If all goes well for the Nuclear Law Association (NLA), on March 2, 2013, a sitting judge of the Bombay High Court and the Chairperson of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board will grace the international group’s second annual conference in India. The agenda for the conference titled “India’s nuclear energy sector: Business opportunities and legal challenges” lists Justice Abhay Mahadeo Thipsay as the chair for a session on “Regulatory and stakeholder engagement in nuclear energy projects.” AERB chairperson S.S. Bajaj will deliver the keynote for the session. The original agenda had the Chief Justice of Bombay High Court delivering the Presidential address. But that name has since been dropped.
As part of the program, speakers will talk about lessons for public engagement post-Koodankulam, “tools for [increasing] public acceptance” of nuclear projects, and of course, the controversial Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Act. The AERB chief and Justice Thipsay’s participation at this meeting, if that is indeed confirmed, raises important questions. Would a sitting judge or AERB chief participate or even be allowed to participate in a seminar organised by, say, the Konkan Bachao Samiti to discuss ways of preventing Areva from setting up a nuclear park in Jaitapur? I presume not.
The organiser’s stance on the controversial issue of nuclear energy is evident. Its objective is to smooth out the legal challenges to access the business opportunities presented by India’s promise to ramp up nuclear power from the present 4780 MW to more than 275,000 by 2050. The speakers’ line-up includes officials from the Department of Atomic Energy, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, The Energy Research Institute (formerly Tata Energy Research Institute), Alstom, Areva, NPCIL and L&T. All of them see India’s liability regime for nuclear accidents as overly restrictive and an impediment to investments by nuclear equipment suppliers that are not too confident about the quality of their products.
In all fairness to the Prime Minister, it must be said that he did all he could in his power to respond to the concerns of the nuclear industry. As Suvrat Raju, a physicist and commentator on India’s nuclear programobserves: “Credible governments are those that do not allow domestic political compulsions to prevent them from adhering to American interests.” Indeed, after a heated debate in parliament over the Liability Act resulted in the retention of a clause tenuously holding equipment suppliers liable, the government tried to assert its “credibility” by inserting loopholes in the Rules to the Act. These loopholes are currently being challenged as unconstitutional in the Supreme Court.
The participation of a sitting judge and the chief of AERB in a conference aimed at undoing the India’s nuclear liability regime does not inspire faith in the independence and neutrality of the judiciary and the regulator.Also, while judges and AERB chiefs are entitled to their points of view on these topics, an international conference organised by nuclear lobbyists is not an appropriate forum to air them.
The nuclear debate is an important one, and must be had. But a fair debate cannot be conducted in a vitiated atmosphere. Fisherfolk and farmers critical of nuclear power sitting on hunger strikes are branded anti-national, foreign-funded, maoist-instigated and seen as waging war against the Government of India. Scientists, writers and advocates of peace have been denied visas to enter India, and even summarily deported, merely because they advised caution in the pursuit of the nuclear option.
Professor Roger Bilham, an eminent geologist from the University of Colorado, was deported from New Delhi airport in May 2012. Bilham said he had been black-listed by the Indian government because he co-authored a scientific paper highlighting the highly active seismic nature of the Jaitapur region. In September 2012, three Japanese peace activists – Masahiro Watarida, Shinsuke Nakai and Yoko Unoda — were deported from the Chennai airport. Unoda asked the security personnel why they were being deported. According to her, one officer said: “You signed the international petition on Koodankulam, didn’t you? Your name was on the list. It means you are anti-nuclear.”
The peaceful agitation In Koogidankulam against NPCIL’s nuclear plant is in its second year. More than 300 cases have been registered against more than 200,000 people, mostly unnamed, from just one police station — Koodankulam P.S. Of these, more than 10,000 people, again mostly unnamed, are charged with sedition and/or waging war against the State. The village of Idinthakarai is a virtual prison for prominent persons who are seen to be leading the agitation. Entry to the village is closely monitored, and at times even blocked by the police.
Meanwhile, the Government of India not only allows, but also participates in a conference organised in a 5-star hotel in Mumbai by an international NGO for nuclear advocates.
Expecting the Indian Government to expose itself to a fair debate on the nuclear issue is a pipedream. But surely, one can expect judges and regulators to avoid being seen as partisan.