Radiation regulatory regime needs independent powers

Radiation and radioactive substances have many beneficial applications, ranging from power generation to uses in manufacturing of medicine, industries and agriculture but the risks that arise are enormous often transcending national borders. Radiation risk management, therefore, necessitates international co-operation to promote and enhance global safety and mitigate harmful consequences. To ensure that the radiation regulator acts independently, countries such as Australia, Canada, France, US and even Pakistan have conferred legal status to their nuclear regulating bodies as stressed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In India, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) was set up in 1983 to carry out the regulatory and safety functions as envisaged in the Atomic Energy Act, 1962. Surprisingly, the AERB remains a subordinate authority under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) though India has ratified the Convention on Nuclear Safety. A regulatory body must be equipped to exercise its key regulatory functions -- namely, standard-setting, authorisation, inspection and enforcement without any constraint -- and must possess the core values of competence, independence, stringency and transparency.

A review of the performance of the AERA recently by parliamentary watchdog Public Accounts Committee (PAC) unfolded glaring deficiencies and lacunae with respect to regulatory framework for nuclear and radiation facilities; development of safety policy, standards and codes; weak monitoring of radiation facilities, etc. AERB’s independence is circumscribed by absence of institutional separation of regulatory and non-regulatory functions; absence of a fixed term for office of chairman AERB; dependence on DAE for budgetary and administrative support; and apparent conflict of responsibilities as the chairman, AERB, reports to the Chairman, AEC.

The penalty for contravention of the provisions of the Act and Rules remains abysmally low, a maximum fine of Rs 500 can be slapped, which by no stretch of imagination can be construed as a deterrent. More so, the penal provisions were never invoked, rendering it virtually a dead letter. The need for hastening the process of development of safety documents, codes, standards, guides and manuals was stressed by the Meckoni Committee report way back in 1987 and the Raja Ramanna Committee in 1997. A consolidated safety policy document is yet to be brought out.

Another serious problem bedeviling the AERB is huge manpower shortage leaving a large gap in the regulating and monitoring regime. This needs to be addressed as the nation can ill-afford to take any risk given the constantly increasing application of radiation especially in the fields like medicine, industry, agriculture. There is no system in place for monitoring the expiry of authorisations and their renewals with instances of protracted delays for periods as long as 24 years.

Alarmingly, 70 out of 135 gamma chamber units continued to function without valid authorisations. Subsequent to the Mayapuri incident of April 2010, AERB has taken steps to ensure that operational gamma chambers are subjected to close regulatory monitoring and non-operational ones are safely disposed of within a reasonable timeframe.

Regulatory mechanism

The PAC noted that the regulatory mechanism concerning X-ray units was virtually non-existent. Out of a total of 57,443 medical X-ray facilities operating in the country, only 5270 units had been registered and were under the regulatory control of AERB, leaving the balance 91 per cent of the total units without registrations. The AERB admitted that with its very limited workforce of engineers and scientists, it was impossible to regulate all the X-ray machines. The marked accelerated growth of ionising radiation, such as medical X-rays used as an essential diagnostic tool pose grave risks to health of workers and the public in the vicinity of these facilities. There was an alarming shortfall of over 97 per cent regulatory inspections in case of diagnostic radiological facilities every year.

The radioactive waste control management of our NPPs and fuel cycle facilities has impeccable record and the same needs to be maintained scrupulously. Given the wide uses of radiation in various fields apart from the state owned NPPs, the AERB should be accorded independent legal status for effective monitoring so as to ensure radiological protection of workers in NPPs, and entrusted with the responsibility of environmental surveillance with the close cooperation of ESLs.

 A comprehensive inventory needs to be prepared to log all radioactive radiation sources across the country indicating the suppliers/manufacturers and suitable awareness created for safe handling and disposal of radioactive waste and updated regularly. We also need to strengthen the regulating aspect of emergency preparedness in the area of other radiation facilities as well; prescribe mandatory safety codes/procedures and emergency preparedness plan based on strict assessment of risk factors; and put in place effective control mechanism for securing compliance to the prescribed safety codes in accord with the Nuclear Safety Convention.

 Effective legislative framework is also required for decommissioning of nuclear power plants (NPPs). Any NPP or nuclear fuel cycle facility, after its life is over, needs to be decommissioned, decontaminated and demolished. The role of AERB with reference to decommissioning also needs to be strengthened.  The committee was assured that this will be done once the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill is enacted in the form recommended by the Standing Committee of Parliament on Science and Technology. One hopes that once the law is enacted, the AERB will take care of all these concerns and it will emerge as an independent and credible nuclear regulatory authority.

(The writer is a joint secretary in the Lok Sabha secretariat)

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