Damning CAG report on Atomic Energy: Why don’t we care?

The CAG report on the AERB that highlighted flaws in safety procedures has sadly gone unnoticed despite the large ramifications for the nation's growing nuclear power sector.

G Pramod Kumar August 24, 2012 14:21:29 IST
Damning CAG report on Atomic Energy: Why don’t we care?

For the BJP and the opposition parties, the recent Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports against the Union government have been the weapons for UPA-destruction and the ruse to stall Parliament at will.

The CAG has now come out with one more equally scathing report against the government: this time it’s against the country’s nuclear watchdog, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). In simple words, the CAG has said that the AERB lapses pose “grave threats” to the country.

This is no scam; there is no 2G or coal either. Neither are there those dizzying zeros. But this is equally big. This is about the safety of 20 nuclear power reactors spread across India - or more precisely in the north, south and west - and other sectors, including our neighbourhood x-ray centres that produce radiation.

Damning CAG report on Atomic Energy Why dont we care

Safe enough to operate? AFP

The CAG’s criticism of AERB is no different from what the anti-nuclear activists and campaigners of nuclear safety have been saying for years. The report of the auditor tabled in the parliament on Thursday touches upon almost all aspects of nuclear safety. And it hasn’t given the AERB a pass mark.

This is the agency that assures us that the reactors in the country are world-class and safe.

So here are some of the lapses highlighted by the CAG: The AERB hasn’t prepared a nuclear and radiation policy for three decades; it hasn’t developed 27 out of 168 safety documents as recommended by two expert committees, one in the eighties and one in the nineties; none of the nuclear plants have a decommissioning plan; it’s slow in adopting international standards and good practices.

The CAG also highlights what is  public knowledge: contrary to its role as a regulator, the responsibility of monitoring radioactive exposure in nuclear plants is not with the AERB, but with the nuclear plants themselves. In other words, it goes by what the plants say and leaves one of the most crucial aspects of safety to them. The auditor has also highlighted its concern on safe disposal of materials.

The AERB has failed in the non-energy sector as well - in medical and industrial radiology. The CAG notes that the Board doesn’t have a detailed inventory of radiation sources and has very weak licensing systems that allow radiation facilities (including X-ray units) to work without valid licenses. Except in two states, there is no Directorate of Radiation Safety as suggested by the Supreme Court a decade ago. There is a near total failure in inspection of diagnostic radiology facilities and a nearly equal lax system in place in the industrial sector as well.

At the centre of the problem that poses “grave risks” to the country as pointed by the CAG, is the lack of independence of AERB. Instead of functioning as a independent watchdog that can bark and bite - an agency that can frame rules, policies and safety standards, and ensure that the country’s nuclear establishment complies with them, the agency is more or less a friendly certification facility for India’s atomic energy establishment controlled by the government.

Although the details of omissions highlighted by the CAG might be revealing for many, there may be nothing new for the critics of the AERB because they have been saying the same for years. Former AERB chairman and renowned nuclear scientist, Dr A Gopalakrishnan has been campaigning for its autonomy since the mid-1990s. He has been highly critical of the fact that the AERB was part of the department of atomic energy and it reported to the DAE secretary.

Not only were his views never accepted by the government, he was even denied a chance to comment on the contentious Nuclear Safety Bill, that rocked the parliament some time back. Reportedly, he had written thrice to the parliamentary standing committee concerned, but received no response.

Besides the serious lapses highlighted by the CAG, the AERB is mostly opaque. The details of their safety meetings, safety records of the plants, reviews and details of lapses and accidents as well as corrective measures escape public scrutiny in an era of right to information.

All the known accidents at the nuclear power plants, the ones in Kaiga in Karnataka and Narora in Uttar Pradesh as well as the most recent Tritium leak in Rawatbhata in Rajasthan, reached the general public because of a vigilant media. These accidents showed that our plants are susceptible to safety breaches, but we don’t know if there were more such incidents and what had been done to address them.

This opacity of the nuclear energy sector arises out of the unique arrangement of the government running both the plants as well as the regulator. This is precisely what the CAG is also finding fault with. It’s high time that the AERB became independent.

The CAG report will be a shot in arm for the anti-nuclear and pro-transparency campaigners. The biggest impact will be on the Kudankulam power plant in southern Tamil Nadu. Although the agitation against the plant by PMANE (People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy) and a local struggle committee has been overlooked by both the governments and the people who are in dire need of power, its future is pending in the Madras High Court.

On August 21, the AERB very strongly defended itself in the High Court against a PIL that wanted to stall the loading of fuel at the plant. The agency said all was well and submitted details of a full review of the safety measures based on which they gave permission for fuel loading.

However, the serious reservations about the very functioning of the AERB and its lapses on the entire spectrum of safety raised by the country’s premier auditor might give new ammunition to the agitators.

The BJP and the Opposition, however, are unlikely to pick up the report because it’s too real to handle and there are no sexy zeros. It might also bite back, the nuclear hawks that they are.

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