‘In the event of a nuclear incident, victims must get prompt compensation'

SRIKUMAR BANERJEE: 'We want to make a victim-friendly legislation and make the operator liable.' Photo: V.V. Krishnan   | Photo Credit: V_V_Krishnan

While the Lok Sabha passed the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010, on August 25, the Rajya Sabha passed it five days later. In this context, Srikumar Banerjee, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), spoke to T.S. Subramanian on September 2 in Chennai. Dr. Banerjee answered questions about the Bill, India's nuclear-powered submarine programme, the uranium enrichment capability and so on. Excerpts.

It is a year since India's nuclear-powered submarine, Arihant, was launched. Has the Light Water Reactor (LWR), using enriched uranium as fuel, on board the submarine been started up?

Our nuclear steam supply system is ready 100 per cent. From our (DAE) side, everything is ready. We are only waiting for other systems to become operational so that we can start the commissioning activity of the reactor. I really do not know when the harbour trials will be done.

The Navy will need three or four nuclear-powered submarines for this arm to be a viable force. Will you build more LWRs for these submarines?

We are already doing that. I will not be able to tell you the number, but it is a fact that we are in that game. The next nuclear steam generating plants are getting ready for future applications.

Where will the enriched uranium for these boats come from? There is only one Rare Materials Plant at Ratnahalli, near Mysore, to produce enriched uranium. Will the proposed Special Material Enrichment Facility in Chitradurga district in Karnataka be helpful?

Chitradurga will come a little later, not immediately. Our Ratnahalli plant capacity has been enhanced. But more than that, there is significant improvement in our technology. Usually, a term called Separating Work Units (SWUs) defines the technology level that we have achieved in this, and I can assure you that there has been considerable improvement in SWUs of our next generation caskets of centrifuges. The separating capacity of our centrifuges has improved. So total capacity enhancement at Ratnahalli has been done. We are confident of supplying the entire fuel for the set of….

You cannot say anymore that India does not have enrichment technology. India has its own technology and we can produce [enriched uranium]. We have not started doing it for large-scale commercial nuclear power stations, which require a much larger quantity of enriched uranium. We will be able to do that once we go to Chitradurga.

There is an impression that the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the Confederation of the Indian Industry (CII) were scaremongering that the American companies would not give India nuclear reactors and that the Indian companies would not provide components and equipment to them if clause 17(b) of the Civil Liability for the Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010, remained in the legislation. (Clause 17 says that “The operator of the nuclear installation, after paying the compensation for nuclear damage in accordance with section 6, shall have a right of recourse where – (a) such right is expressly provided for in a contract in writing; (b) the nuclear incident has resulted as a consequence of an act of supplier or his employee, which includes supply of equipment or material with patent or latent defects or sub-standard services; (c) the nuclear incident has resulted from the act of commission or omission of an individual done with the intent to cause nuclear damage”). Top officials of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) went on record that clause 17(b) would deter the suppliers from engaging in nuclear commerce with India. Why are the DAE/the NPCIL batting for the American suppliers?

No. Before discussing the right of recourse of the operator, let me tell you about the basic purpose behind the introduction of the nuclear liability Bill. In the very unlikely event of a nuclear incident, we do not want the victims to go for an extended process of litigation to claim compensation. The victims must get prompt and no-fault compensation. Prompt in terms of time, and no-fault meaning that you don't have to prove the fault of the operator or anyone to get the compensation.

The Bill identifies clearly who takes the liability. It is clear that the liability is taken by the operator.

There are many undue apprehensions that all this is being done for the private sector's entry into the Indian nuclear business. Private participation even today is very high. If you look at the nuclear industry in India, all the major manufacturers of equipment and components are in the private sector. However, for this Bill, there is a specific requirement that the nuclear power plant operator will be either the Government itself or a Government company, as defined in the Atomic Energy Act. So this apprehension that this is only a precursor to allowing the private sector to come in as operators of nuclear power plants is totally dispelled.

The second point is the suppliers' liability. What is the meaning of the phrase, “the right of recourse” of the operator? It means the operator first takes his own liability to compensate the victims and after the compensations are paid, he has the right of recourse to sue the suppliers, provided he has definite proof of faulty supply [in the equipment] which has been the primary cause of the incident. The Bill establishes prompt compensation from the operator to the victim.

This whole Bill is between the victims and the operators. It creates a new legal authority called the Claims Commission or the Claims Commissioner. That authority will determine, depending on the scale of the event, how much compensation should be given. The Bill also mentions that the Indian laws, whatever is available today, are in no way affected by the introduction of this new Act. The right of recourse in this case is available to the operator through other Acts [also].

Tort law?

Tort is there. Defect liability is there…. Only in this Act, it has been mentioned that they have the right of recourse. We [the DAE] are not taking sides. We just want to make a victim-friendly legislation and make the operator liable. One of the points is that you are inculcating safety-consciousness in the operator because you are introducing a heavy liability in case any incident occurs which affects the people. We sincerely believe that no situation will arise where it will be necessary to invoke this law.

There was an attempt in June to delete clause 17(b). There was a DAE internal note to that effect.

It was not an attempt.

The perception is that there was pressure on the DAE from the Prime Minister's Office to delete the clause.

No. Let me explain. There are two contradictory requirements. On the one side, you have to look at the international practice, what are the laws available in several countries. In most of these legislations, there is no mention of the right of recourse…. In some way, there is a mention and statements are similar to what is indicated in 17(a) and (c).

On the other side, when you are getting equipment and components from several suppliers, in case a fault in any of them leads to a nuclear accident, there should be some suppliers' responsibility. This is the contradiction.

That is why this point was discussed in detail during several discussions of the Parliamentary Standing Committee. Based on its recommendations and a broad political consensus, the present language in clause 17 was evolved.

Was there no pressure at all from the American suppliers to remove 17(b)?

It is a legislation made in India. So we have to ensure that it is India-centric. It cannot be based on what you are calling pressures from other countries. In any case, there will be many things published in the press, many viewpoints being expressed. But you cannot say that an Indian lobby is being created by pressure from other countries.

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