Monthly Archives: November 2015

Is Russia working on a massive dirty bomb?

Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces | Pavel Podvig | November 11, 2015


On November 10, 2015 President Putin held a regular meeting with his generals in Sochi to discuss development of the Russian strategic forces. The president used the occasion to complain again about U.S. missile defense plans and to warn that Russia will do whatever it takes to preserve the strategic balance.

But that was not the most interesting part of the news story. One sharp observer (MJ) noticed that the camera took a peek at one of the documents prepared for the meetings (it is at 1:46 in the news story). It showed a summary of one of the projects that presumably were discussed at the meeting as part of the plan to restore that strategic balance that the U.S. missile defense system so blatantly undermines.

The project is called “Ocean Multipurpose System ‘Status-6′” with the TsKB MT Rubin design bureau listed as the lead developer (Rubin is the design bureau that built virtually all submarines that are currently in service). A brief paragraph describes the mission of the proposed system as follows:

Damaging the important components of the adversary’s economy in a coastal area and inflicting unacceptable damage to a country’s territory by creating areas of wide radioactive contamination that would be unsuitable for military, economic, or other activity for long periods of time.

The picture that follows shows that at the core of the weapon system is an underwater autonomous drone (“self-propelled underwater craft” or SPA), which could be delivered by one of the two submarines – Project 09852 or Project 09851. For some reason, the drone is shown as attached to the bottom of the 09852 submarine, but not to the 09851 [UPDATE: Colleagues tell me that the vehicle attached to the 09582 sub is not the drone pictured later on the slide]. The text is hard to read, but it appears that Project 09852 submarine will carry four drones and Project 09852 – either 3 or 6. Given that 09852 is a smaller submarine (its displacement is shown as “10000 t” vs. what looks like a larger number for 09852), it’s probably 3. It certainly does not look like “1”, although “2” is a possibility. [UPDATE: I am told that a better quality photo shows that the number is “6”.]

Interestingly, these two submarines are relatively recent projects. Project 09852 was laid down at Sevmash in December 2012. It is said to use the hull of the Belgorod submarine of the Project 949A/Oscar II class. The first Project 09851 submarine, Khabarovsk, was laid down in July 2014. (Project 09851 was also mentioned in the R&D known as Kalitka-SMP.)

Again, the text is barely legible, but it appears that the drone would be able to travel at the depth of up to 1000 m at a fairly high speed (something like 105 km/h?). The range appears to be listed as 10000 km, which is a bit hard to believe, but this is what the slide says. The diameter (“caliber”) of the drone appears to be more than 1 meter (probably 1.6 m), the general’s hand hides the length of the device.

The drone appears to be nuclear-powered – the fourth compartment is marked “Reactor module”. This would explain the range, I guess, although it would need some guidance system to find its way around.

Further down the list, there is a drawing of the system’s components – command and control, support ships (non-nuclear submarine “Sarov” and some surface ship – Zvezdochka rescue ship I’m told), and something else that we cannot see.

Finally, the timeline at the bottom of the slide says that pilot system will be built by 2019, so the state tests can be conducted in 2019-2020.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this. First, it’s an interesting security lapse. I know that quite a few people believe that the leak was intentional, but I don’t think it’s the case. Indeed, as I understand, the news organizations quickly removed the clip from their sites. On the other hand, Bill Getz did have a story about Russian underwater drone, Kanyon, two months ago. The name is different, but it appears to be more or less the system Gertz’s Pentagon sources described. So, maybe Moscow decided that the leak would not be such a big deal. Still, they would have probably preferred to keep some details out of it.

As for the project itself, Russia is not the only country that is working on underwater drones. But the payload looks like a massive “dirty bomb”, which strikes me as absolutely crazy. A number of people noted that the description does not necessarily exclude the possibility that the initial “damaging” can be done by a regular nuclear device. Which only makes this whole thing even more insane – do they think that a nuclear weapon on its own would not inflict “unacceptable damage”?

UPDATE 11/12/15: The story generated quite a buzz, which is probably what the authors of this whole thing counted on. The consensus that is emerging from a number of discussions is that the “leak” was intentional. Moreover, a colleague who follow these things quite closely made a strong case that the “drone” on the slide is probably just an enlarged (and modified) image of a “regular” torpedo (such as UGST). This would explain the unusually large “combat module” and a number of other inconsistencies. However, the rest of the slide seems real – the submarines, the Zvezdochka ship, etc. Indeed, it is quite possible that the project is real as well – the Soviet Union did work on an underwater vehicle like this in the 1980s (here is an interesting story, although I would take it with a pinch of salt). Specifically, some work has been done on the vehicle’s nuclear reactor. The project was abandoned, of course, but these things rarely die. In fact, NITI in Sosnovy Bor is building a new facility to test liquid metal-cooled naval reactors. It is probably not related to this drone, but who knows.

Still, the whole thing strikes me as crazy regardless of whether the project is real or not. If it is real, I find it quite appalling that the ideas of this kind ever reach the level of a discussion with the president. If it is an attempt of high-level trolling, it’s even worse – if people in the Kremlin believe it was a clever way of sending some kind of a signal, they probably lost all their marbles.

Statement against India-UK nuclear cooperation

Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace | 16 November 2015

We strongly oppose the joint statement between UK and India signed during PM Modi’s visit to London, which calls for renewed push in the civil nuclear sector. The nuclear cooperation is absurd and dangerous for a number of reasons:

– the nuclear industry is facing terminal crisis in the UK, particularly with Hinkley Point coming under strong criticism for the its staggering cost and environmental impacts. UK itself is embarking on nuclear deals with China to import reactors, a move that has been called disastrous by the energy and safety experts in the country.

– in India, there have been intense protests by farmers and local communities against the proposed reactor sites where nuclear plants imported after the Indo-US nuclear deal are being set up. These protests have raised a wide array of issues – the local issues of livelihoods and environmental damage, the generic problems of nuclear energy and its inherently unsafe nature, the adverse economics of nuclear power and its undesirability for India’s nuclear future, the much worse safety culture in India owing to a non-independent regulator and a totally unaccountable and non-transparent nuclear industry, and the global shift away from nuclear power in the post-Fukushima world which India stands to miss due to its nuclear obsession.

– the joint statement furthers the dangerous myth of nuclear being a clean energy and a solution to climate change. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While nuclear does have substantial carbon foot-print from mining to the fabrication of high-grade concrete and other equipments, it cannot address climate change simply because climate change is a much more immediate challenge and nuclear power plants take typically 12-15 years to be built.

Modi government, ever since assuming power, has only furthered its predecessor’s discredited agenda of a dangerous and anachronistic nuclear policy. On issues like nuclear liability, fresh environmental assessment of Jaitapur and other projects that were hurriedly pushed by the Manmohan Singh government, and taking into account local people during land acquisition for these projects, the Modi govt has made dangerous and blatantly undemocratic u-turns from the stance of BJP itself when it was in opposition.

We demand an immediate scrapping of all such nuclear agreements, a moratorium on projects in the pipeline and an open and democratic national debate in India about nuclear energy.

For Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace
Achin Vanaik
Anil Chaudhary
Lalita Ramdas
Abey George

The Proliferation-as-Terrorism Rule

Emptywheel | November 12, 2015

Last week, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee tried to get Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson to list the Iran Republican Guard as a terrorist organization.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas) pressed Anne Patterson, assistant secretary of state in the bureau of near eastern affairs, during a hearing last week on Iran’s rogue activities.

Since the nuclear deal, “Iran has taken several provocative actions, including ballistic missile tests, the jailing of Americans on frivolous charges, and support for terrorist activities via the IRGC, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps,” McCaul said.

The corps has been linked to terrorist operations across the Middle East and beyond, including arming terror proxy groups fighting against the United States and Israel.

“I sent a letter to the president of the United States requesting that the IRGC be placed on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list because they are the terror arm of Iran,” McCaul said. “This would not lift the sanctions. It would keep the sanctions in place on the very terrorist activities that Iran wants to take the $100 billion and ship them toward these activities. What is your response to whether or not designating the IRGC as an FTO [foreign terrorist organization], whether that is a good decision?”

Patterson sidestepped the question, but said that the State Department does not think the group can legally be categorized as a terrorist organization.

“I can’t answer that question, Mr. McCaul,” Patterson said. “I’ll have to get back to you. I would not think they would meet the legal criteria, but I don’t really know.”

Now, I’m not actually interested in getting the IRGC listed as a terrorist organization, particularly not for arming militias, because I think that would be a very bad precedent for the world’s biggest arms proliferator. Moreover, I’m sure Patterson sees this effort as another attempt to squelch efforts for peace with Iran.

But I am interested in her squirming given that for some years — we don’t know how many, but there was a new group approved in June 2007 and another approved in July 2009, so probably at least 6 years — the NSA has targeted Iran using the counterterrorism phone dragnet. So the government has convinced a FISC judge that IRGC (or Iran more generally) is a terrorist group. But now the State Department is telling us they’re not.

Up until USA F-ReDux passed this year, when Congress extended the proliferation-related definition of a foreign power under FISA to include those aiding or conspiring with those actually doing the proliferation, the government seems to have always pushed whom could be spied on well beyond the definitions in the law (there appears to have been a non-NSA certificate for it under Protect America Act, for example). That extends to the phone dragnet, and does so in such a way that probably includes a lot of American businesses.

And, Patterson’s dodges notwithstanding, the government hasn’t been above calling Iran a terrorist organization to do it.

India’s policy on N-liability

Why India’s policy on N-liability reduces the potential of the civil nuclear deal with US

First Post | Jaideep Prabhu | Nov 12, 2015

There has been a lot of discussion about civil nuclear liability in India over the past four years. The new law promulgated by the government in 2010 as one of the requirements for making the Indo-US nuclear deal operational two years earlier has proven to be controversial and been the subject of much scrutiny. Nuclear vendors, both foreign and domestic, have been dismayed at the unorthodox stipulations of India’s Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act (CLNDA) and have generally stayed away from the country’s potentially lucrative market, scuttling what had promised to be a nuclear renaissance in 2008. The most offending clause – and there are a couple – is that in case of an accident, nuclear operators shall have recourse to legal measures against their suppliers. This goes against nearly six decades of internationally accepted practice of making the operator solely responsible for all liabilities.

Representational image. GettyImages

Proponents of India’s new interpretation of nuclear liability have argued that the present insurance regime makes little sense and goes against the entire body of tort law. No other industrial insurance system allows suppliers immunity from legislation even in case of fault. Nuclear vendors have so far enjoyed a risk-free ride that serves as an indirect subsidy to the entire industry. Some of this support is, no doubt, built on the experience of the Union Carbide tragedy in Bhopal in 1984 that killed about 4,000 people and injured over 550,000 according to government estimates. The horrific accident, followed by bitter legal battles and what many see as insufficient compensation, has left many Indians wary of foreign corporations and their technology.

There are, of course, reasons for the unusual evolution of nuclear liability. They begin in 1954, when the United States decided that the private sector may be invited into the nuclear energy market. Until then, there were no civilian nuclear reactors and all military facilities would be the responsibility of the government under various environmental and tort laws. Initially, there was reluctance to enter into the market because of the substantial risk involved and the difficulty of calculating insurance premiums for such low-probability yet high-risk events. The Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act (1957) simplified these issues by investing all liability in the nuclear operator, capping compensation limits, and including a no-fault condition. This was seen as an equitable distribution of risk and benefit between supplier, operator, and consumer.

Economic channelling of liability to the operator was efficient; if multiple vendors all had to take out insurance against a potential nuclear accident, not only would it raise the price of components but also lock down larger financial assets. Furthermore, smaller suppliers would hesitate to take on risk that could be orders of magnitude more than the value of their contract. Similarly, the public is guaranteed compensation without delay because of a no-fault liability – if legal disputes arose over who is liable for damages, victims may spend years waiting for the courts to decide on the case. The operator is also afforded some level of protection by capping damages. Thus, the benefits to each party in the nuclear concord are not insignificant. Though not a consideration when the Price-Anderson mechanism was formulated, it can additionally be argued today that nuclear power serves a public good by offering bountiful and reliable low-carbon energy.

Economic efficiency is not necessarily the prime consideration in policy-making but in the case of the nuclear industry, it might be the sensible yardstick. The notion is certainly not novel – governments frequently interfere in the market to prevent, break up, or regulate monopolies. For example, power distribution is a critical part of modern infrastructure; however, it would be foolish for companies to duplicate power lines simply to remain loyal to a strict textual reading of free market theory. Consequently, governments usually award a regulated monopoly to power distribution companies, thereby achieving economic efficiency and consumer protection as well as infrastructure development.

In India, of course, the traditional course of action has been for the government to have a powerful presence in business. However, recent legal amendments have opened the door to consider regulated monopolies in India. The Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act (1969) was replaced by the Competition Act (2002). In a significant departure from the former, the latter does not categorically disallow monopolies but concerns itself with merely the effect on the market in terms of consumer benefits and potential competitors. Clearly, Delhi has shown that it is not averse to economic efficiency if it is in the general interest of the public; the international nuclear liability norm is similarly another case of economic efficiency.

It is not that India’s decision makers do not understand economics. The real fear for politicians is the astronomical cost of a nuclear accident, however rare. The insurance pool established by the Price-Anderson Act has grown to approximately $14 billion today. This is by far the richest insurance pool available for awarding damages arising from a nuclear accident. Yet even the Price-Anderson nuclear insurance pool pales before some of the estimated costs of a nuclear cleanup. Fukushima, for example, where not a single death was caused by radiation, is still predicted to cost Japanese taxpayers around $100 billion. Nuclear suppliers have deeper pockets than nuclear operators, particularly in India, where the only legal operator is an autonomous government agency. Leaning on the vendor, as the Indian legislation does, will help defray the cost that the state as the guarantor of last resort will have to ultimately pay.

This strategy has not borne fruit – all international vendors have shunned the Indian market despite its potential. The only exception, the Russian state-owned Rosatom, has renegotiated its contract and drastically hiked the price of their reactors. While the cost of the first two reactors at Kudankulam was Rs 17,270 crores, the third and fourth reactors will cost India Rs 39,747 crores – more than double the original price when economies of scale should have actually lowered the price. Moreover, it is unlikely that suppliers will budge from their positions for the global precedent that would set. The cost of this impasse hurts India not just in the price per reactor but also environmentally and economically. The public interest would be better served were Delhi to accede to the standard international interpretation of nuclear liability.

This is not to delegitimise India’s fears of the cost of an improbable nuclear mishap. Rather, the solution must be found elsewhere. One possibility is to allow private sector entry into the nuclear power industry, allowing some of the costs of a nuclear accident to be borne by industry. In congruence with privatisation, a nuclear insurance pool may be set up that all operators would contribute to depending upon the number of reactors they own. A greater amount of reactors will create a bigger pool and if India were to modestly aim at even half of its electricity to be derived from nuclear power, substantial funds could be accumulated. In addition, suppliers can be called upon to contribute to the pool as well in the form of a small annual licensing fee per reactor. As long as they are not exposed to liability, most suppliers should accept this modest proposal.

An unpopular but required measure is to also assess how many of the safety precautions are psychological and how many are truly needed. To take just one example, evacuating a zone 50 km in radius always sounds better than clearing out an area 20 km in radius. However, how much is necessary is a decision scientists can make better than others; nuclear power plants already come with exclusion zones and evacuation beyond that should be dictated only by necessity.

If Delhi truly wanted to worry about liability, there are other aspects it can look at. For instance, its neighbours have shown increasing interest in nuclear power; Pakistan is acquiring reactors from China, Bangladesh has inked an agreement with Russia, and Sri Lanka is considering joining the nuclear club as well. If an accident were to occur at any of these sites, the trans-boundary implications could be severe. None of these states are party to any of the international liability conventions yet and responsibility for any accident will fall on each state for its own domain. Expanding Indian’s national nuclear pool to these countries is one solution but the sheer number of reactors India will have means that the Indian share in any compensation would be disproportionate. Nonetheless, this is an important conversation South Asia needs to have.

India’s stubbornness on nuclear liability seems to have the purpose of punishing foreign vendors rather than achieving a pragmatic system. For all its interest in holding suppliers liable for damages, one wonders why Delhi has not asked coal and oil companies to compensate the over 100,000 deaths per annum and millions afflicted by respiratory illnesses. India is wrong on supplier liability and it takes political courage to walk back a mistake. But that is what this government must do.

The real threats to Britain’s security

  • Cyber not nukes

  • Bombing (by such friends as Saudi Arabia)


emenis play the victims of airstrikes during a protest against ongoing Saudi-led coalition military operations in the country, in front of the UN offices in Sana a, Yemen, 08 November 2015. According to the United Nations, around 5000 people have been killed, 25,000 wounded, many of them civilians, and millions forced to flee their homes and left extremely food insecure since the excalation of the conflict in the impoverished Arab country in March. Photograph: YAHYA ARHAB/EPA

Richard Norton Taylor | The Guardian | 11 November 2015

“The nuclear deterrent”, Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, told BBC 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, “is at the heart of our defence”. He was responding to criticism directed at General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Britain’s most senior military officer.

In a clear reference to the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn’s, admission that, if he were prime minister, he would never order the commander of a Trident submarine to fire a nuclear weapon, Houghton said: “I would worry me if that thought was translated into power.”

Though he did not mention Corbyn by name on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Houghton said that position undermined the credibility of deterrence.

On the same morning Fallon was defending Houghton and Britain’s nuclear weapons, Robert Hannigan, director of GCHQ, warned a private conference in London about the growing threat of serious cyber attacks.

“Those charged in government with national security have worried about the top end threats for some time…there is no doubt signficant cyber attacks will become more common, not less in the coming period”, he is reported to have said.

British targets were being attacked 200 times a month, double the rate a year ago, according to GCHQ. Russia in particular is reported to getting more aggresssive.

Ciaran Martin, head of cyber security at GCHQ, was reported as saying: “These are attacks that are of significance to national security. That is either because of who the aggressor or the victim is or because of the nature of the attack.”

Senior defence officials say privately – and unsurprisingly – they are most worried about cyber attacks and terrorism – and also the lack of such conventional capabilities as maritime surveillance aircraft – but certainly not nukes.

How much the real threats to Britain’s national security will be reflected in the forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) due to be revealed on 23 November, remains to be seen.

It will be interesting, given George Osborne’s lead role in the exercise, whether the Treasury has been persuaded that spending billions of pounds on Trident renewal, aircraft carriers, and expensive planes to fly from them, are as useful investments as spending a fraction of the sum on intelligence – £1.25bn a year to 2020 – on a “joint security fund”.

The SDSR is expected to say that one priority will be Britain’s future relations with Gulf states.
Philip Dunne, the UK’s arms procurement minister, made clear at the recent Dubai air show, the Middle East’s biggest, that the Gulf region would feature prominently in the SDSR.

Britain is strengthening its intelligence-sharing relationships with authoritarian Gulf states, and Bahrain is building a naval base for British warships.

But Britain’s rellations with its biggest ally in the Gulf , and biggest arms market – Saudi Arabia – may be coming unstuck. The sale of 40-plus Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft is stalled (the Typhoon has got new order since 2012 , while its French rival, the Rafale, has been bought by Egypt, Qatar, and India).

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph last month, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Saudi ambassador to Britain, defended his country against recent attacks on its human rights record. He also criticised the decision to cancel a British government contract to advise the authorities in Saudi Arabia on prison reform.

“If the extensive trade links between the two countries are going to be subordinate to certain political ideologies, then this vital commercial exchange is going to be at risk”, he warned.

It was a significant intervention. So, too, were the comments made by Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, during BBC2’s Newsnight programme on Tuesday night.

“The Saudis deny that there have been any breaches of international humanitarian law,” said Hammond referring to Saudi aircraft striking targets in Yemen with British Paveway bomb.

He added: “Obviously that denial alone is not enough. We need to see proper investigations. We need to work with the Saudis to establish that international humanitarian law has been complied with. We have an export licensing system that responds if we find that it is not. We will then find that we cannot licence additional shipments of weapons.”

Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “The Gulf states have appalling human rights records, particularly Saudi Arabia, yet they are always the key focus for UK arms sales. Despite the cancellation of the Saudi prison contract, and despite the horrors being unleashed on the people of Yemen by UK arms, there is growing talk of David Cameron visiting the regime to apologise and make up.”


Who will be liable for an Indian Fukushima. Nobody it seems

Catch News | Kumar Sundaram | 10 November 2015

Who do we sue?

  • India to entirely exempt foreign nuclear suppliers from liability – AEC said last week
  • Who will be responsible in case of an accident then?

What breakthrough!

  • There was a Indo-US breakthrough on N-liability – Modi last week
  • Can a complete exemption from liability be called a breakthrough?

Past and present

  • The BJP had opposed Manmohan’s N-policy on many counts
  • Why then the U-turn by the Modi government now?

If the statement of the newly appointed chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission last week is anything to go by, the Narendra Modi government has made up its mind to entirely exempt foreign nuclear suppliers of any liability in case of a nuclear accident.

Not only does this mark an unfortunate U-turn from the BJP’s position on the issue so far, but also implies that the ‘breakthrough’ on the issue — claimed by the Prime Minister himself earlier this year — has evidently not gone far enough.

In January this year, when US President Barack Obama visited India, PM Modi declared a breakthrough between the two countries on nuclear liability. Re-asserting the BJP’s earlier position that foreign companies will have to abide by the law of the land, he announced the formation of an insurance pool of Rs 1,500 crore, which the nuclear suppliers can access in case they have to pay liability for a nuclear accident.

While this ‘breakthrough’ was celebrated as addressing the concerns of both investors and potential victims, critics pointed out that this pool was ultimately a way to channel liability back to the Indian exchequer.

Even this failed to placate foreign suppliers, especially the American companies. Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, made it clear in September that the nuclear giant will not invest in India until it is clearly exempted from liability.

Why do companies want to be liability-free?

Nuclear-supporters often lament that the sector is unduly pressured to commit liability whereas other industries do not have to deal with such laws.

N-supporters lament the sector is unduly pressured to commit liability. How true is that?

But what is the reality? Absence of liability laws in other hazardous industries simply means the normal ‘polluter pays’ principle would be applied. That places absolute and unlimited liability on entities running those industries.

It is actually to limit liability, and often to channel it to the public, that liability laws were introduced in the nuclear sector.

Consider these:

  • India’s nuclear liability law, enacted in 2010 to facilitate the entry of foreign and private players.
  • The Price-Anderson Act in the United States.
  • The Convention on Supplementary Compensation (CSC), which the big countries are trying to push as a global template for liability.

The push for such laws come from the industry.

India did not have a liability law for six decades before 2010 as the government was the sole player and it was assumed to have absolute and unlimited liability.

What is at stake

The insistence for a cap on liability is an admission of the insurmountable nature of serious nuclear accidents and economic costs so huge that the private sector just can’t shoulder.

Even as a number of countries in the developed world have shunned nuclear power, the global nuclear lobby has been claiming a ‘renaissance’ in the newer regions, particularly in Asia. And it is here that they insist for a nuclear-free business opportunity.

The industry-promoted CSC requires an even playing field globally without liability for nuclear suppliers.

Countries such as the United States and France are ready to accept this absurd standard precisely because they don’t have big plans to expand nuclear energy and have mostly domestic players for whom other mechanisms are in place.

But the newer countries lack experience, expertise and regulation to ensure safety – in case of nuclear accidents, the common people will be left disastrously hapless.

This includes India, which does not have any experience in designs like the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) that French giant Areva seeks to build in Jaitapur. The design has been heavily criticised earlier this year by the French regulator itself. Yet Modi furthered the deal during his France visit.

Liability is about much more than compensation. Independent experts and civil society have repeatedly highlighted the ‘moral hazard’ that the presence of nuclear liability ensures by acting as an incentive for best safety practices.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has underlined three aspects of a nuclear liability mechanism:

  • Protect the public
  • Safeguard the environment
  • Enhance nuclear safety

The liability question also serves as a lay person’s guide to nuclear safety. If nuclear energy promoters do not have enough confidence in their own product to put their financial interests at stake, how can they expect others to stake their lives and health?

India’s nuclear liability law

The Indian law, the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, provides for a ‘right of recourse’ against the nuclear suppliers in case of an accident to state-owned operator Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCIL) under Clause 17(b).

The clause was introduced under pressure from Parliament and civil society by a reluctant Manmohan Singh government. At that time there was a public outcry on liability, following the June 2010 Bhopal judgment that let the accused go almost scot-free. This led to a sensitive debate.

Although the Act capped the total liability at a ridiculously low amount and was criticised for its complicated procedural stipulations, it provided for a very limited hook on private suppliers — both foreign and home-grown.

Attempts to dilute and circumvent the liability norm started soon. These included making supplier culpability dependent on an explicit mention of the liability provision in the bilateral contract between the supplier and the operator.

In addition, the Indian government limited the product liability period to just five years under the Nuclear Liability Rules, 2011, designed to guide the implementation of the 2010 Act. Eminent jurist Soli Sorabjee termed the Rules “ultra vires” of the Act and going against its spirit.

In his last foreign trip as PM, when Singh went to the United States, he offered “as a gift” a reinterpretation of the liability law. According to that, the operator has an option of not exercising its right of recourse against the supplier. He assured Obama that the public-owned Indian operator will not sue suppliers.

Evidently, even this failed to assuage companies such as GE and Westinghouse. They were uncertain about future Indian governments abiding by such a promise, especially in the wake of public pressure that would follow any big nuclear accident.

The foreign corporations have also been opposed to the Indian law as it is a departure from the CSC, which they want the world to adopt as an international template. Ironically, India rushed to sign the CSC in October 2010, soon after it enacted the domestic law. It then started citing that as a reason to amend the Parliament-mandated law.

At that time there were fewer CSC signatories. Only in April this year the Convention has entered into force. India had an opportunity, as an attractive investment destination for the nuclear sector, to actually lobby for amendments to the CSC to ensure adequate liability for people in developing countries.

Modi government’s nuclear U-turns

The current PM has been showcasing nuclear deals as a measure of his foreign-policy success. However, he has merely renewed the intent and deals agreed to by the previous regime.

A U-turn on BJP’s stand on nuclear liability may just be Modi’s most dangerous mistake

Although not opposed to nuclear energy in principle, the BJP made certain pro-people demands when in opposition:

  • A higher cap on liability and non-dilution of the suppliers’ liability
  • Fresh environmental assessments in case of projects like Jaitapur (where the Congress government rushed to provide green clearances on the eve of the French President’s visit)
  • A more democratic dialogue with local people before initiating the construction of a new project
  • An overall fresh and transparent safety audit of the nuclear sector after the Fukushima accident in Japan.

In its 10-year stint in the Opposition, the BJP criticised the Singh government’s nuclear policy. It strongly objected to the Government of India’s attempts to exempt foreign suppliers from nuclear liability, calling it a blatant capitulation.

The party said it believed and sided with the people’s objections and fears over Koodankulam project until 2011. But now Modi has invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Koodankulam for jointly announcing construction of more reactors.

The BJP also strongly opposed India signing the IAEA’s Additional Protocol, based on its own nationalist logic that such an intrusive inspection will deny the country of the required flexibility in maintaining a credible deterrence.

After taking charge, the Modi government ratified the same agreement.

The BJP was opposed to the Act itself in 2010 as the suppliers’ liability is meagre. It opposed limiting the liability as well as channelling it to the Indian taxpayer.

At that time it had alleged that “the bill was being brought under US pressure mainly to keep the two American multinationals – Westinghouse and General Electric – from paying any liability and making the Indian government liable to pay in case of an accident.”

“Clearly, the life of an Indian is only worth a dime compared to the life of an American,” former finance minister Yashwant Sinha had said.

But liability for foreign suppliers may now be entirely removed, not just diluted.

In his one and a half year in office, Modi hasn’t demonstrated any particular penchant for consistency, but this would be his most dangerous U-turn, imperilling millions of innocent Indian lives.

Sellafield’s ageing THORP plant flunks major foreign fuel reprocessing target

IPFM Blog | Martin Forwood | November 6, 2015

Stumbling along at half speed to its scheduled end-date of 2018, Sellafield’s ‘flagship’ Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) continues to notch up missed targets – this time the completion of all overseas reprocessing contracts by the end of 2016. Overseas customers must now wait (at least) until 2018 (the closure date for the plant itself) to see the end of what has been, for them, a less than rewarding reprocessing experience.

In early 2014, a Sellafield stakeholder meeting was told that the shearing of all remaining overseas LWR fuel – scheduled to be dealt with in roughly equal tranches over financial years 2014/15 – 2016/17 – would be completed by November 2016. Featuring high on Sellafield’s ‘to do’ list, the 2016 projection was highlighted as a ‘key activity’ by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) in its Business Plan 2014-17, an annotation that reflected the pressure exerted by successive UK Governments – concerned by the loss of face from any failure of inter-government contract agreements – for the earliest completion of overseas reprocessing work.

By October 2015 however, Sellafied Ltd admitted to the same stakeholders that technical difficulties within THORP had prevented the reprocessing of any overseas fuel in 2015/16 and that the outstanding tonnage was now scheduled for completion by THORP’s closure in 2018. As shown in the Table below, published by the UK Government’s Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) in January 2015, the outstanding contracts amount to some 150 tonnes with German utilities dominating the list at 146 tonnes. The remnant overseas contracts are likely to be dealt with via ‘virtual reprocessing’, where equivalent amounts of fissile materials and waste would be allocated to each client.

Customer country Fuel delivered, tU Fuel reprocessed, tU Fuel in stock, tU
Germany 865 718.66 146.11
Switzerland 353.9 353.59 0.31
Italy 1592.06 1591.43 0.63
Netherlands 57 56.67 0.33
Sweden 144.6 144.57 0.03
Spain 153.63 153.43 0.2
Canada 6.36 4.16 2.2
Japan 4185.15 4183.46 1.69
Totals 7357.47 7205.97 151.5
Table contains data at 9 January 2015 for Sellafield THORP and Magnox fuels. Note: all overseas Magnox fuel has been reprocessed.

Providing only limited detail of the technical difficulties within THORP that has forced the new delay in completing the German contracts, Sellafield Ltd has pointed the finger at the problems associated with insoluble fuel debris (including the cladding of the fuel) which results from the initial stage of reprocessing when the spent fuel is sheared and dissolved in nitric acid. Whilst some debris is sieved out at the dissolver stage, other insoluble debris is transported within the dissolved liquor through further stages of the plant where, in the form of ‘coarse fines’, it causes internal scouring, pipework erosion and system blockages.

Whilst such events have caused a number of extended THORP stoppages over the years, in this case the problem lies apparently with the development of a pinhole in a decanter, which is designed to remove any remaining fuel debris from the dissolved fuel liquor prior to its further chemical separation. Given the historic experience of the zirconium alloy fuel cladding of overseas LWR fuel proving more problematic than UK AGR fuel in terms of blockage and erosion, the former has been re-scheduled in order to protect the remnant life of 21-year old THORP by providing an easier run-in to its 2018 closure date.

The fallout from the enforced re-scheduling of overseas fuel falls squarely on the unfortunate German utilities that own the 146 tonnes of LWR fuel that remain to be reprocessed, some of which was contracted for THORP’s first ten year Baseload period and projected for completion by 2004. The prospect of that completion now slipping to 2018 – an overall delay of 14 years – will doubtless further infuriate the very same Baseload Customers (BLC) who, in a leaked document relating to a meeting with British Nuclear Fuels plc (BNFL) in September 2000, warned of a loss of confidence in Sellafield’s technical ability that was enhanced by “BNFL’s apparent inability to reprocess our fuel within the agreed baseload period”. The German power stations from whom Baseload contracts had been secured for THORP included Krummel, Brokdorf, Unterweser, Grohnde, Biblis, Neckarwestheim, Gundremmingen and Lingen.

The planned closedown of THORP in November 2018 – described as a political decision unlikely to be reversed – will lead to a 4-year period of Post Operative Clean Out (POCO) of the plant. As a pre-cursor, THORP’s Receipt and Storage Pond water will be caustically ‘dosed’ to enable the long-term storage of the estimated 5400 tonnes of AGR spent fuel that will remain un-reprocessed and pond-stored prior to disposal. Such a status has enraged Sellafield’s trades unions and some local authority members who are threatening to withhold any further support for the UK’s ongoing search for an underground waste dump that will contain spent fuel they consider best reprocessed.

Bringing in much needed revenue to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to help towards Sellafield’s ever rising clean-up and decommissioning costs, completing this overseas work has long been a priority for the UK Government and Sellafield Ltd. Put in context, THORP’s original order book included some xxx tonnes of LWR fuel from overseas utilities. All such contracts, plus those secured from the UK’s fleet of AGR power stations, were originally scheduled for completion in 2010, a date that had to be abandoned in 2005 when THORP suffered a major leak accident (INES 3) which closed the plant for almost 2 years and reduced its future ‘throughput’ by around 50%.