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The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has criticized Indias atomic energy regulator for not being truly independent, not having a radiation safety policy and being lax in monitoring the proliferation of unregistered medical X-ray facilities in the country.
This is the first time ever that the performance of the 29-year-old Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) has been reviewed by the governments auditor. The move follows criticism of the safety of nuclear plants both in India and abroad.
Following the breakdown of nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, protests erupted at an upcoming plant in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee vetoed a proposal for a proposed plant in Haripur.
"...It is evident that AERB is on a very tenuous ground if it has to be judged in terms of the benchmarks of what is expected of an independent regulator... concludes the report by CAG that was tabled in Parliament on Wednesday.
The authors of the report rue that AERB has "...no rule making powers and neither does it have powers of enforcement and levy of penalties in the context of nuclear safety oversight...
To be sure, CAG isnt the first to point out this longstanding criticism of the organization. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the Prime Minister ordered a safety review of all nuclear plants in India by AERB. Activist groups such as Greenpeace had then pointed that AERB wasnt a truly independent authority to perform such a review.
In the US, Australia and Canada, a formal legislation separates the regulators from nuclear power proponents. India doesnt have such a legislation, and a Bill to effect this, called the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, is yet to be tabled in Parliament.
CAG also blames AERB for lagging in promoting radiation safety. "...At the policy level, AERB has not yet prepared a radiation safety policy even after three decades of its existence...
A senior AERB official said that though hes yet to read the report, it was incorrect to surmise that his organization didnt have a policy on radiation safety. "Theres no document that says Radiation Safety Policy, but we have detailed codes and guides on managing ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. Its at the core of what we do, said R. Bhattacharya, secretary, AERB.
Ionizing radiation fall in the category of radiation that can alter DNA and living cells and are considered cancerous and harmful for humans and other living beings.
CAG said that nearly 91% of the 57,443 medical X-ray facilities operating in the country had no registration and while the Supreme Court had ordered that state-level radiation safety directorates be set up, only Kerala and Mizoram had acceded.
Bhattacharya admitted that many medical, X-ray facilities were unregistered because the onus was on these units to register with AERB. "We are in the process of setting up these directorates, but its been slow due to difficulties in coordinating with states. On the other hand, radiation from X-ray units arent threatening.
Independent experts say that changes in AERB are long overdue. "The formation of AERB has never been an open, transparent process. Also, a law to manage hazardous nuclear waste has been in draft discussions for years now. Hopefully, CAGs report could trigger some action, said M.P. Ram Mohan, a fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute and a nuclear policy researcher.
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