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India: contamination & liability issue

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
South Asians Against Nukes

Excessive exposure to radioactivity was reported late November 2009, by workers of the nuclear power station at Kaiga near Bangalore, India. According to official figures, over 55 workers had to be hospitalised. The incident had created a big scare in the country that has witnessed one the world's worst industrial accidents at the former Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal. Meanwhile, Indian cabinet has approved a legislation to be introduced in parliament on civil nuclear liability, demanded by the U.S..

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put on a brave face and said he had received a briefing from aides about the Kaiga contamination. He said, "It is a small matter of contamination and is not linked to any leak. There is nothing to worry. All our systems are intact and under control. An inquiry has been ordered."

The contamination was first detected November 24, when the results of routine urine tests of employees working in the service building showed higher than normal traces of tritium. After checks at all plant systems found radiation levels to be normal, the source of the contamination was zeroed in on a water cooler located in the service building. Out of the 800 employees in the vicinity of the cooler, 92 had "higher than normal" tritium content in their urine samples.

The theory went that an insider had mixed radioactive tritium in drinking water in a cooler kept in the operating island. The reactor was under annual maintenance. Former chief of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Anil Kakodkar had told the State-run media, PTI, "Somebody deliberately put the tritiated water vials into a drinking water cooler." He said the AEC was investigating "who is behind the malevolent act". Kakodkar happens to be the key negotiator from the Indian side to almost wrap up the controversial India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is the agency tasked with ensuring radiation safety in India. In an official report in February 2001, the AERB revealed that workers received collective radiation dose that was three times the internationally permitted level. The administration slammed Dr SP Sukhatme, AERB chief, who urged the NPCIL to act upon the excessive tritium leakages from the heavy water in power stations.

On January 12, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Srikumar Banerjee announced again that the country plans to have 35,000 Mw of installed nuclear capacity by 2020 and 60,000 Mw by 2032. He said India would set up five 'energy parks' by 2032 with a 40,000 Mw to 45,000 Mw total capacity.

India is well known (as many other countries) to make completely unrealistic plans regarding nuclear new build. The current total nuclear capacity is around 4000 Mw (19 reactors).

Meanwhile, in December the cabinet has approved a legislation to be introduced in parliament on civil nuclear liability. Such a bill is being brought to meet the demand of the United States that a law be enacted to protect the US suppliers of nuclear equipment from liability to pay compensation in the case of a nuclear accident. The US has linked the completion of the Indo-US nuclear agreement to India's capping of nuclear liability and that is why the hasty move to introduce this in parliament. The UPA government had, already before the ratification of the 123 agreement, given a written commitment that India will buy 10,000 MW of nuclear reactors from US companies. The nuclear liability regime, demanded by the United States, is to put a cap on the liability of nuclear operators and also remove all liabilities of the equipment suppliers.

The suppliers’ liability is also being considerably weakened in the proposed bill. Instead of the normal contract law, where recourse of the operator to claim damages is inherent, the bill limits this recourse only if it is explicitly mentioned in the contract. Otherwise, the nuclear operator cannot claim compensation from the supplier of equipment even if it is shown to be faulty. It is evident that contracts for buying US nuclear reactors will explicitly exclude any liability on the part of the supplier and therefore by the law to be adopted they will go scot free even if an accident occurs due to a defect in the equipment supplied by a US company.

It is imperative that parliament reject this legislation when it is presented. All political parties represented in parliament will have to take a stand in defence of the basic interests of the Indian people.

Sources: Business Standard (india), 11 January 2010; Hardnews, January 2010;  People's Democracy, 20 December 2009; Thaindian News, 30 November 2009; IAEA PRIS reactor database
Contact: South-Asians Against Nukes, SAAN,