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Confronting India’s Nuclear Regulation Challenge

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Confronting India’s Nuclear Regulation Challenge

New Delhi needs to pay more attention to this aspect of its nuclear policy.

Confronting India’s Nuclear Regulation Challenge
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

India plans to increase the share of nuclear power in the overall energy mix by more than three times from the current share by 2021. While India has impressive plans to expand its nuclear sector, it also needs to pay more attention to issues such as regulation of the industry.

Earlier in March, India’s Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances, and Pensions and Prime Minister’s Office, Dr. Jitendra Singh, publicized this while responding to a question in the Lok Sabha (lower house) of the Indian Parliament. Dr. Singh said that the current installed nuclear power capacity is 6,780 MW, which makes up around 1.84 percent of the total installed capacity of 368,690 MW. He said that the existing capacity of 6,780 MW will be augmented to 22,480 MW by 2031 by undertaking “progressive completion of projects under construction and accorded sanction.”

He added that there will be a capacity addition of 5,300 MW in the next five years, including a 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) being constructed at the Madras Atomic Power Station in Kalpakkam, India and implemented by Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd. (BHAVINI). In an earlier debate in the Lok Sabha in June 2019, Singh had said that the installed nuclear power capacity would reach 13,480 MW by 2024-25 with the completion of certain projects.

In a November 2019 debate in the Lok Sabha on India’s nuclear energy target, the government stated that it has instituted several measures for increasing the share of nuclear power in its overall energy matrix, including the “administrative approval and financial sanction” of 10 indigenous 700 MW Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs), with a further two Light Water Reactors (LWRs) to be set up in cooperation with Russia. In addition, India had also set up the nuclear insurance pool (INIP) to deal with private sector concerns about India’s nuclear liability bill. India’s Atomic Energy Commission has approved 10 additional uranium mining projects, and further two related projects will come up in Jharkhand.

While these are important steps, the Modi government has been silent about a related issue: that of nuclear security-related legislation or institutional measures. Nuclear safety and security are particularly important for India given the political instability and security environment that prevails in the region. India rightly acknowledged this even before global attention on the issue following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

India has also streamlined much of its legislative and institutional practices based on the international guidelines and standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). India’s nuclear safety measures have been periodically updated to reflect the changing security concerns. In February 2020, in a statement in the Indian Parliament, Singh reiterated that India “ensures safety of Nuclear Power Plants according to International Standards.”

Nevertheless, India has come under international scrutiny when it comes to its nuclear security standards. This has been the case primarily because India has shied away from openly spelling out its nuclear security policies and practices. Excessive secrecy has actually damaged India’s reputation on this score. Even more importantly, India should take the issue seriously because of its own plans to expand nuclear power generation capacity. This could at some stage also involve private sector participation and it would be better for the government to spell out the rules and regulatory mechanisms.

This is not just a concern expressed by the global nuclear community but also by India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which has been critical of the relationship between India’s current nuclear regulator, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), and the Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). There have been several studies that highlight the need for India to address this is in a more effective manner, so as to strengthen its own security practices but also to improve its international standing.

The government of India has acknowledged the need to address this issue as well. In September 2011, the Manmohan Singh government introduced the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill in an effort to establish a more independent nuclear regulator. However, it was not taken up over the next three years and the bill lapsed. There was expectation that the Modi government would reintroduce the bill and kick-start a debate in the Parliament but there is no sign yet of this happening.

The NSRA Bill is important because it would be a significant improvement over the current AERB regulatory architecture. It would establish a Council of Nuclear Safety (CNS) under the leadership of the prime minister himself. While there are critics of this as well, it is still an important demonstration of the government’s resolve to have a truly independent nuclear regulator. It is important in operational terms as well, in bringing about more stringent auditing practices. In terms of the optics, it would be good that the promoter and regulator of nuclear energy are separated.

This is not difficult for India to do because it has operationalized many of the essential components in ensuring this separation, be it in addressing physical protection, nuclear transportation, or insider threats. But India needs to formalize these changes in a new nuclear legislation in the Parliament so as to strengthen its own credibility and operational practices. India should also take its international reputation seriously in order to strengthen its case with global nonproliferation platforms such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

Lastly, India should recognize that no country has a completely fool-proof mechanism and it should not get excessively defensive about its nuclear security policies and practices. More importantly, India has a good record to promote, and a number of developing countries look at India as a model to emulate.

But India’s apparent discomfort in acknowledging its own nuclear security successes and challenges and engaging with the larger global nuclear community can be stifling for New Delhi in beefing up global nuclear security approaches. India must start the NSRA debate in the Parliament as a first step to improve itself. But it also provides a new opportunity for enhancing India’s status now that the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process has come to an end.