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Aerb “On A Tenuous Ground” Belated And Misplaced Concern

Updated: September 29, 2012 12:07 pm

The appraisal of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) as standing “on a tenuous ground” and the “urgent need for the government to bolster” its status is not fully irrefutable. At the outset, the parameters used to arrive at this outright appraisal bring home the impression that CAG considers ‘only’ AERB is the foundation of India’s nuclear regulatory process.

The AERB is to operators of nuclear facilities what local law enforcement is to a community. Both are tasked with enforcing safety regulations. Undoubtedly, the AERB must be an ‘empowered cop on the nuclear beat’ in laying down guidelines, actively monitoring installations, and aggressively engaging operators for even minor violations. But India will lose focus on real nuclear safety and security if the AERB is considered solely responsible for safety irregularities.

Belated and Misplaced

Most of the findings by CAG are not unknown except the factual evidences furnished. Such an appraisal could have been undertaken long ago to improve organisational accountability, paving way for a true nuclear renaissance in India while simultaneously pacifying the anti-nuclear sentiments.

CAG’s idealisation of regulatory practices followed in other countries is naive. No of nuclear regulatory model is ‘perfect’. The statutory Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of United States has, founded by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “not always served the public well in 2011”. The NRC is allowing 47 reactors to operate despite known violations of fire-protection regulations dating back to 1980. Further, it has allowed 27 reactors to operate even though their safety systems are not designed to protect them from earthquake-related hazards identified in 1996.

While striving to unshackle the AERB from “regulatory capture”, India must not fall into ‘over-concerned parallelism syndrome’. Each time an incident takes place anywhere, many draw baseless parallels to India’s programme. It is, of course, prudent to draw lessons from the incidents but everybody forgets that nuclear risks, to a great extent, are location-, and technology-specific. The panic based on the idea that ‘nuclear activity anywhere is a threat to humanity everywhere’ is misplaced, overemphasized, and in the process the specificities of nuclear projects are overlooked.

Regulatory independence is essential but watertight compartmentalisation of different organs would create unnecessary factionalism. Ensuring nuclear safety is a coordinated effort and utilising the expertise of other wings of the establishment is certainly prudent. Too much emphasis on procedural issues will drive the organisation away from substantive needs.

Independence of AERB is viewed “circumscribed” as, beside other aspects, “there is no institutional separation of regulatory and non-regulatory functions”. For that matter, even if there were an “independent” regulatory institution with clear-cut division of responsibilities, where will the country get separate set of scientists who will exclusively run power plants and another set of scientists to look into the regulatory matters? Currently, the scientific workforce that runs both regulatory and operational aspects is absorbed from the institutions run by the promoter of nuclear energy programme—the Department of Atomic Energy. Therefore, to enhance the independence and efficiency, CAG could have aimed at the root streamlining nuclear science studies in the country.

While pulling it up for abysmal performance in many aspects of its regulatory function, the AERB must be commended for meticulously following all prescribed processes for consenting nuclear power plants (NPPs) and radiation facilities. But the prescription to make further efforts to eliminate delays in giving siting consents to avoid time and cost overruns in the construction of NPPs suggests that CAG has placed the entire onus on the AERB. Delay in siting of NPPs is primarily because of the public resentment and anti-nuclear movements at the proposed sites. In the post-Fukushima days, postponement and delay in new nuclear projects can be witnessed globally. The real issue is ‘public acceptance’ of nuclear projects. CAG could have enquired into this aspect and prescribed how to foster greater public support for nuclear projects.

The revelation that “the process of regulatory inspections (RIs) only in respect to nuclear fuel cycle facilities including NPP was being followed as prescribed by AERB” gives an impression that the operators of the NPPs have utilised the AERB effectively whereas other radiation facilities have been left to the AERB’s convenience. Had there been proper information with the public regarding the implications of negligence of these installations, the AERB could have been pressurised to discharge its duties. Therefore, the urgent need is to formulate a proper nuclear information management scheme to disseminate facts on nuclear activities in the country.

Pervasive ignorance of radiation hazards prevailing at the societal level and negligence by the users of the radiation sources was an indication when the gamma irradiator in Delhi University landed in Mayapuri scrap market in April 2010. As BARC was responsible of regulatory control of radiation facilities prior to AERB’s existence, did BARC maintain a proper inventory of all radiation materials used in the country? If yes, why it did not pass on sufficient data to the AERB?

The neglected dimension of radiological safety in India is an outgrowth of the lopsided national nuclear discourse. The media, academia, scientific community, and the public at large have been enthused on the issue of nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants rather than anything else. Equally, the governments in power have been extra cautious to address all requirements in these matters. For example, the two legislations—the WMD Act 2005 and the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act 2010—were promptly formulated to expedite the nuclear energy expansion programme and to see the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation smoothly realised. On the other hand, even after the Mayapuri incident, no effective legislation was enacted to control, “trace and discover lost and/or orphan radioactive sources in the country”. The proposal in 2011 to provide Mobile Radiation Detection Systems to fifty cities across the country as part of the preparedness to handle radiological emergencies is being delayed.

The conclusion that the nuclear regulator can impose fines only up to a maximum of Rs 500, for violations related to nuclear and radiation facilities, seems erroneously interpreted. Section 24 of the Act has expressly made provisions for just and reasonable punishment for serious violations. It clearly enumerates that safety violations of the Atomic Energy Act are punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. The sub-section 30(3) of the Act appears to refer to minor administrative lapses but the sub-section also states “otherwise expressly provided in this Act”.

Lastly, it is observed by CAG that “the cost of decommissioning could exceed the cost of construction of such facilities” considering the span of decommissioning periods. In that case, India is back to square one, is nuclear energy worth harvesting? CAG has clearly overlooked the life span of an NPP and the profit it accrues over the years till its decommission.

Unwanted Repercussions

Maintaining absolute independence is probably the greatest challenge and unachievable for any oversight organisation. However, there is always the scope to strengthening it; in this pursuit, suggestions by CAG are worth pursuing. But the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Bill 2011 placed before the Parliament has also been alleged to have no teeth.

Whatever the contours of this debate will be in the days ahead, India’s nuclear energy expansion plan may be hostage, at least, until the regulatory mechanism is reorganised. The domestic anti-nuclear movement will make mockery of all initiatives and assurances by the nuclear establishment intensely now onwards.

In the neighbourhood, countries like Sri Lanka and Pakistan will yell at India’s proclamation as a ‘responsible’ nuclear power by nitpicking the loose ends in the appraisal. A few months ago, Sri Lanka’s Power and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka was reportedly raising concerns about probable impact of Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant on Sri Lanka. Shireen Mazari of Pakistan in a press statement recently expressed concern over the CAG report, saying that it “should be of concern to Pakistan as any untoward accident would impact the neighbourhood including Pakistan”.

At the international level, India’s aspiration for NSG membership will critically be scrutinised, and the progress in its dealings with Australia and Japan for nuclear cooperation may be halted. For the spiral domestic quagmire over regulatory, political, and local acceptance issues, India’s nuclear energy programme seems to be ‘shackled-within’ even though the Indo-US civil nuclear deal unshackled it from the global technology denial regimes.

As a damage-control measure, the Parliament needs to seriously scrutinise the proposed NSRA at the earliest. However, the monsoon session of Parliament marred by continuous holdups and disruptions, was unable to take up the nuclear regulatory issue. However, in the positive side, one can be sure that the appraisal has provided a road map to have a second thought on India’s nuclear regulatory practice. CAG appraisal, in fact, is India’s headway to be a ‘stern’ responsible nuclear power, unlike Pakistan which downplayed the clandestine nuclear proliferation network it calibrated earlier, and the threats to its nuclear arsenal at present.

By Sitakanta Mishra 

(The author is Research Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi)

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