UPA Govt. backs off, avoids introducing Nuke Liability Bill

New Delhi, Mar. 15: The expected face-off between the UPA Government and the Opposition over the former's proposed Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill has fizzled out with the UPA saying it will not table the Bill that provides for compensation in case of a nuclear accident for discussion today.

The BJP and the Left have already indicated opposition to the Bill that is key to operationalise the landmark Indo-US nuclear deal. Senior BJP leader L.K. Advani said the Government must give reasons for not tabling the Bill for a discussion, when it already figures in the day's listed business.

The Bill pegs the maximum amount of liability in case of each nuclear accident at Rs 300 crore to be paid by the operator of the nuclear plant.

However, the draft bill also has provisions that would enable the government to either increase or decrease the amount of liability of any operator.

"At the introduction itself we will oppose unless the government assures us that it would be sent to a Parliamentary Standing Committee," a private television channel quoted CPI(M) politburo member Sitaram Yechury, as saying.

The BJP is also understood to have expressed concern over the Rs 300 crore limits in the liability of the nuclear power plant operator.

"All these issues are there and we will discuss all that in the standing committee," said Yechury when asked about the Rs 300 crore limits.

Reports had it that the government was keen on getting the Bill passed in the ongoing budget session itself.

National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon had met BJP leader Arun Jaitley to brief him about the Bill, but the main opposition is yet to have all its concerns addressed.

Jaitley is understood to have given a list of queries regarding the Bill to Menon but was yet to get any reply.

The Bill was approved by the Union Cabinet on November 20 last year.

According to the provisions in the draft legislation, the operator would not be liable for any nuclear damage if the incident was caused by "grave national disaster of exceptional character", armed conflict or act of terrorism and suffered by person on account of his own negligence.

Former Atomic Energy Commission Chairman and key architect of the Indo-US nuclear deal Anil Kakodkar feels that the liability limit is optimum.

The Bill also provides for establishment of Nuclear Damage Claims Commission which will have one or more claims commissioners for a specified area.

The claims commissioner shall have all powers of a civil court for the purpose of taking evidence on oath, enforcing attendance of witnesses, compelling the discovery and production of documents and other material objects.

Environment activists have described as a violation of fundamental rights the proposed attempt to cap the level of compensation to victims of a nuclear accident. "Under Article 21 of the Constitution, there is no warrant or justification for capping nuclear liability," noted jurist Soli Sorabjee said in his opinion to Greenpeace.

Issues relating to the remaining steps of the nuclear deal -- reprocessing pact and civil liability legislation-are expected to be key points in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's agenda when he meets US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit next month.

After award of compensation, the operator has the right to appeal in three cases, one of which is when he argues that the incident resulted from "willful act or gross negligence" of a supplier of material, equipment or services.

The right to claim compensation has a limit of 10 years from the date of incident. The exception is of stolen, lost, jettisoned or abandoned nuclear material, where the period is increased to 20 years.

The government is expected to argue that the legislation is necessary as the Atomic Energy Act that governs the nuclear power sector is silent on compensation.

Several insurance companies also do not cover injuries caused due to radiation.

The state-run Nuclear Power Corporation of India that operates all atomic power plants in the country has set aside Rs 500 crore to meet compensation requirements in case of a nuclear incident.

Copyright Asian News International/DailyIndia.com