|If Europe can do nuclear business with no strings attached, why is India bowing to US pressure on the N-liability Bill?
HAVE WE learnt nothing from Bhopal and the quarter-century of injury, ignominy, and insult to which the victims of the world’s worst chemical accident were subjected? Have we forgotten how comprehensively this society’s medical establishment, relief agencies, higher judiciary and political leadership failed the 100,000-plus Bhopalis who suffered enormous chemical damage to their lungs, kidneys and reproductive, digestive and immune systems, but received an appalling Rs 25,000? Do we recognise how abysmally ill-prepared India is, with its bad safety culture, poor infrastructure and emergencyresponse systems, to handle a major accident which exposes the public to toxins?
Going by the zeal with which the government is pushing the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, we have learnt nothing, yet our establishment continues to be in denial about India’s disaster-proneness. The government pretends that it cares deeply about the ordinary public’s welfare and knows how to protect it against mishaps. It so pretended in 1984 too when it invoked the dubious parens patriae (the state as the people’s guardian) doctrine to appropriate the Bhopal victims’ legal rights — only to betray them through a paltry, collusive settlement.
The N-Bill is incurably flawed. Its purpose is to artificially limit the liability for the potentially huge damage a nuclear accident is liable to cause, to let the designers, manufacturers and suppliers of nuclear plants off the hook by channelling liability solely to the operator, and to force the public to pick up the nuclear industry’s tab.
The Bill is against the law, against the constitutional right to life, against principles of accountability and against the public interest. Its most objectionable feature is also its fundamental one. It sets a limit on the liability for a potentially catastrophic mishap in an industry known to be highly hazardous and accident-prone.
Nuclear power generation is the only form of energy production which can cause a catastrophe through a release of radioactivity — a potent, long-acting killer, made more insidious by its invisibility and intangibility, which was recently highlighted by the Cobalt-60 episode in Delhi. The radioactivity released in a major mishap is liable to make hundreds of thousands of square kilometres uninhabitable for centuries. The probability of a catastrophic nuclear accident is admittedly low, but the consequences are unacceptably large — hundreds of early deaths from burns and radiation poisoning, tens of thousands from cancers over decades, extensive contamination of the environment, poisoning of crops, trees and animal life. The economic damage from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, in which an estimated 65,000 people died from radiationinduced cancers, is $350 billion.
It is in principle wrong to cap nuclear liability. Doing so violates two vital tenets: the Precautionary Principle and the Polluter Pays Principle. The first says no activity with potentially large, inadequately understood hazards should be undertaken. Under the second, those causing damage must fully compensate the public.
These cardinal principles and the absolute liability notion have been upheld by the Supreme Court in numerous judgments as deriving from Articles 21 (right to life), 47 and 48A (improving public health and safeguarding the environment). In 1996, the Court held: “Once the activity carried on is… potentially hazardous, the person carrying on such activity is liable to make good the loss… irrespective [of] whether he took reasonable care…”
The nuclear liability Bill violates these principles. It sets an arbitrary, artificially low limit on liability (300 million Special Drawing Rights or about Rs 2,300 crore) and an even lower Rs 500 crore on the operator’s liability. The difference is to be made up by the government — you and me, who are not even remotely responsible for the mishap. This is outrageous.
THE BILL lets suppliers and designers of nuclear equipment off the liability hook. Under the notions of absolute and strict liability, and product liability, they must pay damages in case the equipment (eg: the reactor) is poorly designed or manufactured. It would be extremely anomalous if the cause of a nuclear accident lies in faulty design or manufacturing, but only the operator is held liable. Equally obnoxious is the clause that the liability span be limited to 10 years: many forms of radiation injury, including cancer and genetic damage, reveal themselves only 20 years after exposure.
Clearly, the Bill is designed to shield the nuclear industry from discharging its public responsibility. Its origins go back to two conventions of the early 1960s: the rich-country OECD-sponsored 1960 Paris Convention and the 1963 Vienna Convention.
|CHERNOBYL’S ECONOMIC DAMAGE IS $350 BILLION. THE BILL WILL LIMIT OPERATOR LIABILITY TO ONLY RS 500 CRORE
This was a period when the hope was manufactured that nuclear power would be safe, economical (“too cheap to meter”) and abundant. The promise has been betrayed. Not even a tenth of the projected increase in nuclear power has materialised. The US, once the world’s leading nuclearpower nation, has not ordered a single new reactor since 1973. Nuclear power’s contribution to global electricity generation is stagnant, while safe, non-polluting solar and wind energy are growing at 20 percent-plus annually.
Nuclear power represents the greatest industrial failure in world history. According to US-based energy expert Amory Lovins, it has lost $1 trillion globally. Subsidising a hazardous technology like nuclear power was wrong even in the early 1960s. It’s grotesque to do so today when the technology is 60 years old and has probably exhausted its potential. There is no safe way of storing radioactive waste, which remains hazardous for thousands of years. Imagine a leak from a waste repository 100 years after the actual reactor has been shut down. Who would be liable? Under the Bill, not the plant operator, but the public.
However, the UPA government has latched on to the 1997 Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC) for Nuclear Damage sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as if it enjoyed wide acceptance. In reality, only 13 countries have signed the CSC, which hasn’t come into force. The IAEA is no neutral agency. Its mandate is to promote nuclear power. It has consistently trivialised the seriousness of the Chernobyl accident. The CSC raises the compensation only marginally to $986 million.
The sole justification offered for the Bill is that without a low liability cap, no foreign nuclear entrepreneur will invest in India. This argument begs the question as to whether we need nuclear power at all, and at what cost. The Bill represents capitulation to US and Indian corporate pressure. US officials and industry groups have been lobbying hard for it. The Americans, having given India the nuclear deal, now want to extract collusive business contracts via the Bill. We must prevent such collusion by scrapping it.