NEW DELHI | India's parliament is deadlocked over a bill that would limit how much foreign companies would pay to victims of a nuclear accident, as the U.S. and India move forward with a deal to help produce atomic energy in the subcontinent’s growing economy.
The deadlock has pitted nuclear-power supporters in Asia’s third-largest economy against lawmakers who are demanding more compensation for potential victims in the wake of this year’s Bhopal-accident trial.
India’s $150-billion-a-year civilian nuclear-power market hangs in the balance. General Electric Co. and Westinghouse Electric Corp., as well as France’s Areva Group, are among the foreign energy suppliers that stand to gain a share of India’s nuclear business.
Parliament’s science and technology panel was to have issued a report on the bill Thursday, but that report was delayed by at least a week due to protests by the Indian government’s main opposition group, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“We have not arrived at a consensus yet. It cannot be rushed. It should be guided by national priority. A number of issues have to be addressed,” BJP leader Yashwant Singh said Wednesday after meeting with other party leaders and Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee on the legislation.
The BJP has said the bill, known as “The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill 2010,” was hastily introduced by the ruling United Progressive Alliance under pressure from the U.S. government and would provide scant compensation for victims of a nuclear accident.
If India’s government rewrites the bill to appease opponents, foreign companies likely would pay higher insurance premiums against possible industrial disasters.
Under the current legislation, the liability of foreign companies helping provide nuclear power would be capped at $450 million in the event of an accident. In addition, the operator of a nuclear power plant, not its supplier, would be held liable for damages.
All nuclear-power plants in India are state-controlled and -operated, meaning that an Indian state government would have to compensate accident victims - not a multinational corporation.
“In the context of only the public sector being allowed in India to operate nuclear plants, there does not seem to be any relevance of the bill,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, another BJP leader.
“If [the bill] is designed to safeguard the interest of an American supplier of a nuclear power plant, then there has to be adequate provisions for proper compensation and criminal liability in case of any accident,” he added.
“What Westinghouse and General Electric want is that even the limited liability which accrued to Union Carbide in the case of Bhopal gas leak should not fall on them,” said Prakash Karat, chief of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the country’s largest leftist group.
He was referring to the 1984 Bhopal accident in which 15,000 people were killed and 500,000 injured when a toxic cloud was released from a chemical plant operated by an Indian subsidiary of the Union Carbide Corp. - the world’s most deadly industrial accident.