It wants the regulator to become stronger and autonomous

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) does not have an independent legal status. It has failed to develop “safety policy, standards, codes and guides.” Its human resources are limited. A substantial number of radiation facilities, including 91 per cent of the medical X-ray units in India, operates outside its ambit. Its emergency preparedness is “inadequate,” and it has been “slow in adopting international benchmarks and good practices” in nuclear and radiation operation.

These are among the observations of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which adopted a report on the Activities of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board on Thursday.

In the backdrop of the AERB’s “glaring weaknesses,” also outlined in an earlier performance audit by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, the PAC has recommended making the mechanism stronger, more independent and empowered.

The Hindu has access to sections of the PAC’s report, where it has developed a substantive critique of the AERB’s functioning and made recommendations.

Autonomy

It noted that the AERB’s legal status “remained that of a mere subordinate authority with powers delegated to it by the Central government.” The committee said the “failure to have an autonomous and independent regulator is clearly fraught with grave risks,” as brought out by the report of the Fukushima nuclear accident independent investigation commission.

The PAC cited the “absence of institutional separation of regulatory and non-regulatory functions”; the “absence of a fixed term of office of Chairman, AERB”; “dependence of the AERB on the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) for budgetary and administrative support”; and “conflict of interest” with the AERB chairman reporting to the Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, who is also Secretary, DAE, as aspects that circumscribed the regulatory mechanism’s independence.

Three functions

The PAC noted that the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, 2011, was introduced in the Lok Sabha. But it supported the recommendation of another related parliamentary committee that the Bill be re-examined to make the AERB more “independent and autonomous.” It should be able to perform three functions: enacting “appropriate, comprehensive, sound regulations;” verifying “compliance with such regulations;” and “enforcing established regulations by imposing appropriate corrective measures.”

Effective regulation

Worried that the AERB “did not have any authority for framing rules relating to nuclear and radiation safety,” the PAC has “desired” that the DAE take appropriate steps to “review and scrutinise” all the existing rules. It has recommended that the proposed law contain a “sound provision to act as an effective deterrent against violators.”

Even after three decades of its existence, the AERB is yet to formulate a nuclear and radiation safety policy. Noting that the absence of such a policy could hamper “micro-level planning” of radiation safety, the PAC has recommended that a “safety policy document be brought out expeditiously.” It also reiterated the “imperative to set minimum benchmarks and safeguards to provide full assurance for safety in nuclear and radiation facilities” and asked the DAE to link up with renowned universities while preparing important safety codes.

The PAC said there was an “overall unsatisfactory licensing and renewal process for even high radiation potential hazard units.” The AERB’s “painfully slow progress in bringing radiation users under regulatory control” indicated lack of manpower. Only 5,270 out of 57,443 X-ray units were registered, and the AERB admitted to the committee that with a mere 300 engineers and scientists, it was impossible to regulate all the machines. The PAC suggested capacity-building and augmenting human resources.

Emergency measures

Noting that off-site emergency exercises reflected inadequate preparation, the PAC recommended that the AERB needed to strengthen the “regulating aspect of emergency preparedness.” It hoped that the AERB would start “peer review and appraisal services of the International Atomic Energy Agency” to help make the nuclear regulatory infrastructure effective, sustainable, and more creditable.

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