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Is our nuclear regulator independent enough?

Sanjay Jog  |  Mumbai 

Former AERB chief A Gopalakrishnan says it isn’t, others disagree

Indian nuclear scientists are divided on whether the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) can adequately and impartially monitor the sector.

Former AERB chief A Gopalakrishnan is one of them. He says it is nonsense to believe the present AERB structure is up to the job.

The debate was set off by Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s suggestion, in the wake of the Japan’s nuclear crisis, of an independent regulatory body for the sector.

Many at the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Indian Nuclear Society and Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC), have strongly argued the AERB is best-placed to grant, renew, withdraw and revoke consent for nuclear and radiation facilities.

Gopalakrishnan and some others who do not want to be named say Jairam is correct and both AERB and DAE would always protect the interests of NPC as an utility.

‘No change needed’
Not so, say others. S A Bhardwaj, NPC’s director (technical), said: “AERB is as strong as any regulatory body in the world. It is working quite independently and I do not see any reason to have a separate body. For the administrative purpose alone, AERB reports to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), whose chairman is the DAE secretary. AERB enjoys sufficient powers to exercise regulatory and safety functions.”

Adding: “On several occasions in the past, AERB has directed NPC to shut down some plants, stop construction. NPC never challenged those directives and appealed to AEC, as we felt they were quite correct. In my view, AERB is very independent.”

Sudhindra Thakur, Fellow at the NPC, shared Bhardwaj’s view. He said: “In India, AERB reports to AEC, which is a very high-level body, dealing only with policy matters concerning nuclear energy. The responsibility of promotion of nuclear energy wrests with DAE, its departments and companies owned by the Government of India. AERB is a separate body, constituted by GoI specially for executing regulatory and safety functions under the Atomic Energy Act, 1962. This structure provides a total and effective separation to AERB in the regulatory and safety functions.”

Pursuant to the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, the AERB had been designated as the body to grant, renew or revoke any consent for nuclear and radiation facilities. It exercises control over nuclear installations and the use of radioactive substances and radiation generating plants outside such installations.

S K Malhotra, head of the public awareness division and spokesman for DAE, said the latter was the executive body and AERB an independent regulatory body. “AERB reports to AEC, which is an advisory body of politicians, the national security advisor and bureaucrats. AERB is a custodian body which oversees implementation of radiation protection rules and it acts as per the Atomic Energy Act,” he said.

G D Mittal, treasurer of the Indian Nuclear Society and former BARC scientist said: “It hardly matters whether AERB reports to DAE or to the Prime Minister. This is because the people who will head or manage the AERB will be same. So, AERB in the present format is quite independent in its functioning.”

‘Change imperative’
However, Gopalakrishnan contested this. “A captive AERB, with its chairman reporting to the DAE secretary, makes the overall nuclear safety management in India a farce and worthless. I am of the firm view that AERB in the present form is not independent. The AEC chairman, who is also the DAE secretary, is responsible for capacity addition, especially through imported reactors by the Government of India-owned NPC. Therefore, a totally independent regulatory body is required for the Indian nuclear sector and that body should not be headed by former DAE or AEC chiefs and members.”

A distinguished nuclear scientist, who does not want to be named, said an independent regulatory body for the sector was the need of the hour, especially when India planned to increase nuclear capacity through deployment of imported reactors, along with indigenous ones.

He said: “Today, AERB is reporting to AEC, whose chairman is the DAE secretary. There is every possibility that the AEC chairman may pressurise AERB. Therefore, an independent body on the lines of the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission, which reports directly to Parliament, should be established.”

First Published: Mon, March 21 2011. 00:28 IST