Wednesday, August 18, 2010

union ministers kept away from nuke liability bill

18 Aug 2010


From Our Delhi Bureau

NEW DELHI: With the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science clearing the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill with certain changes in its report tabled in Parliament on Wednesday, decks were clear for its passage next week to show-case for start of nuclear busienss with United States and other nuclear nations during US President Obama's Delhi visit in November.

Though the committee has incorporated amendments necessary to take the BJP on board for getting the Bill passed without any hurdle, it has given a stinking note on how the government did not bother to take into confidence even its own ministries on the draft bill tabled in the Lok Sabha last May 7.

"Ministries of Health and Family Welfare, Agriculture, Labour and Employment, Food and Public Distribution, etc. replied in the negative" when asked if their views were obtained by the government before bringing the bill before Parliament, says the standing committee report tabled in both the Houses amid cries of "BJP-Government trade-off."

In its recommendation, the committee headed by Congress MP Subbarami Reddy says: " future government should consult all such ministries / departments which are even remotely concerned with the provisions of a proposed legislation." The committee, in fact, chose to take opinion of not only experts but also several ministries, including home, water resources, environment, power, and law and justice.

Instead of limiting the nuclear supplier's liability to "wilful act or gross negligence," the committee expanded conditions for his responsibility and suggested that the nuclear plant operator should provide for damages in the contract entered by the nuclear plant operator with the supplier for recovery after compensating the victims in case of any nuclear accident. 

Though the Atomic Energy Act of 1962 prohibits private nuclear power plants, the committee has recommended, as an abandoned precaution, to insert a clause that the bill to be passed applies "only to nuclear installations owned and controlled by the Central Government either by itself or through any authority or corporation established by it or a government company."

"This will make the position clear that there will be no private operator of nuclear  installation," the report said. After tabling the report, Reddy told a Press conference that this clarity was felt necessary as otherwise the government will be bound by the bill to pay liabilities of any private nuclear power plant allowed in future.

Dr Barun Mukherji of Forward Block, who filed a dissent note, was not satisfied even with this clarity as he says the Atomic Energy Act permits private participation in nuclear power generation up to 50 per cent and hence better should be to exclude "joint ventures between private and government companies."

Conceding the BJP's viewpoint, the committee also tweaked the maximum amount of liability in each nuclear incident beyond the Rupee equivalent of 300 million Special Drawing Rights to allow "higher amount as may be notified by the Central Government from time to time." It also raised the operator's liability from Rs 500 crores to Rs 1500 crores as it felt otherwise the low amount will result in the operator "marginalising the issue of safety and security of the nuclear power plant."

The committee also disfavoured powers to the government to increase or decrease the operator's liability through notification, saying the government may increase the amount but in no case it should be allowed to decrease it. 

Responding to the department pleading for powers to reduce the amount of liability in case of many small research reactors, fuel fabrication and reprocessing plants, the committee said the government can create a separate category for such facilities based on the extent of risk involved.

The committee also agreed with experts' suggestion to charge a nominal levy on per unit energy cost from the consumers to create a nuclear liability fund to reduce the government's liability in course of time.

The committee also agreed with the suggestion that the time limit of ten years for making claims from the date of incident is too short for effects like radiation from a nuclear accident and that the right to claim compensation of any nuclear damage for personal injury should be 20 years.

It also faulted two different legal remedies suggested for the victims in the draft bill and recommended that "all the legal remedies available to the victims should be dealt together."  Though a clause in the draft bill has welcome prompt remedy without protracted litigation, the committee said the victims should have right to appeal to the High Court or the Supreme Court if not satisfied with the award given by the claim commissioner or nuclear damage claims commission.

While the original bill makes the supplier liable for damages only in case of "wilful act or gross negligence," the committee felt it would be difficult to prove such an act and hence better would be to slap a clear-cut liability on the supplier of nuclear equipments/ material in case they are found to be defective. Moreover, the doctrine may be okay for criminal and taxation cases but not in working out the compensation.

Accordingly, the committee has recommended that the nuclear incident for which the supplier is to be liable to pay should cover "as a consequence of latent or patent defect, supply of sub-standard material, defective equipment or services or from the gross negligence on the part of the supplier of the material, equipment or services."


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