After the Fukushima accident and at the request of the Indian government, an IAEA team consisting of senior safety experts undertook an Integrated Regulatory Review Services (IRRS) Mission on the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) from March 16 to 27, 2015. This was the first IRRS mission to India, and was restricted only to nuclear power plants.

Now, the full IRRS report has been made public and can be viewed on the AERB’s website. This is certainly one of the most significant transparency efforts initiated by the AERB in recent times. The authors believe this signals an important commitment to adopt a new public engagement model. At a substantive level, the IRRS team identified several good practices, but also areas warranting attention or in need of improvement, to enhance the overall performance of the regulatory system in India.

Common ground

Many of the recommendations were already put forward by a CAG audit in August 2012. This shows there is a level of commonality of views across audit bodies. One such fundamental parameter is the extent of independence. The IRRS recommendations clearly indicated that there should be a legal firewall between the AERB and the other nuclear departments and entities it regulates, to ensure it protects itself from any undue pressures. The new Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill 2015 is expected to address this key point.

Many in civil society and the AERB itself in private communication maintain that its “ de facto ” independence should be cemented in a law “ de jure ” as well. That said, the IRRS mission observed that the “professionalism and integrity of the AEC, NPCIL and AERB senior staff towards ensuring the regulatory decision making processes/arrangements were completed independently and did not notice instances in which de facto AERB independence was compromised”.

Another important aspect that would need to be addressed is the grievance redress system or appeal procedure against decisions by the AERB. Currently, the constitution of the AERB states that appeals against decisions of the AERB shall be with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) whose decision shall be final. Here, the IRRS mission remained rather timid by merely referring to and not fully suggesting a more coherent appeal procedure which would be more in tune with a fully independent mechanism.

Addressing grievances

This is regrettable because one of the most important functions in any democratic system is the redressal of grievances, whether sought by an operator, a service provider, the public or anyone who has a role in an NPP activity. Moreover, the AERB constitution remains vague as to precisely who can appeal. These are aspects that also would need to be addressed more comprehensively to ensure that the public has faith in the nuclear regulatory system. The current redressal system also explains why people so far have generally opted to approach the courts with their grievances, rather than the AEC.

The DAE and the AERB should consider the IRRS mission review and many such suggestions of civil society in all earnestness, and thereby acknowledge that it is in the interest of the nation to make the regulatory system better, efficient and people-centric. It is important to remember what the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission of Japan concluded: “The TEPCO Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant accident was the result of collusion between the government, the regulators and TEPCO, and the lack of governance by said parties. They effectively betrayed the nation’s right to be safe from nuclear accidents.”

The winter session of Parliament had in its agenda to consider the NSRA Bill 2015, but it didn’t see legislative light. The Bill going into hibernation again is a missed opportunity when the expansion of nuclear power is going ahead. Let the timely detailed reports of the IRRS mission and the CAG, which amongst many recommendations strongly urges the adoption of a law that would strengthen the independence of the nuclear regulatory authority, offer an impetus to Parliament to pass the Bill. It will strengthen the independence of the nuclear regulatory authority and allow it to incorporate all recommendations, including that of the IRRS mission, and be fully structured around the key principles of regulatory independence.

Mohan is an associate professor at TERI University; Kini is a partner at MV Kini & Co, Mumbai. The writers are members of the Nuclear Law Association, India