Spurring nuclear Bhopals?

Published : Aug 14, 2009 00:00 IST

AS far as the atmospherics of her visit to India went, Hillary Clinton was charm unlimited. But beneath the always-smiling, relaxed and breezy manner of the United States Secretary of State lay a hard-nosed agenda: of further developing a broad-based relationship with India on terms defined by, and tilting heavily towards, the U.S. in the fields of defence, space, education, science and technology and nuclear energy.

Hillary Clinton secured an allotment from the Indian government of two greenfield sites in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat for the construction of nuclear power plants based on U.S. technology. These are of significant acreage, have forested buffer zones (what a use to put forests to), and allow for future expansion.

The U.S. is keen on getting a share of Indias nuclear-power pie, set to expand thanks to the U.S.-India nuclear deal and exemptions secured by Washington from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group on restrictions on nuclear commerce with India imposed after the Pokhran-I explosion of 1974 and tightened after the 1998 blasts.

The U.S. nuclear industry which has not secured a single domestic order for new reactors for 36 years as well as American construction giants and related corporations are loath to see the nuclear business opportunities in India being exploited so far by France and Russia alone. But their participation will claim a price. They will only invest in India if their legal liability for mishaps in the nuclear power stations they build and/or operate is deliberately curtailed to a small amount.

The U.S. has mounted enormous pressure on India to pass a law to reduce the liability of American corporations and force the Indian public to bear the cost of damage caused by their profit-seeking activities, which result in accidents involving personal injury, or the release of small quantities of radioactivity all the way to a catastrophic core meltdown such as Chernobyl in 1986, which wreaks havoc on the life and well-being of hundreds of thousands of people.

U.S. pressure is overt and crude. On June 25, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake told a House committee: we are hoping to see action on nuclear liability legislation that would reduce liability for American companies and allow them to invest in India Former U.S. Ambassador David Mulford even lobbied for the passing of an ordinance in case Parliament could not urgently enact the law.

U.S. pressure is also effective. An Indian Minister has been quoted as saying: The draft of the nuclear liability Bill is ready. What this will do is indemnify American companies so that they dont have to go through another Union Carbide in Bhopal.

This perversely depicts the perpetrator of the worlds worst chemical accident as a victim and pledges legal protection for a possible nuclear Bhopal. But it is entirely in keeping with the efforts of the U.S.-India Business Council and industrialists such as Ratan Tata to secure a clean chit for Carbides successor, Dow Chemical, and let it off the hook as far as cleaning up the contaminated site of the Bhopal plant is concerned.

Domestically, the U.S. nuclear industry has long enjoyed a special protective dispensation through a law called the Price-Anderson Act, passed in 1957, which limits its liability and the compensation available to the public in the event of a nuclear accident, however serious. This is one of the more deplorable and one of the most widely criticised aspects of the framework within which the U.S. nuclear industry operates, with inadequate accountability to the public and a meagre obligation to compensate it for harm.

The Act was designed to create an incentive to industry because investors were unwilling to accept the then-unquantified (but presumably high) risks of nuclear energy without some limitation on their liability. Originally, the Act required nuclear plant operators to obtain the maximum possible insurance cover against accidents, then determined to be a measly $60 million.

It provided a further government commitment of $500 million to cover any claims in excess of private insurance. Companies were relieved of any liability beyond the insured amount for any incident releasing radiation, regardless of fault or cause. The Government Accountability Office of the U.S describes this as a subsidy.

Since then, the insurance cover has been raised to a still-measly $300 million and a fund has been provided for, to which all operators must contribute up to $111.9 million if an accident occurs. As of 2008, the maximum size of the fund is $11.6 billion.

But a serious reactor accident will cause damage, which is hundreds of times higher than this amount. For instance, the damage from Chernobyl is estimated at some $250 billion. If a core meltdown were to happen in Germany, the loss would be an estimated Euro 2000-5000 billion-of the same order as its gross domestic product. The public must bear this cost. This is grossly unfair.Three international conventions also attempt to provide such indemnity to the global nuclear industry: the Paris Convention (1960), the Vienna Convention (revised in 1997) and the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC), which has only been ratified by three countries and hence has not entered into force.

The CSC limits the compensation payable by the operators of nuclear plants for any accidents or damage to $450 million, leaving the responsibility for the rest to national governments. It is a mere coincidence, if a cruel and obnoxious one, that this paltry amount is of the same order as the total compensation paid ($470 million) to the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster under a collusive settlement imposed on them by the Indian government and the Supreme Court an epochal case of injustice if there ever was one.

The proposed Indian nuclear indemnity Bill, which is apparently ready to be tabled, will make India a party to a similar form of injustice, albeit of a probably higher magnitude. Yet, Indian business organisations are piggybacking the U.S. and lobbying for such a law. FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) has just produced a working group report, which recommends legislation to limit liability. The group was headed by the Nuclear Power Corporation chairman, and included representatives of a host private companies keen to get into nuclear power.

To appreciate the full import of what is in the offing, just consider the following. Nuclear power is inherently and extremely hazardous. Each stage of the so-called nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to fuel fabrication, and from the operation and maintenance of nuclear reactors to the handling or reprocessing of spent fuel, is fraught with exposure to ionising radiation. Radiation is a unique and long-acting poison that causes chromosomal damage even in small doses and hence cancer and genetic damage. Radiation cannot be neutralised or destroyed. And there is no threshold below which it is safe.

Nuclear power generation, as well as the transportation and handling of nuclear materials, inevitably exposes occupational workers to radiation. It is also fraught with routine emissions and effluents that are hazardous to the public in the vicinity. It leaves behind wastes, which remain dangerously radioactive for tens of thousands of years.

For instance, the radioactive half-life of Plutonium-239 is 24,400 years and that of Uranium-235 a mind-boggling 710 million years. Science has not yet found a way of safely storing, leave alone disposing of, such long-acting wastes. The economic lifespan of a nuclear reactor is only 30 or 40 years. But it remains hazardous for thousands of years.

Most important, nuclear power is the only form of energy generation that is capable of undergoing a catastrophic accident such as a core meltdown, with enormous radioactivity releases causing death and destruction over thousands of square kilometres. The death-toll from Chernobyl is estimated at 65,000. And every commercial reactor type now in operation in the world can undergo a Chernobyl-style accident.

All this demands that strict liability should apply to nuclear power including all hazards from mining, processing, handling and transportation, and covering suppliers of components and equipment as well as power plant operators. The CSCs central objective is to limit liability solely to the operator, and the jurisdiction to a single country, normally the one on whose territory an accident has occurred. This is utterly irrational and violative of natural justice.

Yet, there are alternatives. For instance, Austria has extended the liability regime to suppliers of equipment and other entities involved in transporting or dealing with nuclear fuel/waste. It does not limit the liability jurisdiction to one country and imposes no cap on liability. This is a worthy example.

India needs to have a proper system of regulation in place before it expands nuclear power generation and allows foreign investment in it a course about whose wisdom one must be sceptical. . This system must respect the imperatives of safety, health, transparency, accountability and environmental sustainability. It must fully separate the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board from the operators of nuclear installations and empower it with independent personnel, equipment and a budget. And above all, it must hold

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