Marking a renewed effort to bolster India’s nuclear regulatory mechanism, the NDA government is in advanced stages of readying a new legislation — the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, 2015. The Bill, prepared after a fresh round of inter-ministerial consultations and expected to be re-introduced in Parliament after the completion of necessary pre-legislative formalities, is seen as a crucial step towards converting the functional independence of the country’s atomic regulator into a ‘de jure’ independence with statutory backing.
The move to reintroduce the legislation comes at a time when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had, after a 12-day review of Indian nuclear regulatory establishment in March this year, strongly flagged the need for an independent statutory atomic regulator in India and the delinking of the regulator — the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (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.
Currently, the 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 way things stand currently, the AERB lacks autonomy as it has to report to the Atomic Energy Commission. “By enacting NSRA Act, the functional independence of AERB will be converted into de jure independence. With the formation of the 16th Lok Sabha, the new Bill is at an advanced stage of processing for reintroduction after a fresh round of inter-ministerial consultations,” an official involved in the exercise said.
The demand for establishing a truly autonomous nuclear regulator has been hanging fire for some time. 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, 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.
According to a release from the IAEA in Vienna, six preliminary suggestions were given at the end of the review which were accepted by the Indian agency.
“The AERB should review the implementation of its policy and existing arrangements to ensure it maintains independence in the performance of its regulatory functions,” it said. The chairman of the AERB, SS Bajaj, was quoted as saying, “AERB is committed to pursuing the improvements suggested by the mission towards further strengthening the regulatory framework.”
The new NSRA Bill signals India’s decision to accord a statutory status to the AERB, which was set up in 1983 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 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.
The DAE’s official stance has been that the AERB already enjoys functional autonomy and the legislation is only aimed at converting this to a ‘de jure’ independence.
“The AERB has well established policies governing regulation of nuclear and radiation safety and has all the necessary functional autonomy for conducting the safety reviews and regulatory control of the nuclear and radiation facilities in India. The AERB’s functional autonomy and robust policies in regulating nuclear and radiation safety are also evident from the very good safety performance of the nuclear facilities which is on par with the international benchmarks,” an official said.