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Updated: August 20, 2010 01:51 IST

‘Nuclear liability Bill will clip wings of India’s nuclear technology’

K. P. M. BASHEER
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A.Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. Photo: Vipin Chandran
A.Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. Photo: Vipin Chandran

Former chairman of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, A. Gopalakrishnan, has said the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill will lead to clipping the wings of India’s indigenous nuclear technology capabilities.

Mr. Gopalakrishnan, a stringent critic of the India-U.S. nuclear deal, told The Hindu that the new law would open the doors for the U.S. and French nuclear industry to “extensively sell their very costly and unproven light-water reactors (LWR) to India.”

He said that back in 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had, without consulting the Indian Parliament or the public, promised the U.S. administration to purchase 10,000 MWe worth of LWRs from that country. This, Mr. Gopalakrishnan claimed, was under pressure from the U.S. administration for getting the `123’ agreement passed by the U.S. Congress. Mr. Singh had also promised French President Nicholas Sarkozy to purchase French reactors, in return for his help to circumvent the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s conditions. Without a liability law that lets the reactor manufacturers off the hook in case of a nuclear accident, these companies would not dare to do business with India, he said.

Mr. Gopalakrishnan pointed out that India is a leading country in thorium breeder reactor technology and is poised to build thorium-based reactors routinely by 2040. The country had abundant resources of thorium raw material in the sands of Kerala’s shores. Moreover, the indigenous nuclear technology capabilities would, in another ten years, enable India to design and build 1000-MWe PHWRs (pressurised heavy water reactors.) “This is a natural progression; we started off with 220 MWe reactors, now we are in the process of building 700 MWe units , and soon we will acquire the capability to build 1000-MWe reactors.” (The largest LWR India now plans to import is a 1650-MWe French reactor.)

He contended that the plan to import 40,000 MWe worth reactors during 2015-35 would shelve the thorium-based breeder reactor technology currently under development. “We have two generations of top-class nuclear scientists and engineers who have been painstakingly trained; we have the technological and industrial capability; and we have abundant raw materials,” he said. “All these will go to waste if we predominantly start relying on the import of the highly expensive U.S. and French reactors.”

A reactor like the AP-1000 had not yet been built or tested even in the U.S. Because of the lack of demand, the U.S. nuclear industry had been idle for some time and it would take several years for them to get the reactors going in India.

Mr. Gopalakrishnan thinks that had Prime Minister Singh’s secret promise (in the form of a letter by India’s Foreign Secretary to the U.S. Under-Secretary of State) on September 10, 2008 been made public at the time, the Opposition parties and the public would not have perhaps let the India-U.S. nuclear deal through. The commitment was made without a proper techno-economic impact assessment, he alleged. That commitment would prove to be fatal for India’s indigenous reactor technology, he said.

Mr. Singh had also promised that India would `take all steps necessary’ to adhere to the Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC) for Nuclear Damage. “The CSC Annex insists that the national law should legally channel the liability for all nuclear accidents in India absolutely to the `operator’ of the nuclear facility,” he pointed out. “This sell-out to the U.S. administration has been kept from all the deliberations on the liability Bill.” At the same time, he alleged, the desirability of joining the CSC is highlighted by the government, using `false and baseless’ arguments.

“The unwarranted written assurance given by the Prime Minister to help obtain the NSG clearance and the passage of the `123’ agreement has now come to haunt the government in the context of the liability Bill,” he said.

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