The civil nuclear liability bill is a deeply flawed piece of legislation that the government has done well to develop cold feet about. Broadly speaking, the law proposes to channel all legal liability stemming from a nuclear accident in India on to the nuclear power plant operator concerned. In turn, the operator's own individual liability is limited to Rs.500 crore regardless of the scale of the accident or of his own negligence. For any damages in excess of that amount, the bill makes the government liable up to a further level of 300 million Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), approximately Rs.2100 crore-2300 crore. Once India accedes to the IAEA's Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC), Indian victims could draw upon an international fund to the maximum amount of another 300 million SDRs. The first problem with the bill is the unconscionably low level of compensation envisaged by this three-tier system of payments. Assuming that every promised cent comes in, the maximum amount victims of a catastrophic nuclear accident could hope to receive would only be just about twice the $470 million the Indian government settled on for the Bhopal gas disaster way back in 1989. Secondly, there is a serious problem with the very concept of channelling liability since this lets the designers and suppliers of crucial equipment off the hook. The Indian bill allows for a right of recourse against suppliers, but with operator liability capped so low this provides no comfort at all.

The fatal flaw is the bill's perspective. The aim of any reasonable nuclear liability law should be to provide adequate and speedy compensation to the victims of a nuclear accident. It must be to use the concept of tortuous liability to incentivise the adoption of best safety practices by all those involved in the nuclear supply chain, be they equipment or raw material suppliers, transporters, or power plant operators. The cap on liability is tantamount to an unwarranted and counter-productive subsidy for the nuclear power industry. Moreover, under the guise of providing quick compensation, the victims have been deprived of any agency in the process. Their ability to move even an Indian court of law in the event of inadequate compensation would be severely compromised, a fatal infirmity with the bill given that many of the damages a nuclear accident might cause may not manifest themselves within the 10-year period stipulated in the law for filing claims. The government says that in the absence of such a law, U.S. equipment suppliers will not be able to provide India components like reactors. But then Russia and France, as suppliers, do not face any such problem. The issue with U.S. suppliers cannot be resolved by selling out the interests of the people of India — and the government must stiffen its spine to make this absolutely clear.

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