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India questions its own nuclear industry

Date

Ben Doherty

Anti-nuclear demonstrators in the Bay of Bengal.

Anti-nuclear demonstrators in the Bay of Bengal. Photo: Reuters

INDIA'S nuclear industry, Australia's newest prospective uranium customer, has been slammed by that country's own auditor as dangerously unsafe, disorganised and, in many cases, completely unregulated.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard arrives in Delhi late today, ahead of a three-day program of meetings in the Indian capital.

Australia's emerging nuclear relationship with India will be a key component of talks between Ms Gillard and her Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh.

The two countries will soon begin negotiations on a safeguards agreement to allow Australian uranium to be sold to India, after the Labor Party last year dropped its long-standing opposition to trading with countries outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Ahead of Ms Gillard's arrival in Delhi, Foreign Minister Bob Carr said Australia's relationship with India was ''in good working order''.

''The Indians are happy with the progress on this. We always, where there is the sale of Australian uranium, we always have a treaty that governs it, and puts in place all the safeguards we require,'' he said.

While Indian media have reported Australia and India are poised to sign a uranium safeguards agreement during Ms Gillard's visit, The Age understands any deal is several months from being finalised.

Australia holds the world's largest uranium reserves and exports more than 7000 tonnes every year, including to China. The government's refusal to sell to India was a source of continuing friction between the two countries. India's last nuclear weapons test was in 1998, but its civilian nuclear industry is growing rapidly, with the number of operating nuclear plants expected to rise from 20 to more than 60 over the next decade.

But India's comptroller and auditor-general, Vinod Rai, has found the body that oversees nuclear safety in India, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, is ineffective, mired in bureaucracy and negligent in monitoring safety.

Sixty per cent of regulatory inspection reports for operating nuclear power plants in India were either delayed - up to 153 days late - or not undertaken at all. For power plants under construction, the number of regulatory inspections delayed or not done was 66 per cent.

Smaller radiation facilities operate throughout the country with no licences and no oversight at all. In many cases there are no rules for nuclear operators to follow. Despite an order from the government in 1983, the board has still not developed an overarching nuclear and radiation safety policy for India.

And even when laws do exist and are broken, the existing legislation gives the board almost no punitive power. In some cases, the fines for nuclear safety transgressions are as low as 500 rupees - less than $10.

India has had nuclear scares already. In 2010, a gamma irradiation machine containing Cobalt-60 was sold off by Delhi University for scrap. Pulled apart, it unleashed a massive dose of radiation, killing one person and putting another six in hospital.

The Indian government has legislation before parliament to replace the board with a new body, the proposed Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority.

But Prabir Purkayastha from the Delhi Science Forum said: ''It is a very weak piece of legislation, that makes the regulator subservient to a group of ministers. It is a weakening of the current regulation.''

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