Lacunas in the nuclear liability bill need to be addressed

After in-depth discussion at a roundtable on the nuclear liability bill, the participants agreed that the bill in its present form has several lacunas which need to be addressed. And, an effort could be made to make the bill comprehensive in its reach.

Amidst the intense discourse over the need to have a legislation to help deter nuclear disasters and ensure enough compensation to the victims in case of an accident, in the background of our horrible experiences following the Bhopal gas tragedy and the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Observer Research Foundation organised a roundtable on the proposed ‘The Civil Liability of Nuclear Damage Bill 2010’ on July 13, 2010.

The discussion began with a presentation titled ‘Nuclear: Unclear’ based on a SWOT analysis by Mr. Manoj Kumar, Managing Partner of law firm Hammurabi and Solomon.

Emphasising the need to have a legal architecture to provide an insurance cover to the victims of a nuclear catastrophe, the presentation mainly focused on the legal aspects of the bill. While acknowledging the growing demand for nuclear power, which is estimated to almost double in the next few years, Mr. Manoj Kumar discussed the framework of several treaties and conventions of international law relating to nuclear liability operating in different countries.

The discussion following the presentation mainly laid emphasis on the implementation part of the bill. The speakers said there is a need to align the bill with certain social and environmental objectives which have been ignored in the present bill. Moreover, involvement of all stakeholders is necessary for the success of the bill. They said in the present bill, the list of stakeholders is very selective. They pointed out that the definition of the term ‘nuclear incident’ is faulty and vague and needs amendment. The ‘preventive measures’ are not foolproof and ‘operator’s responsibility’ is ill-defined which may enable him to escape his liabilities in case of a nuclear accident. Moreover, the meaning of the term ‘operator’ is misleading as there are not many private players in the nuclear fray in the country. At present, all the nuclear plants are government-owned entities.

One of the speakers pointed out that no provision has been made in the bill to fix the ‘supplier’s liability’ which is crucial to prevent any major nuclear catastrophes. He said no matter how efficient and diligent was the operator, operating under the best of international standards on nuclear safety, accident is bound to happen if the quality of the material supplied is bad and the design of the reactor faulty.

However, some speakers argued that the aim of this bill is to fix the compensation part for the victims with a ‘single window’ to address their grievances, by doing away with unnecessary lengthy legal hassles and providing them. And making provision for the ‘supplier’s liability’ would only provide an excuse to the ‘operator’ to shift his/her responsibility to others in case of an accident.

Some participants expressed the concern that the bill, when implemented, should not be manipulated by the government to set a limit on the financial insurance to the victims at Rs.500 crores only. They said the bill should be flexible enough to adjust its limits on providing financial compensation depending upon the magnitude and the seriousness of the crisis.

After views and counterviews during the in-depth discussion, all the speakers agreed that the bill in its present form has several lacunas which need to be addressed. And, an effort could be made to make the bill comprehensive in its reach.

In the roundtable, chaired by Mr. Sunjoy Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, ORF, the key participants were Mr. Manish Tiwari, Member of Parliament and a Supreme Court lawyer; Mr. Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Member of Parliament, Mr. Ashok Parthasarathy, former Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, former India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ms. Arundhati Ghosh, former ambassador Mr. Dilip Lahiri, representatives from think tanks, officials of nuclear firms and other experts.

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