India’s nuclear reactor population is rising. So is its use of nuclear technology in other spheres. This poses a threat to countries like Sri Lanka, particularly in the event of an accident across the Palk Strait. Why, then, is New Delhi blocking bilateral negotiations on liabilities and compensation? The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has [...]


Sri Lanka must insist on nuclear safeguards from India: Experts, diplomats

New Delhi’s contention that international conventions provide sufficient cover will be inadequate in the event of disasters like Fukushima or Chernobyl, they warn

India’s nuclear reactor population is rising. So is its use of nuclear technology in other spheres. This poses a threat to countries like Sri Lanka, particularly in the event of an accident across the Palk Strait. Why, then, is New Delhi blocking bilateral negotiations on liabilities and compensation?

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has just completed a review of India’s regulatory framework for the safety of nuclear power plants. The Agency’s Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) observes “the Republic of India has forecast that nuclear power generation in India will increase significantly over the next decade”. This is a challenge for the country, it warns, requiring maintenance of sufficient regulatory oversight of both operating nuclear plants and those under construction.

India is urged to promulgate a national policy and strategy for safety as well as, crucially, a radioactive waste management plan. Its Government is also called upon to make its Atomic Energy Regulatory Board more independent and to consider increasing the frequency of routine on-site inspections at nuclear power plants.

Sri Lanka’s past requests for confidence building measures including through visits to India’s power plants—especially in Kudankulam, which is just 232 kilometres west of Kalpitiya—have been turned down. And officials say every attempt to discuss safety concerns arising from the proximity of these installations has been met with resistance.

New Delhi maintains that international conventions on nuclear safety provide sufficient cover. “They ask why we wanted bilateral agreements when already there were multilateral agreements in this regard, binding all countries,” an informed source said, requesting anonymity.

And, so, in February, Sri Lanka and India signed a bilateral agreement on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy that conspicuously avoided mention of liability or compensation. The deal is innocuous enough. The two countries have agreed to set up a joint committee—yet to be done—to identify projects and monitor implementation.

The agreement does not allude to power generation but the two countries have consented to work on “such other areas of cooperation as are mutually agreed upon by the Parties”. Interestingly, Sri Lanka has also signed a bilateral agreement with ROSATOM, Russia’s State Energy Nuclear Corporation, which is the same entity that manufactures reactors for the Kudankulam power plant.

None of this precludes Sri Lanka from pursuing its own national interests with regard to possible fallout from nuclear incidents in neighbouring India, international experts interviewed by the Sunday Times say. On the contrary, they hold, it is vital for a dialogue to take place.

The danger from Kudankulam would be in the event of a disaster, like Fukushima or Chernobyl, when a large amount of radioactive material is released into the air. These could be carried by the wind towards Sri Lanka, depending on wind direction. The only way for so much harmful matter to be released is through a severe accident at a reactor or at the spent fuel pool where irradiated fuel is stored.

“Neither of these events can be ruled out, even if they are rare,” says M. V. Ramana from the Princeton University’s Programme on Science and Global Security and author of the book ‘The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India’. “The Sri Lankan Government should get the Indian Government to agree to take full liability for any consequences that flow to residents of Sri Lanka from an accident at the Kudankulam nuclear reactors or any other nuclear facilities.”India’s argument that international conventions suffice in the event of such incidents is flawed, diplomats insist. The bilateral agreement between India and Sri Lanka only mentions the IAEA Statute; the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident; the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency; and the Convention on Nuclear Safety.

But the relevant conventions dealing with compensation for nuclear damage are the Vienna Convention on Civil Nuclear Liability (not signed by India) and the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (signed, but not ratified, by India).“It is not yet clear whether their domestic liability law conforms with the requirements of the convention,” the World Nuclear Association says, of the latter.

“It is double jeopardy for Sri Lanka,” a senior diplomat said, requesting anonymity. “The conventions mentioned in the preamble of the agreement are not the ones that provide for compensation matters. The conventions that deal with compensation issues are the ones to which India is not a party.”

“In this situation, any bilateral agreement should have provided for, or clarified, this matter,” he said. “But it is not so.”

One of the more pronounced concerns for Sri Lanka in the context of power plants in Kudankulam and Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu—where the only fast breeder reactor in South Asia is under construction—is the geologically safe disposal of management of radioactive waste and spent fuel.
“The international legal instrument that especially addresses these concerns is the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management,” the diplomat said. “India has not even signed this, leave aside being a party.”

Most states also give inadequate attention to potential safety and terrorism risks associated with nuclear power generation, says William C Potter, Director of the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies based in Monterey, Canada. “While these risks may be relatively low probability, they are potentially very high consequence,” he warns.

Radiation contamination does not recognise national boundaries, Dr Potter points out. “I believe States likely to be affected by nuclear accidents have legitimate concerns regarding the building and operation of nuclear facilities outside their borders,” he said.

Dr Potter observes that, given the projected rapid expansion of the Indian programme, “one would want to examine closely the resources available to the Indian nuclear regulatory sector, as well as the independence of the regulatory body”. Crucially, this is precisely an area that the IRRS flagged as needing further attention in India. The experiences of Chernobyl and Fukushima both demonstrated the dangers posed “by lax regulation and the incestuous relationship between regulators and those in charge of nuclear facilities,” Dr Potter maintained. He would be sceptical of the argument that multilateral conventions automatically precluded States from seeking additional assurances on safety based on the specifics of the countries involved, he said.

“In particular, I would inquire further about the degree to which the conventions in question are applicable to nuclear dangers resulting from malicious (terrorist) activities as opposed to those of an accidental nature,” he stressed. “Today, the latter threat to nuclear facilities, including cyber attacks, cannot be ignored.”

Tariq Rauf, another renowned international expert, agrees that Sri Lanka and other states neighbouring India were well within their rights to be concerned about nuclear safety and nuclear security in India. “It is a well-established principle that States must be responsible for safety and security of their nuclear facilities and activities, to prevent accidents, and to have in place a comprehensive international legal framework for civil and nuclear liability,” said the former Head of the Nuclear Verification and Security Policy Coordination, Office Reporting to the Director General, IAEA.

The diplomat cited above was “absolutely correct” in observing that international conventions on nuclear safety, notification and assistance in the event of a nuclear accident or radiological emergency, “are very general in nature and do not provide sufficient or adequate protection and assurance to States that are neighbours of States operating nuclear facilities”.

International civil and nuclear liability regimes needed to be further strengthened, particularly in the light of the damaging consequences of Fukushima and Chernobyl. “Both these accidents demonstrated the critical weaknesses and gaps in the international nuclear safety and liability regimes and also the inadequacy of immediate response by and through the IAEA,” said Dr Rauf, now the Director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

“As such, the Government and people of Sri Lanka have every right to expect and demand from India assurances of the highest nuclear safety and security practices, comprehensive acceptance of IAEA nuclear safety and security reviews and assessments, and to establish a regional South Asia Nuclear Safety and Security Assessment Framework within the SAARC context to assure the neighbours of both India and Pakistan,” he asserted.
Sri Lanka’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Council says the country has introduced some measures to guard against nuclear accidents. This includes the instalation of ‘online gamma monitoring stations’ in six locations to enable detection of radioactivity. But Dr Rauf contends that, as a small country, Sri Lanka would be unable to cope with the consequences of trans-boundary radiological contamination.

Such contamination from a nuclear or radiological accident at an Indian nuclear facility in the vicinity of the Indian Ocean could pollute the ocean with drastic consequences for fisheries, air and other environments. “The financial and medical consequences would require an international response and, in this context, India should demonstrate exemplary leadership role,” he argued. He also urged Sri Lanka to work with like-minded States at the IAEA to advance an international agreement to ensure effective legal protection of victims in cases of nuclear accidents causing trans-boundary radiation pollution.

“It is indeed ironic, if not hypocritical, that on the one hand India has enacted domestic legislation on nuclear liability covering damages resulting from design flaws in imported nuclear technology and material, while not providing civil and nuclear liability coverage to neighbouring States in the event of a nuclear accident or radiological emergency at Indian nuclear facilities,” Dr Rauf reflected. “Under international law the operator of a nuclear facility is liable for damages.”

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