In the event of nuclear accident, burden will be on Indians

The Bharatiya Janata Party's strong opposition to the nuclear liability Bill springs mainly from its apprehension that it would allow private operators to walk away paying peanuts in the event of an accident.

As of now Indian nuclear plants are run by government-owned public sector units. Whether the PSU liability is capped at Rs. 500 crore and the rest of the compensation, about Rs. 2,100 crore (an equivalent of 300 million as special drawing rights), comes from the government pocket will not make much of a difference. Either way it is the government money and the taxpayer's money, a senior BJP leader argued, a day after National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon interacted with five party leaders in the room of Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj.

The question, therefore, was not one of quantum of compensation in the current scenario where there are only public sector operators.

The BJP's real concern is that sooner rather than later the government will want to amend the Atomic Energy Act to allow private operators — Indian and foreign — into the nuclear business. It suspects that the Bill is aimed at ensuring that the private players' liability will be limited to a paltry Rs. 500 crore.

In the event of a nuclear accident, Indians would be the victims, the foreign operator would get away with a small liability, and the Indian taxpayer — through the government — would have to come up with the large part of the compensation. In short, Indians would be the victims and Indians would have to pay the compensation. The private operator would practically go scot-free, a senior party leader said.

Apparently, this was what BJP leaders — Murli Manohar Joshi, Arun Jaitley, Ms. Swaraj, Yashwant Sinha and S.S. Ahluwalia — told Mr. Menon on Wednesday.

The party has argued that in a situation where government-owned PSUs are the operators, there is no need for a law at all. The liability will be of the government, indirectly through the PSU or direct government compensation. But, if the entry of private players is being contemplated, the government should lay its cards on the table.

The government was talking about generation of 40,000-60,000 MWe from nuclear plants. That would mean 50-60 plants, each producing 1,000 MWe. “We simply do not have enough trained manpower to operate these plants. We fear that the government's plan is not only to buy equipment from the Russians, the French and the Americans, but also get them to operate these here with a liability cap of just Rs. 500 crore for accidents,” said a senior leader.

The BJP is also unhappy that under the proposed Bill the time-limit for filing damage claims is just 10 years, whereas it is well established that radiation damage can affect several generations, including unborn children.

A party leader compared the paltry liabilities intended to be fixed under the Bill with the provisions of legislation in other countries suggesting much higher compensations — $ 10 billion in the U.S. under the Price Anderson Act, € 2.5 billion in Germany, € 600 million in Switzerland and £ 980 in the U.K.

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