Home Articles Will federal auditor’s report on nuclear watchdog open a Pandora’s box?

Will federal auditor’s report on nuclear watchdog open a Pandora’s box?

By Dhirendra Sharma, IANS,

For the first time, a constitutional authority has managed to collect information from the secret chambers of India’s nuclear estate and table it before both houses of parliament.

The performance report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), the federal auditor, submitted Aug 22 is yet to be debated by parliament members. When that happens, it would be an unprecedented event as it is for the first time that a document highly critical of India’s “holy cow” – the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) – has been placed before parliament.

In its far-reaching report, the CAG appeared somewhat constrained to only look into the operations directly related to the issues of safety, public health and environment. For long years of existence of the DAE, critics were raising questions of public safety around the nuclear facilities. They were routinely denied or at best ignored by the authorities.

The DAE, for several years, functioned without an independent watchdog for effective regulatory supervision of the potentially hazardous nuclear enterprise despite questions raised by critics about public safety, long-term waste management and de-commissioning of reactors at the end of their life.

Even the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster in the United States did not immediately prompt the government to establish a nuclear regulator. It was only in November 1983 that a small office board appeared inside the DAE: ‘Atomic Energy Regulatory Board’ or AERB.

Still, even after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, the Government of India had not agreed to an independent regulatory commission while it has been pointed out that in all countries having nuclear power programmes such as the US and Britain, regulatory authorities have been created though law and they function with autonomy.

The Indian government, however, has all these years ignored the demand for an independent regulatory commission. In fact, as the CAG report says, the AERB functions as a handmaiden of the DAE and it cannot visit any radiation spot or assess any reactor or nuclear facility without the authorisation of DAE.

The CAG has, within its restricted scope of auditing the affairs of the AERB, clearly confirmed the long voiced criticism against the DAE that it had shown little concern for public safety.

The report is an indictment of the nuclear establishment (and the government of India) for allowing the nuclear energy operation in the country without accountability and with no regulatory supervision for so long.

The CAG report made it clear that 27 of the 168 recommendations for public health and radiation safety made by two panels after the Chernobyl accident are yet to be implemented.

Nonetheless, the CAG has for the first time asked the most relevant question: Why in all these years has the AERB not conducted an independent assessment of nuclear safety management in the country? Why is there no monitoring of radiological exposure to workers inside the nuclear facilities?

The CAG has through this report informed the nation that the DAE functions without a regulatory enforcement mechanism and that public safety is no concern of the DAE.

The CAG has now reported that the AERB did not have a detailed inventory of all radiation sources in the country. The report has clearly stated that without reliable inventory of radiation sources in the country, public safety from radiation exposure could not be assured. The situation is alarming.

Much more alarming is the revelation that there is no planning for safe disposal of de-commissioned reactors in the country.

Following the Chernobyl catastrophe, I requested the DAE to prepare a nuclear accident crisis management policy and provide the administration around nuclear installations with emergency evacuation procedures.

“If we do that, the public would not allow a nuclear facility anywhere in the country,” replied the then AEC chairman.

I am sure many more secrets shielded by the ‘holy cow’ will become visible once the members take up the CAG report for discussion in parliament.

(31-08-2012-Dhirendra Sharma is the former head of the Centre for Science Policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University and now president of Concerned Scientists & Philosophers in Dehradun. He can be reached at [email protected])