The announcement by the Prime Minister's Office that the government will soon create, through appropriate legislation, an independent and autonomous Nuclear Regulatory Authority that subsumes the existing Atomic Energy Regulatory Board will be widely welcomed. Those concerned with India's nuclear safety and regulatory issues have long been of the conviction that what needs to be done cannot be directed and implemented by a body that is under the authority of the very system it is mandated to oversee. The official assurances of complete transparency in the nuclear power domain, the promise to put the post-Fukushima reviews of nuclear safety in the public domain, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's call to the atomic energy establishment to continuously engage with public opinion on safety are not without significance. Further, Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh has taken the lead in this ‘new thinking' with his willingness to engage in public debate on a difficult issue and with his concrete proposals to assuage serious concerns. However, the government will be fooling itself if it does not recognise that public opinion remains apprehensive in light of what has happened at Fukushima. Reassuring words need to be backed with actions that demonstrate that the independence and the autonomy of the new authority as well as the promises of transparency will be real and substantive.
Against this background, what causes concern is the government's dogmatic insistence that it is not willing to take a fresh look at the Jaitapur power project. Reiterating its determination to go ahead, it has insensitively added that a comprehensive environmental review will be undertaken after the project's first phase of two 1650 MW reactors is completed by 2019. At stake is not merely compensation for those whose assets and livelihood will be affected by the project, though that is important. The crux of the disputation is related to fears regarding the long-term environmental impact of the project and the long-term safety of the reactor complex. The government would do well to address these issues directly and transparently, abandoning any fear that pressing the pause button would result in anti-nuclear-power groups running away with the agenda. Its assurance that it takes strengthening domestic nuclear capabilities seriously lacks credibility, considering that it has virtually ruled out the possibility of modifying the Jaitapur project in overall scale as well as the size, design, and make of the individual reactors. If the new policy outlook on nuclear safety is to win credibility among the people, the government must halt the work in progress at Jaitapur and talk sincerely with the protesters and the sceptics, keeping an open mind on the future of the project.