Editorial: A sure recipe for disaster

Published in The Hindu on August 30, 2012

The sceptics have been right, after all. By pulling away the shroud of secrecy and opaqueness that has been built into the system ever since the Atomic Energy Regulatory Body (AERB) was formed in 1983, the Comptroller and Auditor General has for the first time exposed several major inadequacies and shortcomings of the nuclear regulator. Despite the passage of three decades, the AERB is yet to prepare a radiation safety policy. The operator — Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) — has not put in place a decommissioning plan for any of the power plants, including the 10 plants that have come up after the regulator issued the safety manual. The reason — the manual is only advisory in nature. The regulator is toothless in demanding the district/State authorities take “corrective measures” in off-site emergency preparedness in the zone extending up to a 16 km radius from nuclear plants. The report also highlights the well-known, inherent weakness of AERB’s legal status — the regulator lacks the “independent power” of a statutory body by virtue of “not being created by any specific legislation.” This despite the recommendation of the Meckoni Committee way back in 1981 that the nuclear regulator be created as a statutory body. In effect, even today the AERB’s head continues to “report” to an official of an “organisation whose very activities [he or she] regulates.”

The AERB is also in the dark in matters concerning the number of radiation sources used in medical and non-medical institutions in the country. A mammoth check across the nation was carried out in the mid-1990s and an inventory of more than 30,000 units prepared. But, sadly, the inventory has not been updated. Even today, there is no effective accounting system in place despite the frantic efforts that began following the Mayapuri incident in New Delhi in 2010, where a gamma source was disposed in a callous manner resulting in the death of one person. Regulating these institutions and ensuring safe disposal will never become possible till such time the inventory is updated. “About 91 per cent of medical X-ray facilities operating in the country have no registration,” the CAG report states. If policing the small diagnostic centres and nursing homes mushrooming all over the country is difficult, can the problem not be solved by targeting manufacturers and vendors? A two-pronged effort is required to clear the mess. The AERB has to work in mission mode on several fronts to set its house in order. On its part, the government must expedite the passage of the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, which has already been vetted by a parliamentary committee.