'The liability clause may harm India's nuclear programme'

'The liability clause may harm India's nuclear programme'

In 2001, he took over as the director general of the World Nuclear Association, a London-based organisation that promotes nuclear energy and supports the global nuclear industry. In an interview with Anirban Bhaumik of Deccan Herald, Ritch articulates his concerns about India’s much-debated Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act and the country’s nuclear programme. He strongly disapproves of the provision in the Act for suppliers’ liability, though even in the US, the individual operator’s (not the government) liability is fixed at $10 billion “without the fault needing to be proven.”

Excerpts:

How do you see India’s Nuclear Liability Act?

I believe that the Act, if not amended, may inflict tremendous harm on the prospects for successful development of nuclear power in the country. This greatly troubles me, as someone who has worked for many years, both as President Clinton’s representative to the IAEA and later as head of the WNA, to open the gates for peaceful nuclear commerce between India and the rest of the world.

India simply cannot succeed in creating an India-specific system of nuclear liability of a kind considered and rejected by the world long ago. The Act contravenes the most essential principles that guide international nuclear liability agreements and the domestic laws of other countries with nuclear power programmes. Everywhere else in the world, civil liability for nuclear accidents is channelled solely to the operator, ensuring speedy resolution of any liability claim. If a supplier is potentially liable, it could take years to resolve compensation claims. The only beneficiaries would be the lawyers.

Why do you think the supplier should not be held liable for latent or patent defects in the equipment and sub-standard services supplied by him?

What seems missing in the Indian debate is adequate appreciation of the responsible role of the nuclear regulator as an arm of the national government. Unlike any other infrastructure project, every aspect of construction of a nuclear power plant, from the quality of components — including those produced abroad — to the quality of construction, is supervised by the national regulator against the most rigorous standards.

By the time a plant starts up and then begins commercial operation, the operator and the regulator will each have had ample time and every opportunity to scrutinise the plant. If there are patent or latent defects or sub-standard services in a nuclear power plant, that most certainly reflects adversely on the national regulator. If defects show up during commissioning, the supplier has to fix them. But once the plant is handed over with the regulator’s approval, any subsequent defects represent a failure of the owner and regulator.

The nuclear mishaps in Chernobyl and Three Miles Island are often cited to make out a case against nuclear energy and the safety of nuclear plants...
Chernobyl in 1986 was a tragic example of a plant that should never have been built.

There is no way such a plant design would survive scrutiny by any national nuclear regulator today. The 1979 accident in the state-of-the-art Three Miles Island plant was damaging to itself, but caused no death or injury to anyone. Considering the world’s needs — and India’s — in the 21st century, nuclear power plants are demonstrably the safest way of generating electricity on a large scale. The world now has more than 14,000 reactor-years of safe and successful operation to back that claim.

Why do you think nuclear energy is an option India should urgently prioritise to meet its energy demand?

Nuclear power is the only safe and emission-free source of large-scale energy that India needs. And India now has access to nuclear fuel abundantly available in international markets. India has led the world in exploring use of thorium as a nuclear fuel, and will surely be a major originator of other innovations in nuclear technology. India should maximise the use of nuclear power to energise an expanding national economy and it seems fully committed to, and capable of adhering to, the highest standards of nuclear safety and power plant management.

How do you see India doing nuclear business with other countries?

The US-India deal and the associated agreement within the NSG served to level a playing field that had been unfairly tilted against India. This was a great step forward and it can enable India take its proper place as a leader in the world nuclear power industry. For the time being, unfortunately, we have not seen much progress on these lines, mainly because of the unresolved issue of liability.

Do you think India’s stand on non-proliferation and disarmament continues to hinder the country’s effort for cooperation with rest of the world to augment its civil nuclear capacity?

Much of the world now wishes to enter into civil nuclear cooperation with India. It simply makes sense for India to avoid steps that might undermine this progress. India’s internationally well-recognised nonproliferation record provided an important basis for the US-India deal and should be reinforced. We want to see, in line with established norms and safeguards, a world of unrestricted trade in materials and equipment for civil nuclear power, and India a leader in that world, both in utilising this invaluable technology and in helping other nations to do so.

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