A planned move to bolster India’s nuclear regulatory mechanism continues to hang fire, even as the NDA government has reiterated that efforts to draft a fresh legislation for converting the functional independence of the country’s atomic regulator into a ‘de jure’ independence with statutory backing is work-in-progress.
The proposed Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill is seen as a crucial step in strengthening the functional independence of the country’s atomic regulator and give it the necessary statutory backing. Currently, the national nuclear regulator Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), established in 1983 through a gazette notification, is entrusted with the task of regulating the safety aspects of the country’s civilian nuclear facilities and overseeing the opening up of a civil nuclear market that has an estimated business potential of $60-100 billion. The new NSRA Bill signals India’s decision to accord a statutory status to the AERB, which was set up through an executive order, and make it completely independent of the Department of Atomic Energy. In its current form, the head of the AERB reports to the Atomic Energy Commission, which incidentally is headed by the Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy.
The move to reintroduce the legislation comes in the wake of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) having, after a 12-day review of Indian nuclear regulatory establishment in March 2015, strongly flagged the need for an independent statutory atomic regulator in India and the delinking of the AERB from the rest of the country’s nuclear establishment. The UPA government had introduced the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill, 2011, in the Lok Sabha on September 7, 2011, but the Bill could not be taken up for consideration due to dissolution of Fifteenth Lok Sabha. After the NDA government took office in May 2014, it had stated that it would work on introducing a reworked Bill. On the current status of the bill, a government official involved in the exercise said: “A fresh Bill on the lines of the one introduced earlier, is currently under examination.”
The legislative frameworks under which global nuclear regulators such as the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), and the Nuclear Directorate within the United Kingdom Health & Safety Executive offer near complete functional and operational autonomy for the regulator.
These include the guarantee of their independent statutory status, their mandate to keep the public fully informed on matters of nuclear safety, sharing of joint responsibility to ensure physical security of installations, the authority to penalise offenders who violate the provisions of the act, and the submission of annual reports of their activities to their respective legislatures.
In India, the way things stand currently, the AERB lacks that sort of autonomy. “By enacting NSRA Act, the functional independence of AERB will be converted into de jure independence,” an official involved in the exercise said. There are sections within the government that feel that the AERB already enjoys functional autonomy and the legislation is only aimed at converting this to a ‘de jure’ independence. “The Government is fully conscious of the importance of the role of regulator for promotion of safe use of nuclear and radiation technology. While the process of setting up of NSRA is underway, it may be noted that as the AERB is fully competent and geared to meet the requirements of enforcing safety standards and regulations of the functioning of nuclear power plants in the country. AERB is functionally independent from the Government and the facilities it regulates, and has adequate powers with respect to its mandate of enforcing safety regulation of nuclear and radiation facilities,” the minister of state for personnel, public grievances and pensions and PMO, Jitendra Singh, said on April 12 as part of his response to a question on the issue in the Lok Sabha.
The demand for establishing a truly autonomous nuclear regulator goes back a long way. In 1997, the Raja Ramanna Committee report had recommended that the Atomic Energy Act (1962) should be amended to bolster the effectiveness of the nuclear regulatory mechanism in the country. Subsequently, in the year 2000, even though the Union government had directed the Department of Atomic Energy to suggest the necessary amendments to the 1962 Act, not much happened for nearly a decade. A combination of the Mayapuri radiation accident in Delhi in 2010 and the Fukushima disaster in Japan a year later forced a rethink on the need for a strong regulatory establishment. In 2011, the NSRA Bill was drafted by the DAE and submitted to the Union Cabinet for approval and introduced in the Lok Sabha in September that year.
The lack of functional autonomy of the Indian nuclear regulator has been flagged as a concern, both by global nuclear vendors and the international atomic sector watchdog. The IAEA was categorical in its assertion that while India had a “strong commitment to safety,” the AERB needed more independence and separation from the government.
The IAEA’s review report submitted after completing its 12-day review of India’s nuclear safety standards in March 2015, which was done at the request of AERB and included interviews and discussions with regulatory staff and site visits. The review, which coincided with the IAEA’s Director General Yukiya Amano visiting Mumbai, Delhi and Rajasthan, also flagged the need for the Indian government to allow more on-site inspections at the nuclear power plants under international safeguards.