Nuclear Protest at the Indian Parliament in 2010 asking the government to put the safety of the people first. © Amit madheshiya / Greenpeace
If you’ve ever wondered how nuclear companies stay profitable when a catastrophic accident could cost more than the value of their company, here’s the answer- they make sure they never have to pay the costs.
In most countries, the nuclear lobby has succeeded in ensuring supplier companies are explicitly protected from liability for any accidents, even if they are caused by their equipment.
Following the 2011 disaster at Fukushima in Japan, for example, hundreds of thousands of families are still suffering after losing their homes, while the clean-up and compensation costs are picked up by the taxpayer. In that case, the reactors were all based on GE's Mark I design, which had been known for decades to be unsafe, but the problem was never fixed. But GE and other companies with enormous wealth are not held liable when their equipment contributes to a disaster.
Greenpeace is campaigning for a real nuclear liability system, one that makes both nuclear operators and their suppliers pay all the costs of their failures, not taxpayers. We have a parallel from the chemicals industry in India itself. After the 1984 tragedy in Bhopal, operating company Union Carbide left India, and its current owner Dow Chemical wants no responsibility in ensuring proper clean-up and compensation.
Thanks to our campaigns, India has been an exception to that international rule of supplier impunity. In 2010, India passed a nuclear liability law, which can actually hold foreign suppliers liable for an accident caused by their faulty equipment. In India this is especially vital, as the nuclear plant operators are government-owned, so the taxpayer could be explicitly (as well as implicitly) left with the bill.
Ever since then however, the Indian government has sought to dilute the provisions, having come under lobbying pressure from multinational corporations like Westinghouse, GE-Hitachi and Areva, and on their behalf from the US and other governments.
Yesterday Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati proposed circumventing the law, by using contracts with suppliers to guarantee they would not be liable.
Not only would this leave taxpayers to cover the enormous bills in the event of a disaster, it could even increase the risk by removing supplier companies’ incentive to supply safe products. Greenpeace believes the government should place the health and well-being of Indian people above the interests of corporations.
As Greenpeace India Executive Director Samit Aich said to newspapers today, “It appears we have learnt no lessons from Bhopal or Fukushima where a renewed discussion on liability is underway. Instead of safeguarding the landmark Indian Law, this is a blatant violation of supplier liability that is being proposed”.
The good news is that GP has legal advice from a Supreme Court attorney that the government can't do this. Laws express the will of parliament, and so are more important than mere contracts signed by a minister.
If the government tries to use such backdoor dealings, to give corporations impunity while Indians are exposed to the risks of dangerous nuclear equipment, Greenpeace will do everything in its power to stop them - and we will go to court to uphold the law if necessary.
Greg Muttitt is a Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace India.