A version of this article appeared in the Hindustan Times (30 November)

The country has witnessed a strange display of double standards over the past few weeks. The fears of the locals at Kudankulam that the reactors there might undergo an accident were dismissed by the Government: “The probability of an accident … is one is to infinity,” the Chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission is reported to have said. However, the fears of international nuclear suppliers— that if a major accident were to occur, the Indian nuclear liability act might force them to pay large sums in compensation —were treated as serious and the Government has just come out with rules that almost completely indemnify them. This undermines the bill passed by the parliament in 2010. The Prime Minister’s brave rhetoric on working within the “four corners” of the Indian law is just meant to hide the fact that his Government has done all it can to placate nuclear vendors.

The original liability act made reference to three parties: the victims, the Government of India, which currently operates nuclear plants, and the supplier, which might be a multinational company like Westinghouse or Areva. In the event of an accident, the law allows the victims to collect a maximum of Rs. 2,500 crores in all from the Government but takes away their right to sue the supplier. However, it allows the Government itself to seek recourse from the vendor and recover its losses. The Government repeatedly tried to delete this clause when the bill was debated in the parliament but was forced to retain it after popular outrage and allegations that it was putting public money at risk to favour foreign companies. The Prime Minister then reassured manufacturers by declaring that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating … much will depend on how the rules are formulated … I hope their profits will tell the true story.”

A year later, the Government has finally announced the rules that will guide the implementation of the act. Read closely, the rules are indicative of the regressive mindset of the bureaucrats who framed them. For example, clause 19 explains that whenever the compensation is “payable to a woman” the adjudication authority may decide to invest the amount or have it redirected to a “dependent” or an “heir” who is “best fitted to provide for the welfare of the woman.” This places women on the same footing as people with “legal disability” — for example, mentally impaired people—who are covered in the next clause.

The central object of the new rules, however, is to allow the Government to effectively renounce its own legal rights to seek redress against the supplier. The new rules limit the vendor’s liability to the duration of the initial license, currently just five years. If an accident happens after that, it is the Indian Government and the victims who will bear the cost. Moreover, a severe accident might destroy the reactor and cause large capital losses. Some of the newer reactors, like the EPR manufactured by Areva, can cost up to Rs. 30,000 crores. The 2010 law left open the possibility that the Government could attempt to recoup this loss from the supplier; the new rules make this impossible.

The limitation of liability to merely five of the promised 60 year lifespan of a reactor is especially problematic because all nuclear reactors face greater risks of accidents as they age. This is because many of the materials used in a reactor degrade owing to a number of causes, including irradiation, thermal loading, and corrosion. It is not even possible to examine all components within a reactor for degradation because of limited accessibility.

This sordid story is indicative of two deeper problems. The first has to do with nuclear safety. Nuclear vendors claim that an accident is almost impossible; Westinghouse puts the chance of a severe accident in its AP1000 reactor at one in two-million per each year that the reactor operates. But if an accident is indeed that unlikely, why is it unwilling to sell reactors without being indemnified?

In fact it is impossible to accurately predict the probability of an accident and the historical record of 8 independent major accidents in about 14,500 reactor-years of operation suggests that the industry significantly underestimates this risk. Moreover, a nuclear accident can cause huge losses. Some estimates put the economic damage due to Fukushima at a hundred billion dollars—about 200 times the maximum compensation allowed under the Indian law. Nuclear vendors are obviously unwilling to take even a small chance of having to pay this. The Manmohan Singh Governrment should explain why it is willing to have this risk transferred onto the Indian taxpayer.

Second, the new rules indicate a structural problem with the Liability Act: the Act takes away the rights of victims to approach the courts against the supplier. This right reposes with the Government, which often seems more concerned with appeasing the nuclear industry. This is exactly what happened in Bhopal, where the Government arrogated to itself the right to represent all the victims and then let Union Carbide off the hook.

Unless the Government withdraws its new rules and amends the Act itself to grant people their constitutional right to justice, how can it expect the locals at Kudankulam or Jaitapur to trust it on any other matter of nuclear safety?

(The authors are physicists with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace. Ramana is the author of “The power of promise: Examining nuclear power in India” (forthcoming, Viking Penguin). )