Bill to create independent nuclear authority soon

On a day when the world marked the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, India reaffirmed its commitment to an ambitious nuclear energy plan by pushing ahead with the first phase of the controversial nuclear power plant project at Jaitapur in Maharashtra with additional safety measures and a “generous new compensation package” to be announced soon.

But in a concession to heightened public awareness of the need for proper regulation and oversight, the government on Tuesday promised to introduce a bill in the next session of Parliament creating an independent and autonomous Nuclear Regulatory Authority of India that would subsume the existing Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).

The AERB has been criticised for being administratively subordinate to the very atomic energy establishment whose operations it is meant to regulate.

The decision to clear the decks for setting up two 1,650-MWe reactors at Jaitapur was taken at a meeting convened here by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It was attended by Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office V. Narayanasamy and Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh. Among those who briefed the Prime Minister were S. Banerjee, Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy; S.K. Jain of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India that will operate the plant at Jaitapur and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon.

The meeting reviewed the current status of the Jaitapur project as well as safety concerns arising out of the nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan and their impact on India's overall nuclear energy programme, Mr. Narayanasamy told reporters. All factors that led to the Fukushima disaster had been factored in, he said. “The Prime Minister was apprised of the doubts and concerns expressed by the local people in Jaitapur about the project, and the measures being taken to address these concerns,” Mr Narayanasamy said.

The first two units, proposed to become operational in 2019, will have their own stand-alone safety and operational system.

Describing the ongoing protests at Jaitapur as “politically motivated,” Mr. Chavan accused “outsiders” of instigating the opposition, adding that these were based on misconceptions and rumours. “We have engaged with the local community and assured them that safety will never be compromised,” he said.

The meeting also decided to make public the initial results of the six safety review committees set up after the Fukushima accident, as also the action taken on previous safety reviews. The government will invite the Operational Safety Review Team of the International Atomic Energy Authority to assist in its own safety reviews and audit. All reactors and technologies, whether indigenous or imported, will, without exception, meet the safety standards that are stipulated by the regulatory authorities and there will be complete transparency in the functioning of the nuclear power programme, Mr. Ramesh said.

The meeting reiterated that India's nuclear energy needs were vast and growing and nuclear energy was an important clean energy option which would be pursued with full regard to the safety, livelihood and security of the people. “Government's intention is to ensure nuclear power that is safe, secure and economical. While imported reactors have their place, indigenously-designed and developed reactors will continue to be at the very foundation of the country's nuclear programme,” Mr Narayanasamy said.

Environmental approval for the Jaitapur Power Park was accorded in November 2010 with 35 preconditions. The Prime Minister was informed that each of the conditions would be adhered to in a fully transparent manner. A comprehensive environmental impact assessment of the two reactors would be done when both become operational in 2019. An official release said Dr. Singh underscored that safety of nuclear power plants was a matter of the highest priority and there was need for improving public communication and outreach on the part of the Department of Atomic Energy and the National Power Corporation of India Limited.

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