By Venkatachari Jagannathan
Chennai, Sep 25 (IANS): Mixed views were expressed by experts on the Central government's idea to entrust the environmental clearance for nuclear power projects with the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB).
Welcoming the idea, a nuclear sector expert also said the Centre should reintroduce the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill alongside.
On the other hand, Poovulagin Nanbargal, a non-government organisation (NGO) here, said it would approach the courts if AERB is given the environmental clearance power for nuclear power projects.
According to a report, the Central government is planning to vest AERB with the power to accord the environmental clearance for nuclear power projects.
One of the reasons said for such a move is to prevent leakage of strategic information when the files move from one place to another.
Presently the environmental clearance for nuclear power projects and others are given by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
The AERB is the sectoral regulator though technically not an independent one.
"Empowering AERB for giving environmental clearance to nuclear projects besides carrying out its present functions is a step in the right direction," K.S. Parthasarathy, former Secretary of the AERB, told IANS.
Parthasarathy said as a Member of the Ministry of Environment expert committee for nuclear power projects from its inception to 2005 he had closely seen how the two agencies (AERB and Environment Ministry) function.
"With that background I fully endorse the decision to vest AERB with the responsibility for environmental clearance. Vesting the authority in one agency will help speeding up our nuclear power programme," Parthasarathy said.
The AERB needs additional manpower with appropriate expertise in relevant disciplines when the site clearance responsibility is assigned to it, he said.
But how appropriate would it be to give the environmental clearance power to AERB which is technically not an independent statutory body but coming under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE)?
"It is like one person being the umpire and the player. It will be a great blunder to give the environmental clearance power for nuclear power projects to AERB," said G. Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, an NGO working on socio-environmental issues.
"The AERB is a regulatory body. A nuclear power plant has a huge impact on the environment. Hence the power to give the environment clearance should be with a separate body and not with AERB. Currently there are some checks and balances," Sundarrajan.
According to Sundarrajan, Poovulagin Nanbargal will approach the court if the Central government vests AERB with the environmental clearance power for nuclear power projects.
To that, Parthasarathy said: "It is appropriate to reintroduce the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill with the needed revision incorporating the suggestions from the Parliament committee and other agencies while delegating the environmental clearance functions to AERB."
He said enhancing the status of AERB as a separate statutory body is also the right step to improve its image in public's mind particularly when environmental clearance of nuclear projects which was being carried out by the Ministry of Environment, a separate agency, is also handed over to the AERB.
Former AERB Chairman, S.S. Bajaj told IANS: "On technical matters AERB is totally independent. This has been endorsed by international bodies. As a sectoral regulator AERB has total autonomy."
He said while AERB decides on the technical aspects of a nuclear project like the seismological and other aspects of a site and other aspects, the Environment Ministry looks at the sociological and other issues.
Welcoming the move to give AERB the power to give the environmental clearance Bajaj also said the one area that is not properly done is the public hearing.
Bajaj said public hearing of nuclear power projects is now purely a political issue.
"To hijack the process of public hearing, people bring in some technical experts. There should be an order in public hearing," he added.
According to him, AERB should take the views of experts on the issue of sociological impact of nuclear power projects.
The Central government has accorded administrative approval and financial sanction for construction of 10 indigenous 700 MW Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWRs) to be set up in fleet mode.
Experts told IANS that the Centre's idea of giving AERB the environmental clearance power will certainly speed up the process.
According to the Central government, there are 10 reactors (including 500 MW prototype fast breeder reactor, PFBR belonging to Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd-Bhavini, totaling 8,000 MW under construction at various stages.
On progressive completion of the projects under construction and accorded sanction, the total nuclear capacity is expected to reach 22,480 MW by 2031.