India is the site of the world’s worst industrial disaster in modern times—Bhopal, 1984, where a massive leak of methyl isocyanate from the Union Carbide plant led to over 3,000 deaths and at least five times that number maimed for life. So the first question on nuclear safety is: whom would India hold liable if there were an accident?
The government would pay the major part of the price for an accident. This means that in the case of big accidents, the people of India would foot the bill, as a 2010 law overruled the “absolute liability” principle laid down by the Supreme Court in the Bhopal gas leak case.
India’s nuclear liability law (Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010) caps liability at 300 million Special Drawing Rights (about $450 million in 2014). The operator’s (NPCIL) liability is limited at ₹1500 crore (about $243 million). The rest is to be paid by the government if liability exceeds this limit.
The liability limit is low when compared to the US, where the Price-Anderson Act provides for $13.6 billion in cover. In the US, the federal government also bears unlimited liability. Despite this weakness, the Act has proved to be one of the biggest hurdles in signing contracts with foreign companies as one clause provides for holding the supplier partly liable in case of defective or sub-standard services.
The suppliers’ protest has a reason: the three worst nuclear accidents—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima—were caused by operator error and/or by design defects for which the supplier is responsible.
With the supplier not agreeing to assume any liability, what about reactor safety? Is that included in the “high price” India has agreed to pay to serve the “commercial interests” of foreign companies?
In case of earthquakes
Jaitapur’s protesters are also worried about earthquakes. The site is about 400 kilometres from Latur in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region, which recorded a 6.2 magnitude temblor in 1993 that killed 10,000 people. It’s also only 110 kilometres from Koyna, one of the state’s most seismically active areas and where a 6.5 temblor claimed over 180 lives in 1967.
The similarities between Jaitapur and Fukushima are frequently brought up in all discussions on nuclear project sites, though Fukushima was hit by a tsunami. But both sites have vulnerabilities.
Jaitapur, like Fukushima, is located on the coast. India’s earthquake zoning map has four levels, from 2 to 5, with Zone 2 being associated with the lowest level of seismicity and Zone 5 the highest. Jaitapur, while classified in Zone 3, is not too far from Zone 4. A letter from the director-general of meteorology to NPCIL notes that Jaitapur lies in Zone 3, but warns: “However, the site is very close to Zone 4. As such, due consideration should be given for its proximity to Zone 4 in the design and construction of vital structures such as nuclear power plants”.
NPCIL has repeatedly downplayed these fears, saying its reactors have withstood several earthquakes over the decades without damage. The Kakrapar atomic power station did not stop operations during the Bhuj earthquake in 2001, and the Narora plant (located in Zone 4 in Uttar Pradesh) has withstoof several hundred tremors since it began functioning in 1989.
In a document titled “NPCIL clarification on myths”, it says nuclear power plants are located in some of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world such as Japan and the west coast of the US. “And thus the adage: nuclear power plants are the safest places to be during an earthquake”.
Specifically on Jaitapur, NPCIL says there are no “capable faults” within 30 kilometres. As for a tsunami, it says the site is about 10 times higher than the highest recorded tsunami of 2.5 metres.
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