Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Citizens have a Right to Seek Information on Nuclear Plant Safety: The Right Decision

In my previous blogs, I tracked the developments regarding India’s newest and largest nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu. If you recall, a core contention between the government and the opponents of the plant is the question of safety plans. E.g. how will people living within 30 miles be evacuated in the case of an emergency? Along with protests and fasts continue, opponents applied for information on the safety plan under India’s Right to Information Act. The lead agency, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) denied the request, on the ground that the information was “classified.” In particular, the agency apparently denied access because revealing the safety plan would also result in the release of certain design specifications provided by Russian manufacturers.

According to news reports, the Central Information Commission (CIC), the designated appellate body under RIA has disagreed with NPCIL’s interpretation and has ordered NPCIL to share the safety plans. The CIC determined that the portion describing the design could be redacted from the safety plan.

CIC’s decision appears to be in accordance with RIA. Section 8(1) of RIA allows the government or concerned agency to deny a RIA request for certain reasons, including preserving the sovereign interests of India, including its securiy and economic interests, as well as to protect commercial and trade-related confidential information. However, section 8(2) clarifies that where the public interest is better served by disclosing, rather than by protecting the information, such information should be disclosed. This provision overrides the Official Secrets Act, 1923.  

Even if (thankfully) few and far apart, two major nuclear accidents have demonstrated the vitality of safety plans. They provide evidence that the safety of residents outweighs commercial considerations in matters relating to nuclear energy. However, the CIC's decision is much narrower and instead of requiring the agency to share the entire safety plan, it has required it to simply share parts of the plan that it apparently did not classify as confidential.  

The disclosure of the information is critical for three reasons. First, it will demonstrate NPCIL's adherence to the rule of law. Second, and relatedly, it can increase the legitimacy of the project. If NPCIL's safety plans are reasonable and demonstrate that the agency did consider the interests of the residents, it may be able to convince at least some opponents to come on board. Third, locales with better knowledge of on-ground issues may be able to contribute to both the improvement and implementation of the plan. 

If NPCIL refuses to comply, it only colors the matter further. Such loss of legitimacy in the aftermath of the accidents in Japan, may only exacerbate the protests. It is afterall not reasonable to ask residents to settle for the propositions made by NPCIL in its release of facts. At the cost of exaggerating, let me end by noting one hundred years back the Titanic sunk. Even though it was built with great care, at great cost, and marked a significant feat, one of its flaws remained the lack of sufficient attention to safety. While NPCIL may be taking great care, its safety plans are critical in the event of a catastrophic accident. The decision of the CIC appears to be moving the NPCIL in the right direction by asking it to share such critical information with those who may be most affected by an improbable accident. 



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