India's nuclear regulation must improve

24 August 2012

A parliamentary report on nuclear safety regulation in India has pointed out serious organisational flaws and numerous failings relative to international norms.

The report submitted to parliament by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India concerns the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), which reports to the policy-setting Atomic Energy Commission.

The most fundamental issue highlighted by the report was the unsatisfactory legal status and authority of the AERB. Despite India's international commitments, awareness of best practice and internal expert recommendations, the report said, "the legal status of AERB continued to be that of an authority subordinate to the central government, with powers delegated to it by the latter."

A basic tenet of nuclear power regulation - as recommended by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and implemented in most countries - is that the safety regulator must be independent of industry and government. It can then make autonomous decisions based purely on ensuring the proper level of care for public safety in a legal policy framework - but absent from either political or commercial interference. 

Indian industry structure 403x297 (WNA)

In AERB's case its flawed mandate has resulted in it not having the authority to effectively write the rules on nuclear and radiation safety. The AERB never fulfilled a requirement officially handed down in 1983 to prepare an overall nuclear and radiation safety policy, which would have given structure to practical radiation safety planning at lower levels. The report complained that the AERB has no role in determining the size of fines for breaches of the rules, and no power of its own to impose any fines.

Medicine and industry


The most serious resulting problems relate to ensuring the safe use of radiation in medical and industrial facilities across India. In 2001 the AERB was ordered by the Supreme Court to set up radiation safety directorates in 35 administrative areas, but by July 2012 it had achieved this in only two. It had also failed to frame rules for cost recovery from licensees and was therefore bearing almost the entire cost of the consent process for permitting and inspection. The consent system itself has been "weak", resulting in "a substantial number of radiation facilities operating without licences." The report said that 91% of X-ray facilities were not registered with AERB and were therefore unregulated.

The AERB has never set out standard inspection periods for radiation facilities and the comptroller's report noted an 85% shortfall in inspections at industrial radiography and radiotherapy units, compared to IAEA norms. For diagnostic radiobiology facilities the shortfall was "over 97%". There is no detailed inventory of radioactive sources to help ensure safe disposal and no "proper mechanism" to check the safe disposal of radioactive waste.

Nuclear power

 
Although managers at the country's seven nuclear power plants were making plans for emergency situations, the AERB had no role in the process and only reviewed reports of emergency exercises without taking part. When the exercises highlighted inadequacies, the regulator had no power to compel a nuclear operator to implement improvements.

Other abnormalities in Indian regulation include the lack of a requirement for nuclear power plant owners to have decommissioning plans and secured funds for the work. The Indian state nuclear establishment has not drawn on the services of the IAEA to peer-review its regulatory system and comment on its effectiveness.

Recommendations

 
The comptroller concluded that the government should ensure the regulator is "empowered and independent" and that this is specified in law. It should be given the necessary authority in setting regulations, verifying compliance and enforcement when necessary. The outstanding nuclear and radiation safety policy should be completed, as should certain outstanding regulatory codes. Inspection regimes should be set out based on risk analyses and checks should be undertaken "in terms of the norms prescribed by IAEA."

Regarding nuclear power plants, the AERB should be "more closely associated with on-site emergency exercises" and the government should set clear timelines for NPCIL to "prepare and obtain approval for decommissioning plans."

The comptroller noted that the Department of Atomic Energy acknowledged the concerns highlighted in the report, but offered "no specific assurances giving timelines within which our recommendations would be acted upon."
 
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News

Filed under: Regulation, India