'Clause 17 (b) will be of no use if ...'

Dr B B Singh

Dr B B Singh, a nuclear physicist who retired as Head of Radiation Biology and Biochemistry Division of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), and who specialised in patents and Science/Technology related law, has done analysis of the draft Bill and provided inputs to the parliamentary standing committees on energy and S&T.
He explained to Parag Rabade of Deccan Herald that the operator, in this case NPCIL, will have to periodically upgrade spares and even equipment in imported nuclear reactors as will be stipulated in the agreement between the suppliers and the operator. If the operator fails to do that, then Clause 17 (b) will be of no use, and the responsibility will fall squarely upon the operator. Excerpts of an interview:

Are you happy with the current form of the Bill as passed by Lok Sabha after 18 amendments?

At the moment, I am not very unhappy. The parliamentary committee did a commendable job. I was against any liability bill in the first place. The Bill has come under American pressure. India is a vast nuclear market of around $200 billion. The US intends to corner a major chunk of it since it has huge stocks of reactor grade surplus uranium.

The US nuclear liability law, called the Price-Anderson Act, had initially fixed the operator’s liability at $60 million and the government’s $500 million. In subsequent years, operator’s liability was increased and government’s reduced. In the 2005 amendment, the
US government’s share became zero and the total liability of the operator increased to $10.761 billion. The American suppliers insisted on the Indian Bill and capping of liability so as to escape their own laws.

Critics say Clause 17 (b) allowing operators the right of recourse to liability will scare away foreign suppliers.

We wanted it. Many impractical things are put as psychological deterrent. For example, are we going to use an atom bomb anytime in future?

But does that stop us from developing nuclear weapons? These are meant for strategic deterrence. Similarly, these clauses, even if they are unimplementable.

Can a defect in an equipment supplied by foreign vendors be identified after successfully operating a reactor for long periods?

I can identify a defective part only when there is a mishap. Importantly, the operator will not continue with the same part for all the plant life. The screws and other spares will need to be replaced from time to time. For every part or equipment, there is a guarantee period. It will be operator’s fault to continue with the same  equipment beyond the stipulated period.

The replacement of parts will depend upon what is stated in the agreement between the suppliers and the operator for each part or even reactors. The suppliers must insist upon it in their agreement with the operator.

It is argued that due to Clause 17(b), the suppliers will have to take insurance cover for a longer period, the burden of which will be passed on.

Why pay high premia to insurance companies when the chances of a nuclear reactor mishap is one in a million? Instead, the government can collect an annual licence fee from the operator. The gestation period of a nuclear reactor is seven years. Suppose a licence fee of Rs 100 crore is levied on the operator, then the government will get Rs 700 crore even before the reactor starts working. This suggestion has been incorporated by creating a nuclear liability fund.

It is surprising that we trust foreign private industry and buy everything, from reactors to tanks to aeroplanes. Why not trust Indian private industry?

Our safety aspects (in operating nuclear plants) are phenomenal. There has been no mishap in past 40 years. That standard cannot be maintained by private operators. Tata, Reliance may say they have technology, but they will mess it up. Let the industry mature. Most of the suppliers of India's nuclear programme are indigenous private industry. I am not saying that they should never come. But let the time come.

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