The long-running process for India to import nuclear technology approached a milestone today with the introduction to parliament of essential nuclear liability legislation.
Given approval, this would provide the guarantees required by India's potential suppliers to protect them against legal action if their equipment or materials are involved in a nuclear accident within India. The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill proposes to limit the liability of a nuclear power plant operator in India to 5 billion rupees ($110 million) in case of an accident, but critics claim this comparatively low figure is equivalent to exemption from liability altogether.
The legislation faces tough opposition in the Indian parliament, and it may not pass. Communist parties and the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who could not prevent the government from going ahead with the nuclear agreement in 2008, are vehemently opposing this bill, and together with some other parties have the numerical strength in the parliament to obstruct its passage.
"This is an opposition for the sake of opposition," Arundhati Ghose, India's former permanent representative to the United Nations told World Nuclear News, "People who are opposing this bill are those who oppose nuclear energy all together."
Also dismissing arguments that the bill is a whitewash for nuclear suppliers was Prithviraj Chavan, a junior minister within the Indian prime minister's office, who told MPs that the bill would allow for prompt compensation to the victims of a nuclear accident and the government is open to constructive amendments to the proposed legislation.
The critics of the bill also allege that the government is putting a low price tag on human lives. In Mithivirdi, in the western state of Gujarat, chosen by Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) as the site for a future nuclear power plant, 5000 villagers claim that just the annual revenue from their farms and orchards is more than $160 million. This, they stressed, could be wiped out by a nuclear accident.
But these criticisms are not the real political toxin associated with this bill – that is reserved for the assumption that the law has been framed to suit US interests. Opponents claim that such a bill would not be necessary to cooperation with French and Russian companies, who have government ownership and support to compensate victims of any nuclear accident in India. While denying the bill has been framed through American pressure, Chavan argued that even these rival countries agreed that in case of an accident, liability should be channelled to the operator rather than suppliers.
According to Anil Kakodkar, who was chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission when the US-India agreement was negotiated, the bill is far from unusual and would allow India to become part of international mechanism for supplementary compensation. "Of course there are difficulties," Kakodkar told WNN, "but then we must respect [the fact that] we are a democracy and it has to go through the democratic process."
Confidence that the bill will pass through the Indian parliament has also been expressed by the US Ambassador to New Delhi Timothy J Roemer, who said recently: "We are optimistic and positive that these issues will be settled for American companies to do business in India."
By Raghavendra Verma
for World Nuclear News