Liability has been taken by the operator'

Print edition : October 08, 2010

Srikumar Banerjee: This whole Bill is between the victims and the operators.-MOHAMMED YOUSUF

Interview with Srikumar Banerjee, AEC Chairman.

THE Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) has several ambitious plans to build more Light Water Reactors (LWRs) fuelled by enriched uranium for India's nuclear-powered submarines, to construct a special material enrichment facility in Chitradurga district in Karnataka to step up uranium enrichment capability, and to build 10 indigenous Pressurised Heavy Water reactors (PHWRs) of 700 MWe each that will use natural uranium as fuel.

In the background of the Lok Sabha passing the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010, on August 25 and the Rajya Sabha approving it on August 30, and the first anniversary of India launching its first nuclear-powered submarine, called Arihant, at Visakhapatnam, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Chairman Srikumar Banerjee spoke to Frontline in a 70-minute interview in Chennai on September 2. Banerjee, who is also Secretary, DAE, not only spoke about these plans but argued that the DAE did not take sides during the nationwide debate on the Bill.

We [the DAE] are not taking sides. We just want to make a victim-friendly [piece of ] legislation and make the operator liable, he said in answer to a question on why officials of the DAE/Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited seemed to be batting for American suppliers of nuclear power reactors to India. He asserted that the legislation was India-centric and that it cannot be based on what you are calling pressures from other countries. In the case of a nuclear incident, the victims must get prompt and no-fault compensation, he said.

Banerjee revealed that there was not only total capacity enhancement in India's existing uranium enrichment plant at Ratnahalli, near Mysore, but significant improvement in our technology. Besides, when the uranium enrichment plant in Chitradurga is ready, it should be able to feed enough enriched uranium to large-sized 1,000 MWe Light Water Reactors. Excerpts:

It has been more than a year since India's nuclear-powered submarine, Arihant, was launched. What is the progress on that? Has the LWR 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. The rest of the submarine parts have to be ready before we can start the reactor. I 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. Arihant will not do. Will you build more LWRs for these nuclear-powered 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? Only the Rare Materials Plant at Ratnahalli, near Mysore, produces enriched uranium. Will the proposed special material enrichment facility in Chitradurga district 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 has been done at Ratnahalli. We are confident of supplying the entire fuel for the set of. This has given us the confidence to build the [enrichment] plant. You cannot say anymore that India does not have enrichment technology. India has its own technology and 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.

How big will the Chitradurga facility be in terms of capacity?

I will not be able to tell you now. The scheme is not yet ready. It should be able to feed enough enriched uranium to large-sized, 1,000 MWe nuclear power plants.

LWRs of 1,000 MWe capacity?

Yes. As you add more and more caskets, the production capacity will gradually increase. Our plan is to increase the production capacity to eventually meet the entire requirement of the country.

There is an impression that the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Confederation of Indian Industry are scaring people by saying that U.S. companies will not sell India nuclear reactors and that Indian companies will not provide components and equipment for them if clause 17(b) of the Civil Liability for the Nuclear Damage Bill, 2010, continues to remain in the legislation. (Clause 17 says: 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 substandard 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 NPCIL went on record saying that clause 17(b) would deter suppliers from engaging in nuclear commerce with India. Why are the DAE/NPCIL batting for U.S. suppliers?

A SECTIONAL VIEW of a nuclear-powered submarine like Arihant.-

No. Before discussing the right of recourse of the operator, let me first 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 through 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 very clearly who takes the liability. It is very clear that the liability has been 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. The private participation even today is very high. If you look at the nuclear industry in India, all the major manufacturers of equipment and various components are in the private sector.

However, for this Bill, there is a specific requirement that nuclear power plant operators will be either the government itself or a government company, as defined in the Atomic Energy Act. So this apprehension of several people 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 compensation is 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 new legal authority will determine, depending on the scale of the event, how much compensation should be given. As far as this Bill is concerned, it establishes a relationship between the victim and the operator through this new legal authority. It also mentions that 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 is mentioned that they have the right of recourse. We [the DAE] are not taking any sides. We just want to make a victim-friendly piece of 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 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).

It was not an attempt.

There was a DAE internal note [to that effect]. The perception is that the DAE would not have done that on its own, and there must have been pressure on it from the Prime Minister's Office to delete the clause.

No. Not that way. Let me explain it. 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 laws, 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 our clauses 17(a) and 17(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. On the basis of its recommendations and a broad political consensus, the present language in clause 17 was evolved.

Was there no pressure at all from American suppliers to delete clause 17(b)?

It is a piece of legislation made in India. So we have to ensure that it is India-centric. That is what this legislation is all about. It cannot be based on something 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 some pressure from other countries.

Are you happy or apprehensive about the entire clause 17?

It is a matter of detail. No new feature regarding the right of recourse has been added in this Nuclear Liability Bill. This right of recourse, in any case, is there [in other laws], whether you write it here or not. So it is nothing new. It is true it is causing some disturbance in the minds of the suppliers. We will explain to all of them the basic conditions of these, and I hope I will be able to convince them that this will not cause any difficulty in continuing to have nuclear commerce within India and in the international sphere.

You are going to import 36 to 40 reactors.

It should not be the view that we have today taken the path of large-scale nuclear reactor imports and that our indigenous programme is getting sidelined.

Former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board Chairman A. Gopalakrishnan fears that.

Let me explain. We are actually strengthening the indigenous programme. The government has clearly announced the construction of four indigenous Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors of 700 MWe capacity each and we are working towards getting the clearance for six more reactors a total of 10 reactors of 700 MWe each. This was not originally planned. This means we are adding 7,000 MWe of capacity with indigenous effort.

In the overall requirement of total electricity generation, we need to go much faster. This import of reactors is only as an additionality. It is only for an interim period. We are working towards establishing five energy parks, each capable of generating 10,000 MWe of nuclear electricity. So our ambition is that by 2020, something like 35,000 MWe of nuclear power will come up. This is the number we are targeting. To what extent we will succeed depends on many factors.

The primary factor will be getting suitable land, the public acceptance in these areas, and so on. Then, when you are talking of importing reactors, the suitable agreement with the countries who will be supplying the reactors to these sites will be there, and whether we will get these reactors to provide power at a competitive tariff. When we say competitive tariff, if you were to have a thermal power station at the same location, its tariff and the nuclear power station's tariff should be competitive.

When all these conditions are fulfilled, we will be hopeful that we will be able to make fast progress on nuclear power generation so that the share of nuclear power will rise from the present 3 per cent to 25 per cent by 2035 in the overall installed capacity.

There are problems in the acquisition of land at Jaitapur in Maharashtra and Haripur in West Bengal to build the French and Russian reactors respectively. In Haripur, there is strong opposition to land acquisition.

You should not ask me political questions. It is not a political question.

The important point is you have to convince the local people that when atomic energy comes to any part of India, there will be prosperity in that locality. It is not just generation of power. Wherever we go, there is no question of degrading the environment. Because of this kind of activity, there is an introduction of all-round development in the area. There is an assured source of electricity coming from a small location generation of 10,000 MWe which will not only enrich that particular region and the whole State but the country through the national grid.

For a 10,000 MWe nuclear power station, you will require a few hundred tonnes of fuel a year. But for a coal-fired thermal power station of the same size, you need a shipload of coal every day. Besides, the first one is totally emission-free. There is no carbon dioxide emission. Even with clean, imported coal, you cannot avoid carbon dioxide emission. Today, we [India] contribute only 5 per cent of the total carbon dioxide generation in the world. If there is a tenfold increase in the total electricity generation [in India, using only coal], our contribution will be very significant. It may exceed 40 per cent. That is why we have to increase our nuclear power stations' component in the total mix of electricity generation.

I am just coming from the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor [PFBR] site at Kalpakkam. We will consider it a major technological feat for the country to develop and construct this fast breeder reactor. It will be ready by 2012 and it will pave the way for our building more fast reactors.

As we grow with the fast reactors, we will have the opportunity of converting thorium into uranium-233 in the fast reactors, which will lead to our third stage of building thorium-based reactors. Again, our vision is that with this, we will be able to provide energy security to our country. So I can reiterate that we are not deviating at all from our well-defined path of a three-stage nuclear power generation programme.

In 2004, former AEC Chairman Anil Kakodkar told me that the ground-breaking to build the Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which will use thorium as fuel, would take place by the end of that year. It is close to the last quarter of 2010 now and the excavation for the AHWR is yet to start. How long will the peer reviews of this reactor design go on? Has the AHWR become a non-starter?

Not at all. Please understand that the AHWR is only for proving some enabling technologies for the development of thorium-based reactors. But the AHWR has its own role. It started with a big ambition. Its design continues to be the same. We are still trying to push the AHWR programme as fast as possible if we can do the site selection within this Plan. It is a reactor which will use thorium. Two-thirds of the energy from this reactor will come from thorium in equilibrium condition. The second important point is that it will have many passive safety features.

It will have no moving parts.

No moving parts. So in the same reactor, we are actually trying to prove many points. The AHWR is unique. It is novel. It is innovative. There is no doubt about these things. One should not think that just because the AHWR construction has not yet started, we are pushing back the third stage of our nuclear power generation programme. The third phase will commence only when we have gathered a sufficient inventory of uranium-233. This will depend on how many fast reactors we have already built. Not one but several fast reactors should be in operation. It has to go in a sequence. Then we would have collected our uranium-233. It is a very important concept the point of time in which you should introduce the AHWR. Just by early introduction of thorium, we are not going to gain much by way of overall sustainability of our nuclear power generation programme.

The new fourth reactor at Kaiga (Kaiga-4) in Karnataka has been sitting idle for the past two years even though its construction is complete. A reactor at Narora in Uttar Pradesh is also sitting idle after it underwent en masse coolant channel replacement. Both reactors have not been started up for want of domestic natural uranium. Has the outlook improved for the domestic natural uranium supply? There was a strike in the uranium processing mill at Jaduguda in Jharkhand.

The Narora unit criticality has already been done. So it is not an issue. Domestic uranium availability has improved considerably. We will have all reactors operational very soon. The capacity factors of those reactors that use imported natural uranium fuel have reached 90 per cent. The capacity of those reactors fed by Indian uranium has also improved. The fuel shortage in India's nuclear power programme is a thing of the past.

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