The Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu has run up against new hurdles. This time, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants to know from the Department of Atomic Energy who will pay if there is a mishap at the power plant.
The PM, who is also the Minister for Atomic Energy, is questioning the department's decision not to exercise the right to recourse - for units 3 and 4 of the project - in the event of a mishap at the plant. The plant is being built with Russian collaboration and the Russians have said they are keen that right to recourse should not apply to any part of this project. That would mean that the Russians will have no liability in case of an accident.
The PM has said that if such a waiver is granted to the Russian partners, other countries like the US and France, partnering India on such projects, will seek waiver too.
The Department of Atomic Energy has argued that the Nuclear Power Corporation does not need to worry on that account as there is a provision in the international agreement with Russia on right to recourse, but no such provision in agreements with the American and the French governments.
An unconvinced Dr Singh has now sought legal clarification from the Ministry of External Affairs and the Law Ministry on whether international obligations can override India's Nuclear Liability Bill.
When the agreement for the Kudankulam plant was signed between India and Russia in 1988 for units 1 and 2 of the plant, there was no Nuclear liability bill and the agreement said that the Indian side, as the operator, would be fully responsible for any damage caused by a nuclear incident.
The bill was passed in 2010 and provides that the supplier is also liable if the equipment is faulty. So under that law, the operator, India, can claim damages from the supplier in such a case. The Russians have sought that the provisions of the pre-Nuclear Bill agreement of 2008 be extended to the next phases, unit 3 and 4, of the project too - they have brought this up at several high-level bilateral meetings. The PM is loath to agree to this.
The Rs 13,000-crore first phase of the project covers reactors 1 and 2, and has seen many hiccups. There have been big protests for months by thousands of villagers and activists who have said that they are not convinced that the plant is safe. They are also worried about ecological damage by radioactivity which would affect the livelihood of thousands of fishermen around the plant.
Work at the plant was suspended in September last year when the Tamil Nadu cabinet asked the Prime Minister to halt all operations till residents in the area were reassured that they were safe. In March this year, the Tamil Nadu government of J Jayalalithaa, in a sudden U-turn, said operations at the plant could begin. Last week, the state gave an all-clear from its pollution control board to the plant.
The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) is scheduled to clear phase three and four of the project.