M V Ramana and Suvrat Raju [Hindustan Times]

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often claimed that nuclear energy is crucial for the country and his government has announced a massive programme of reactor construction. Leaving aside other problems with this plan, a minimal prerequisite for the safe operation of these new and existing plants is a sound regulatory body. The prime minister would do well to carefully read the recent report from the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on the subject.

nuclear industry cartoonThe PAC was scathing in its assessment of the state of nuclear regulation, and in particular about the lack of independence of the current regulator from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). It warned of the ‘grave risks’ that result from ‘the failure to have an autonomous and independent regulator’. India’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) was, according to the PAC, “a mere subordinate authority”; worse, the committee was “dismayed to find protracted delays in the DAE’s efforts to confer statutory status … to [the] AERB”.

The PAC was following up on an equally critical assessment made by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in 2012. Both the PAC and the CAG pointed to a major cause of the Fukushima disaster, where a high-level commission appointed by the Japanese government reasoned that the accident was preventable and blamed “collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO [the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation]”. The commission concluded that “therefore … the accident was clearly ‘man-made’”.

Precisely the same cosy relationship exists between the AERB and the DAE, which is responsible for managing nuclear energy in India. The CAG noted that “the AERB chairman … works in a capacity similar to any head of department in [the] DAE.” So, the AERB, which reports to the Atomic Energy Commission that is chaired by the secretary of the DAE, is effectively charged with regulating its own boss. Moreover, some of the most hazardous facilities operated by the DAE — reprocessing plants — do not even come under the AERB.

In its defence to the PAC, the DAE invoked the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill that was introduced in Parliament in 2011. This Bill, whose stated objective is to establish a statutory regulatory body to replace the AERB, is yet to be passed. However, the text of the draft Bill reflects the unwillingness of the government to countenance a genuinely independent regulator.

For example, the Bill states the new “Authority shall … be bound by such directions on questions of policy as the central government may give in writing to it from time to time”. Further, “the decision of the central government whether a question is one of policy or not shall be final”. In other words, if a pesky Authority questions, say, the decision to import an untested nuclear reactor, the government can silence it simply by declaring that the matter is one of ‘policy’. This clause profoundly undermines the independence of the Authority.

Another structural problem with the proposed NSRA is that all its members will be “appointed by the central government on the recommendations of the search committees.” However, these committees will be constituted by the “Council of Nuclear Safety”, which will comprise seven Union ministers, the secretary of the DAE, and the Cabinet secretary. So, in effect, the government will have complete control over the appointment process, and can use it to appoint pliant technocrats.

The Bill also seeks to amend the Right to Information Act (RTI), to exclude various classes of information available to the Authority from its purview. This is ostensibly meant to protect commercially and strategically ‘sensitive’ details. But, as the central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi noted, the existing provisions in the RTI Act already provide “adequate protection for … legitimate needs”. In a letter to the PM, he termed these amendments “regressive” and said that this “clause will be used as a shield to prevent disclosure … relating to even allegations of human rights violation and corruption”.

Such secrecy does not engender confidence. The Indian atomic energy establishment has the habit of forming committees of ‘experts’ that deliberate in secret, and then emerge to declare that the highest standards of safety are being met. Instead of cosseting this tendency, the government could move towards transparency in the NSRA by creating a role for independent experts, nominated by local civil society, in the assessment of any project.

There is enough scientific expertise in India to make this feasible. These citizen-nominated experts could be scientists from another field, and do not need to be nuclear engineers to understand a specific safety-related discussion, and contribute with a fresh perspective.

Speaking at the inauguration of the Gorakhpur nuclear plant in Haryana last month, the prime minister claimed that “we constantly compare our safety standards against other countries to ensure that India is counted amongst the best countries in the world in this area”. But India is in violation of a key commitment it made while joining the International Convention on Nuclear Safety, which calls on its signatories to take ‘the appropriate steps to ensure an effective separation between the functions of the regulatory body and those of any other body … concerned with the promotion …of nuclear energy’. The fact that the Manmohan Singh government has forged ahead with its plans for a nuclear expansion without taking even this elementary precaution reveals its true attitude towards nuclear safety.

Suvrat Raju is a physicist with the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bangalore and MV Ramana is physicist at Princeton University, USA