Indian Nuclear Reform Falls Short

From almost the dawn of the nuclear age, India has been among the countries with the highest ambitions for what was called "the peaceful atom." It remains firmly committed to a long-term program of conventional reactor and advanced reactor development which could, in principle, help satisfy the fast-growing nation's thirst for electricity and help quench greenhouse gas emissions. Yet no other country's actual nuclear achievements have so consistently fallen short of goals. As M.V. Ramana observed of India in a 2007 article in IEEE Spectrum, "Early on, the country's top nuclear officials forecast that by 1987 nuclear energy would generate 20 to 25 gigawatts of electricity. Later estimates inflated that figure to 43.5 GW by the year 2000. Today, India's 17 reactors generate 4.1 GW, a mere 3 percent of the country's total electricity-generating capacity."

Obviously India, with one of the world's best networks of technology institutes and a huge pool of highly qualified engineers, is capable of doing better. Yet unrealistic objectives, poorly conceived organization, and chronically inadequate management continue to dog the program. Thus, a recent review of India's Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) by the country's Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) finds drastic shortcomings.

CAG's objectives were to determine whether AERB has a strong enough legal status, has been able to develop safety policies as needed, regulate nuclear utilities effectively, and ensure compliance with its rulings, monitor and regulate radiation exposure of workers and public, put emergency plans into effect, prepare for reactor decommissioning, and maintain adequate liaison with relevant international bodies.

What did CAG uncover? In a nutshell, it found that:

  • "the legal status of [India's] AERB continues to be that of an authority subordinate to the central government";
  • AERB had "failed to prepare a nuclear and radiation safety policy for the country in spite of a specific [1983] mandate";
  • AERB "had no direct role in conducting independent assessment and monitoring to ensure radiological protection of workers";
  • AERB had "no proper mechanisms in place" to provide of safe disposal of nuclear waste, guarantee safe transport of wastes, and see that "radioactive sources did not get out of regulatory control."

Additionally, CAG concluded that AERB "was slow in adopting international benchmarks and good practices in the areas of nuclear and radiation operation."

At the heart of the problem, says Ramana in a recent commentary, is that even though the AERB is supposedly independent of the government's Department of Atomic Energy, in fact it is not. It reports to the Atomic Energy Commission, and, by law, the chairman of the AEC also is minister of atomic energy. A reform law proposed in 2011 would improve the situation only marginally, says Ramana, who is a physicist working at the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University. While the AERB would be replaced by a new Nuclear Safety Council, chaired by the prime minister, the AEC chairman would continue to sit ex officio on that council. Thus, "many of the key processes involved in ensuring effective regulation will continue to be controlled by the AEC."

There's another big problem that the CAB report does not address explicitly, as Ramana observes, though its presence runs implicitly through many findings. The AERB has suffered from a lack of technical staff and technical facilities, which partly accounts for why it never prepared an overall nuclear safety policy to "give structure to practical radiation safety planning at lower levels" (Ramana), and why it has not paid any attention to reactor decommissioning.

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