader Prakash Karat said, “We think the bill should not be brought in the present form. It is totally biased in favour of American companies, which supply nuclear reactors to India,”

“It will be a big burden on the tax payers since the liability will be totally on the Government,” he said.

Earlier PTI story adds

A crucial bill that provides for compensation in case of a nuclear accident is slated to be introduced in the Lok Sabha on Monday, a move that is expected to give more fodder to the Opposition to attack the government.

The BJP and the Left parties have already indicated opposition to the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill that is key to operationalise the landmark Indo-US nuclear deal.

The Bill pegs the maximum amount of liability in case of each nuclear accident at Rs 300 crore to be paid by the operator of the nuclear plant.

However, the draft bill also has provisions that would enable the government to either increase or decrease the amount of liability of any operator.

"At the introduction itself we will oppose unless the government assures us that it would be sent to a Parliamentary Standing Committee," CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury said.

The BJP is also understood to have expressed concern over the Rs 300 crore limit in the liability of the nuclear power plant operator.

"All these issues are there and we will discuss all that in the standing committee," said Yechury when asked about the Rs 300 crore limit.

Reports had it that the government was keen on getting the Bill passed in the ongoing budget session itself.

National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon had met BJP leader Arun Jaitley to brief him about the Bill, but the main opposition is yet to have all its concerns addressed.

Mr. Jaitley is understood to have given a list of queries regarding the Bill to Menon but was yet to get any reply.

The Bill was approved by the Union Cabinet on November 20 last year.

According to the provisions in the draft legislation, the operator would not be liable for any nuclear damage if the incident was caused by "grave national disaster of exceptional character", armed conflict or act of terrorism and suffered by person on account of his own negligence.

Former Atomic Energy Commission Chairman and key architect of the Indo-US nuclear deal Anil Kakodkar feels that the liability limit is optimum.

"It was important that this amount was not kept too low. I think this is the appropriate and reasonable level," he said adding that it was "quite balanced and needs to be passed in its present form".

The Bill also provides for establishment of Nuclear Damage Claims Commission which will have one or more claims commissioners for a specified area.

The claims commissioner shall have all powers of a civil court for the purpose of taking evidence on oath, enforcing attendance of witnesses, compelling the discovery and production of documents and other material objects.

Environment activists have described as a violation of fundamental rights the proposed attempt to cap the level of compensation to victims of a nuclear accident.

"Under Article 21 of the Constitution, there is no warrant or justification for capping nuclear liability," noted jurist Soli Sorabjee said in his opinion to Greenpeace.

"Any such move (to limit compensation) will be in defiance of the Supreme Court judgements and will be contrary to the interest of people of India and their fundamental rights under Article 21 of the Constitution," he said.

Issues relating to the remaining steps of the nuclear deal -- reprocessing pact and civil liability legislation -- are expected to be key points in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's agenda when he meets US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit next month.

After award of compensation, the operator has the right to appeal in three cases, one of which is when he argues that the incident resulted from "wilful act or gross negligence" of a supplier of material, equipment or services.

The right to claim compensation has a limit of 10 years from the date of incident. The exception is of stolen, lost, jettisoned or abandoned nuclear material, where the period is increased to 20 years.

The government is expected to argue that the legislation is necessary as the Atomic Energy Act that governs the nuclear power sector is silent on compensation.

Several insurance companies also do not cover injuries caused due to radiation.

The state-run Nuclear Power Corporation of India that operates all atomic power plants in the country has set aside Rs 500 crore to meet compensation requirements in case of a nuclear incident.

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