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Nuclear liability bill passed in Rajya Sabha

New Delhi: Paving the way for India to have nuclear commerce with the world, Parliament on Monday adopted a nuclear liability bill with the government insisting that the compensation package for victims matches that of the US and it was still open to accommodate some suggestions.

With BJP on board after its suggestions were accepted, the Civil Liability for the Nuclear Damages Bill, 2010 was adopted by the Rajya Sabha by a voice vote after it rejected certain amendments moved by the Left parties.

The bill, which is crucial for operationalisation of India’s civil nuclear deals with the US and other countries, was passed by the Lok Sabha on August 25.

Winding up a debate on the proposed legislation, Minister of State in the PMO Prithviraj Chavan said, “This is not finality… We will take care of every single suggestion. If required, the bill will be changed for better.”

Responding to a number of proposals made by the members during the five-hour debate during which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was present, Chavan said, “When we frame rules and regulations, we will keep the suggestions in mind.”

He said the bill provides for prompt “no-fault” compensation to victims in the event of a nuclear accident without bypassing the existing criminal laws.

On questions over the quantum of compensation of Rs 1500 crore on the part of the operator, the minister said the amount, along with the 300 million dollar Special Drawing Rights (SDR), is exactly the same which is provided in the US.

He said besides Rs 1500 crore and 300 million SDRs, the bill provides for setting up a compensation fund.

CPI(M) member Sitaram Yechury, however, contested Chavan’s contention that the compensation amount matches that of the US and moved an amendment for raising it to Rs 10,000 crore which was defeated.

Amid repeated thumping of desks by the Prime Minister and other members of the ruling benches, Chavan said the government tried to reach out to Opposition by making 18 amendments to the bill.

Praising the BJP for its support to the Bill, the minister said, “We took upon ourselves to carry forward the good work which was started by the NDA government.”

The BJP came on board to support the government on the bill after days of wrangling. The support of the main opposition came when the government agreed to drop some controversial words from the proposed legislation.

Observing that passage of the bill would complete the journey which the Prime Minister undertook to the US five years ago, he said the opening up of the nuclear commerce would increase India nuclear power capacity from 4500 MW to 40,000-50,000 MW.

The first step towards ending India’s nuclear isolation since 1974 began in July 2005 when an atomic deal was signed with the US during Singh’s visit there.

Chavan said India would be the first country where liability has been fixed for suppliers as no other country has suffered Bhopal gas tragedy.

Extending support to the bill, BJP asked the government not to be carried away by “phoney campaign” that no global supplier would be coming to India with the proposed law fixing the suppliers’ liability in the event of the nuclear mishap.

Initiating a debate on the bill which was passed by the Lok Sabha, Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley said the government should not be “apologetic” about inserting a clause making supplier along with operator liable for any nuclear incident.

Referring to recent reports that reactor supplier from several countries would not be interested to come to India, he described it as “phoney campaign”.

Making a spirited speech, Chavan said India needed cooperation with the international community in the nuclear field as its own uranium resources are not adequately exploited, preventing adequate utilisation of atomic plants.

The bill was taken up for consideration after days of intense bitterness between the government and opposition parties over the language regarding supplier liability.

A clause on supplier was subsequently rephrased after negotiations with the opposition including a couple of meetings convened by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to break the deadlock.

The original version of the amendment had come under sharp attack from the BJP and Left parties as it provided for proving the “intent” of a supplier of causing an accident if an operator were to claim compensation.

The parties had contended that it was impossible to prove an intent on the part of suppliers or their employees in case of an accident.

The controversial word “intent” found its mention in an earlier government amendment, which was different from the one recommended by the Parliamentary Committee that examined the bill.

On questions over the clause under which the government will be taking full responsibility of liability for plants not run by the government, Chavan said this had been done to prevent any insurance company official from visiting “certain” installations for strategic reasons.

He said the government is in talks with four companies from the US, France, Japan and Russia for supplying of reactors.

The minister also insisted that the cost of nuclear power would be comparable with coal-based energy.

With regard to the country’s domestic nuclear programme, Chavan said work is going on for development of Thorium-based programme as part of energy security.

He also allayed apprehensions on account of management of nuclear waste, saying spent fuel would be reprocessed and the residue would be carefully stored.

Chavan also said there was a need for taking a relook at the Public Liability Act of 1991, enacted after the Bhopal gas tragedy, as the compensation amount is too low at Rs 25,000 for death.

After Chavan responded to all the queries raised by members, the Prime Minister reminded him that he had forgotten to give clarification to the question asked by Satish Mishra (BSP).

Mishra wanted to know the period by which a victim could claim compensation. Chavan said the period was 20 years.

He said the country has 1,47,000 tonnes of known uranium resources but in certain areas like those in Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh, mining is yet to begin because of “local” and environmental reasons.

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