Subsidising Nuclear Hazards

The government’s attempt to ram through the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, which limits damage responsibility and compensation, is egregious

Damage to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine is seen after the explosion that claimed thousands of lives in 1986. VOLODYMYR REPIK/AP PHOTO
01 April, 2010

THE ABJECT, CRAVEN MANNER in which the government has capitulated to pressure from multinationals—in particular, American ones—and Indian corporations where it comes to capping liability for nuclear accidents is both shocking and unparalleled. It’s as if the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill were drafted by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, which last year set up a Working Group headed by nuclear industry executives to demand just such legislation. The bill will earn the government nothing but discredit and set an egregious legal precedent, imperilling public safety.

The bill sets an unconscionably low cap on the total liability for a nuclear accident (300 million Special Drawing Rights or about 23 billion rupees) and an even lower five billion rupees on the operator’s liability. The difference is to be made up by the government, that is, the public, which isn’t even remotely responsible for any mishap that may occur. The total liability is infinitesimal in relation to the likely damage from a catastrophic accident like Chernobyl, which would run into hundreds of billions of SDRs, or quadrillions of rupees. Some 65,000 people perished in Chernobyl, mainly from radiation-induced cancers, and the estimated damage runs into 250 billion dollars. If a Chernobyl were to occur in Germany, it could wreak losses of 2-6 trillion dollars, wiping out the country’s annual GDP, according to an independent expert study.

Yet, a Chernobyl, or a core-meltdown accident, can happen in each of the world’s existing 430-odd nuclear-power reactors regardless of their design or configuration. That includes the bulk of Indian nuclear reactors, based on the Canadian natural uranium-heavy water design.

Although the likelihood of such a catastrophic accident is low, the consequences are enormous. The possible occurrence of a core meltdown is in and of itself a clinching argument against capping nuclear liability in the first place. Liability must be open-ended and unlimited because it is impossible to accurately forecast the extent of damage. The gross, orders-of-magnitude disproportion between the scale of potential damage and the absurdly low total liability proposed in the bill—not to mention the embarrassing five billion rupees operator liability—makes matters even worse. This flaw cannot be corrected by, say, raising the operator liability by 50 or even 100 percent, or by creating a compensation pool across all nuclear reactors, as the government is reportedly proposing to do.

In keeping with this obnoxious approach, the bill exempts nuclear equipment manufacturers and suppliers from liability and limits jurisdiction to India, even though the released radioactivity will be carried beyond our boundaries. Equally outrageous is the time-barring of compensation claims to 10 years, although many forms of radiation injury are revealed 15 to 20 years after exposure. The bill makes nonsense of the notions of absolute and strict liability based on the Precautionary Principle and the Polluter Pays Principle, elaborated in numerous Supreme Court judgments, which interpret these tenets as drawing from the Constitution’s Articles 21 (right to life) and 47 and 48A (safeguarding the environment and public health).

Apologists for the bill cannot answer these weighty objections. They do, however, advance three lame pleas. First, some other countries, too, have liability caps and adhere to the 1960 Paris Convention on ‘third-party liability’ and the 1963 Vienna Convention on Civil Liability. Second, India isn’t acting under US government or industry pressure. And, third, absent a liability cap, foreign and domestic private industry won’t invest in nuclear power.

These arguments are specious. The four-decade old Paris and Vienna conventions were meant to subsidise nuclear power at a time when it was considered safe, ‘too cheap to meter’ and vastly beneficial. The Convention on Supplementary Compensation, ratified by just four countries, falls in that category. Generous subsidies were granted to nuclear power in the US, Europe and Japan. The scales have since fallen off the global public’s eyes. Nuclear power has turned out the greatest industrial disaster in history and lost over one trillion dollars in subsidies, abandoned projects and accidents.

Many developed countries (Germany, Japan, Austria, Sweden) impose unlimited liability on the operator, supplier, transporter, etc. Some demand a security deposit of three billion dollars. If a serious accident were to occur in an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) country, low liability caps would certainly be abandoned while compensating victims. Liability law has evolved way beyond the heady nuclear 1950s-1960s.

It’s true that the bill doesn’t mention the US. But American officials and corporations have openly lobbied for it—to the point that former Ambassador David Mulford demanded an emergency ordinance. One only has to read the statements of Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake and the US-India Business Council in confirmation. The fact is that the US, having given India the nuclear deal, now wants to extract nuclear contracts for American corporations.

The plea that there will be no nuclear power investment without liability caps begs the question: Do we need nuclear power with all its high costs, huge hazards—routine radiation releases, accident-proneness and problems of high-level wastes which remain dangerous for millennia, and to which science has no safe storage solution? The question must be soberly debated in the light of our real energy needs (which are decentralised and demand high peaking-loads which nuclear power cannot deliver), and the maturing of safe and economically competitive renewables like wind and, increasingly, solar energy.

Contrary to propaganda, nuclear power isn’t the energy source of the future, it’s in crisis. The world’s most nuclear-addicted nation until the 1960s, the US, hasn’t ordered a single new reactor since 1973. In Western Europe, nuclear power is in retreat, with only one post-Chernobyl market-driven project. Located in Finland, it too is in trouble: 60 percent over-budget, almost four years behind schedule and under regulatory agency interrogation in France, Britain and Finland.

It is totally unethical and politically unacceptable to subsidise a 60-year-old technology that has exhausted its potential. We must not pamper any industry, least of all a hazardous one like nuclear power. What we need is stringent audit and independent regulation of the nuclear industry and an unlimited liability law.