New Delhi: The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government will soon make rules under the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Bill 2010, before finalizing agreements to purchase nuclear supplies from four companies—one French, one Russian and two from the US.

Though there will not be any amendments to the legislation passed by Parliament in its monsoon session, the rules will seek to address concerns voiced by foreign and domestic companies over a clause giving nuclear plant operators the right to recourse against suppliers in the event of an accident, minister of state (MoS) for science and technology Prithviraj Chavan said.

The rules will clarify the responsibilities and obligations of the various stakeholders in the nuclear power business, Chavan said in an interview. Edited excerpts:

The US has indicated its unhappiness with the nuclear liability legislation and said it would continue discussions with the Indian government on the issue. What kind of apprehensions has it expressed over the legislation?

Addressing concerns: Chavan says the focus on the role of suppliers is because of the Bhopal gas tragedy. India Today

So are you going to address the concerns expressed by both the domestic and US companies?

Now, two things will happen —first, we will continue our talks with suppliers with an objective to arrive at a purchasing agreement. (At the) same time we will draft the rules...which will eventually clarify many of the obligations and responsibilities of various actors. Once the rules are notified, the concerns expressed by Indian and foreign suppliers will be taken into account. The fact that we are focusing on the role of suppliers is because we have suffered (the 1984) Bhopal (gas leak), no other country has. There is no question of amending it.

The UPA has been accused of being amoral in its efforts to get the India-US civil nuclear deal signed and the nuclear liability Bill passed. Comment?

The (parliamentary standing committee) report came to the government only at 11 o’clock on that day, (18 August). Before that, what happened in the committee, the government is not responsible for it. The government is only responsible for the original formulation of clause 17 (b) as we had introduced it in Parliament. There should be no apprehension that the government tried to bring in some “and". (The government had to remove an “and" between 17 (a) and 17 (b) after political parties feared the word “and" diluted the obligations on the part of suppliers of equipment in case of a nuclear accident). (At) no time the government had the intention of diluting the Bill. The government did not want to get into the controversy and we did not touch the formulation.

What’s the next step in the process of installation of nuclear energy reactors?

Next step is talking commercially to the vendors and (to) arrive at a purchasing agreement. We are talking to four companies—French (Areva SA), Russian (state-owned company), GE-Hitachi, (US-Japanese) and Westinghouse-Mitsubishi (US-Japanese). A Korean company also has shown interest. Of course, there is a big bonanza for Indian private sector manufacturers because almost 50-60% of the plant will be constructed by Indians.

The government had to accept 18 amendments to the Bill for getting it cleared. Wasn’t that a setback politically for the UPA?

We knew that the Bill would not be passed unless there is a wide consensus on it. The government worked very hard to build consensus... But all the amendments except two (one on raising the cap for liability from Rs500 crore to Rs1,500 crore and dropping the word “intent" from clause 17 (b)), which is fine although it goes further than the international civil nuclear jurisprudence.

There are many other Bills pending because we do not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha. The UPA has 91 members in the Rajya Sabha. Unless other parties come together, the Bills won’t be passed. That’s why the Wakf (Amendment) Bill, Prevention of Torture Bill and the Commercial Division of High Courts Bill, 2009, etc., are still pending.

Both you and the Prime Minister have been saying that nuclear energy would be a cheaper option. What would be the total cost of generating power over a 30- or a 50-year period from nuclear and coal-based power plants?

In nuclear power plants, the capital cost will be higher, but running cost—particularly fuel cost—becomes relatively low. The plant that we are building in Jaitapur in Maharashtra, once it is completed, would be producing 10,000MW. Such a nuclear power plant requires 400ha of land, including the safety zone, whereas a solar plant requires 20,000 acres. A nuclear power plant needs 350 tonnes of uranium a year, while a coal plant requires one shipload of coal every day and the cost of transportation—it’s mind-boggling.

While we cannot do away with coal-based plants for our future, the whole attempt here is the potential of nuclear power when we reach the third level of our nuclear power programme, when thorium becomes the fuel—that is when we can reach our energy independence because we have a very large store. But at the end of the day we are looking at the tariff.

The officials from various ministries that appeared before the parliamentary committee had said that no department is prepared to face a nuclear eventuality. Comment?

The nuclear industry makes nuclear power plants extremely safe. Cheronobyl (nuclear power plant in Ukraine where an accident took place in the 1980s) was a badly designed one and the Three Mile Island disaster (in the US in the 1970s) did not cause any death. Unfortunately, people associate nuclear energy with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are concerns that the nuclear accidents can be environmentally very expensive. We have...430 reactors working and our safety record is quite high. We have a nuclear disaster management. (But in this Bill) we are talking about the compensation and the relief and rehabilitation activities are entirely different.

There has been criticism that the government wanted to rush through the Bill ahead of US President Barack Obama’s visit to India in November.

It’s an unfortunate criticism. It is not that our only consideration is Barack Obama’s coming. (French) President (Nicolas) Sarkozy is coming and (Russian) President (Dmitry) Medvedev is coming (this year).