K.S. Parthasarathy *
The Mint 16 June 2013 **
Criticizing nuclear power as an inherently dangerous energy source is now a fashion in the world. Such criticism is especially pernicious and misplaced in an energy starved country like India.
One way of holding nuclear energy as an unsafe option is to claim that nuclear regulation in India is weak and the regulatory authority, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), is not independent and is marred with conflicts of interest due to its organizational structure. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In a recent article (Kudankulam: the unsettled queries, Mint, 5 June), M.V. Ramana has tried to attempt to divert readers’ attention from the far-reaching, landmark judgement of the Supreme Court on setting up of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. Based on the existing legal framework, the court decided the unsettled (or settled) queries on matters related to nuclear power in India.
It has been asserted that the apex court ventured beyond its brief and commented on areas that were outside its provenance. This is not true. The unease of Ramana and his fellow activists is understandable. The court only gave judicial sanctity to the necessity of setting up nuclear power plants in India as it is the national policy implemented by the government, which is empowered to do so by the Atomic Energy Act 1962.
The views of anti-nuclear activists are often inconsistent. For example, Ramana does not see anything wrong in the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) inappropriately commenting on how AERB should be structured even when the Parliament is considering a Bill to address the issues effectively.
The fact is that AERB enjoys de facto autonomy. It has shut down operating nuclear power plants, reduced the power of some plants and stopped construction of projects on several occasions when it felt that safety was compromised.
This writer once counted 50 such instances. For example, the Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd (NPCIL) was forced to comply with some of the restrictions prescribed by AERB, a step that led to the loss of millions of rupees in revenue for the former. Had AERB been a toothless body that it often is claimed to be, it could never have ensured such steps. AERB was never found wanting whenever the need arose. In the heat of activism, these inconvenient facts are often ignored.
The apex court did not find any frailty in the legal framework. The assiduously maintained perception of nuclear critics that AERB is not independent did not sway the court. The court determined that for setting up the project, the project proponent took all safety requirements on site and off site and followed the code of practices laid down by AERB, based on nationally and internationally recognized safety methods.
The court relied on the unanimous opinion of expert committees that there will not be any deleterious effects due to radiation from the operation of Kudankulam plant, and that adequate safety measures have already been taken.
Another point of contention among anti-nuclear activists is that there is little nuclear expertise outside the department of atomic energy (DAE) to constitute an independent Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority. This would indeed be an issue if AERB was a toothless body. But, as argued above, this is not the case. AERB has over 220 highly qualified and competently trained officers, over 50 of them with more than 15 years of experience in nuclear and radiation technology.
The court endorsed the stand of AERB and its committee that given the robust safety features of Kudankulam reactors, which belong to generation-III plus category, the recommendations of AERB expert committee are only for safety enhancement as a matter of abundant caution.
AERB has also been faulted for permitting loading of fuel even though the recommendations of its committee had not been fully implemented at Kudankulam.
After the fire incident at the Narora nuclear power in Uttar Pradesh in March 1993, it was felt that roots of the turbine blades of the pressurized heavy water reactors must be inspected. Based on a technical review, AERB allowed Nuclear Power Corp. to shut down the reactors sequentially for inspection and not simultaneously. AERB applied its engineering judgement on the issue and that did not compromise safety in any manner. From this perspective, the happenings at Kudankulam are not unusual or even suspect.
NPCIL got a shot in its arm when the Supreme Court declared that the corporation, while setting up the power plant at Kudankulam, had satisfied environmental principles such as sustainable development, corporate social responsibility, inter- and intragenerational equity and so on to further the implementation of the policy to develop, control and use atomic energy for the welfare of citizens and for the economic growth of the country.
This should rest the fear that establishing a nuclear power plant at Kudankulam will make inroads into the right to livelihood guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. If anything, establishing such a plant will only protect the right to life under this article by achieving larger public interest. The court has said this very clearly.
The court did what was best for the country. If national policies, decided by elected representatives and executed by legally responsible agencies, are challenged on the grounds of perception by small groups, however well-intentioned they may think they are, we will not progress in any field. Ramana advises us passionately, persistently and persuasively. That is to be admired. But we need not accept his advice in national interest. For the moment, Kudankulam is a settled issue.
*K.S. Parthasarathy is a former secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board.