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How Indian govt may protect US nuclear firms against Indian liability law

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by Amit Bhandari

New Delhi: A $48-billion (Rs 3.26 lakh crore) penalty claimed by the US government from Volkswagen for cheating on diesel car emissions is about 200 times as large as the $225 million (Rs 1,500 crore) insurance pool set up by Indian insurance companies to compensate US nuclear power companies for mishaps in India.

If a US nuclear company were to build a reactor in India that suffered a catastrophe, and people were to die in India, the US government’s position seems to be that American suppliers shouldn’t face civil or criminal liability. The US believes the Indian civil nuclear liability law, which calls for both penalties, is unduly harsh. Rather than say so directly, US officials keep repeating that the “Indian law is inconsistent with the international liability regime”.

The Indian civil nuclear liability law holds the equipment supplier responsible for any incident caused by the supplier or its employees. The Indian liability law differs from those of other countries because it was drafted keeping in mind the 1984 Bhopal tragedy –where, despite 5,000 deaths and effects across generations, no one was held criminally liable.

The penalty demanded in the Volkswagen case is about 100 times the compensation of $470 million – ($907 million in 2014 dollars) – paid by the US firm Union Carbide after the Bhopal Gas tragedy, which also left 70,000 people maimed or injured. Volkswagen’s cover-up caused no injuries or deaths.

Although the Indian government wants to protect US nuclear companies against the Indian liability law, critics argued that these companies are using India’s eagerness to avoid any liability, if something goes wrong.

India wants to build more nuclear power plants in an attempt to reduce the share of coal in electricity generation. Increasing the use of nuclear power is also a part of the country’s strategy to tackle climate change.

India currently has 5,780 MW of nuclear power in operation and plans to add another 17,400 MW, making it possibly the largest market for nuclear power after China, and a financially lucrative prospect for Western firms faced with limited domestic sales.

However, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster has heightened concerns about nuclear safety and accident costs. The fallout of that disaster will also make it hard to change India’s liability laws.

The US’ large settlements extend to corporate wrong-doing beyond its borders. Large settlements in the US are a regular feature. In October 2015, the Justice Department arrived at a settlement with oil major BP, which will pay a penalty of $20.8 billion to cover the economic and environmental damage arising from a 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Volkswagen could, in theory, face fines of as much as $37,500 per vehicle for each of two violations of the law; up to $3,750 per “defeat device”; and another $37,500 for each day of violation, a Reuters report said.

In April 2010, a deepwater oil-drilling rig operated by BP, the Deepwater Horizon, suffered an explosion which killed 11 men, and the well it was drilling leaked over five million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

This was the largest-ever settlement in the history of the Department; the Volkswagen penalty could be larger.

A number of companies have paid tens of billions of dollars in fines over the past decade for breaking US law.

Top US banks, such as Bank of America, JP Morgan, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley, have paid multi-billion dollar fines for their roles in the 2008 global financial crisis, caused by reckless business practices of large Western banks.

The remit of the US Justice Department extends beyond its borders and to foreign firms as well. In May 2015, five global banks–- Citicorp, JP Morgan, Barclays, UBS and the Royal Bank of Scotland–agreed were to pay fines adding up to $2.5 billion, for manipulating a widely-used financial benchmark set in London. This brings the total penalty paid by these banks for their role in this manipulation to $9 billion.

UK-based HSBC was fined for “illegally conducting transactions on behalf of customers in Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Burma” –countries under US economic sanctions.

During the financial year 2015, the US justice department collected $23 billion in penalties in various civil and criminal cases, slightly lower than the collection for 2013, when it had a record haul. Indian firms were also fined in the US.

While the US nuclear industry wants to avoid any liability in India for acts of omission or commission, Indian companies have often been slapped with large fines for violations of US law.

Drug manufacturer Ranbaxy paid penalties of $500 million (Rs 3,400 crore) in 2013 for falsifying data about its drugs and for not following proper manufacturing practices- –more than twice the value of the nuclear liability insurance pool to be created in India.

In 2013, tech firm Infosys paid a $35 million penalty in a civil settlement on allegations of visa misuse; the firm maintained that the “claims are untrue and remain unproven”.

India, too, has started levying big fines. For instance, in 2013, a group of Indian cement companies was fined Rs 6,698 crore by the Competition Commission of India for working as a cartel and over-charging consumers. This amount, levied for unfair business practices rather than causing deaths and injuries, is 4.4 times the proposed liability cap for nuclear incidents.

Similarly, Delhi-based real estate firm DLF has been recently ordered to pay a penalty of Rs 630 crore for unfair business practices. (IANS/ IndiaSpend.org)

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Women of America Are Stepping Up As Nuclear Energy Advocates

Nuclear power is clean, safe and better for the environment than some alternative energy sources

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Nuclear Energy
Engineering manager Kristin Zaitz and her co-worker Heather Matteson, a reactor operator, started Mothers for Nuclear. VOA
  • The availability of cheap natural gas and greater energy efficiency has reduced demand for nuclear energy in recent years
  • Nuclear power is clean, safe and better for the environment than some alternative energy sources
  • Industry experts say that women who work in nuclear power can be powerful advocates for nuclear

San Francisco, August 26, 2017: Kristin Zaitz is confident that her nuclear power plant is safe.

Zaitz, an engineering manager, was at Diablo Canyon Power Plant during both her pregnancies and has scuba dived to inspect the plant, which hugs the California coast. Zaitz wears a pendant with a tiny bit of uranium inside, an item that tends to invite questions.

“We all have our perceptions of nuclear,” Zaitz said.

In a few years, Diablo Canyon will close, part of a trend nationwide. The availability of cheap natural gas and greater energy efficiency has reduced demand for nuclear energy in recent years. Add to that ongoing concerns about public safety, such as those raised by memories of disasters at nuclear power plants in Fukushima, Japan, Chernobyl in Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) and Three Mile Island in the United States.

Nuclear is ‘cleaner’ than fossil fuels

Supporters of nuclear energy say that when a reactor-based generating station closes, not enough wind and solar power is available to make up the difference. They lament that energy companies tend to turn instead to fossil fuels — coal and natural gas — which produce environmentally harmful emissions.

Zaitz and her co-worker Heather Matteson, a reactor operator, started Mothers for Nuclear, their effort to get the word out that nuclear power is clean, safe and better for the environment than some alternative energy sources.

“I went into the plant very skeptical of nuclear and being scared of it,” said Matteson. “It took me six to seven years to really feel like this is something good for the environment. I don’t want people to take six to seven years to make that decision. We don’t have that long.”

Matteson, too, wears the uranium necklace as a conversation starter. “Nuclear is fun,” she said. Is there any radiation emitted by the pendant? “There’s slightly more than from a banana,” she conceded.

Also Read: Indian nuclear industry growing fast, says former Atomic Energy Commission chief

Women seen as powerful advocates

Industry experts say that women who work in nuclear power can be powerful advocates for nuclear. They can help change attitudes of other women who tend to be more skeptical than men about nuclear energy’s benefits.

At the recent U.S. Women in Nuclear conference in San Francisco, women working in the industry talked about how more should be done to make nuclear power’s case to the public, and how they may be the best suited to do it.

“As mothers, I think we also have an important role to play in letting the public know that we support nuclear for the future, for our children,” said Matteson. “And we don’t know other mothers supporting nuclear power in a vocal way. We thought there was a gap to fill.”

Young women say they look at careers in this industry because they are socially minded.

‘Do something good for the world’

“I went into this wanting to do something good for the world,” Lenka Kollar, business strategy director at NuScale, a firm in Oregon that designs and markets small modular reactors. “Wanting to bring power to people. There are still more than a billion people in the world who don’t have electricity.”

Critics of nuclear energy say it doesn’t matter who is promoting it.

“Using mothers’ voices to argue for a technology that is fundamentally dangerous and that has been demonstrated by disasters like Fukushima to be not safe for the communities that surround the power plants or even cities that are hundreds of miles away is disingenuous,” said Kendra Klein, a staff scientist with Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.

While the future of nuclear power in the United States may be uncertain, the women here say they have a positive story to tell. (VOA)

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Minamata Convention on Mercury: A Landmark UN Treaty which Aims to Keep Millions Safe from Mercury Poisoning, comes into Effect

So far, 128 countries have signed the treaty and 74 have ratified it

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Treaty
A woman holds a victim of "Minamata Disease," or mercury poisoning, in Minamata, Japan, in a 1973 photo. The Minamata Convention, a global treaty aimed at curtailing the mining and use of mercury, took effect Wednesday. VOA
  • A landmark global treaty aimed at keeping millions safe from the horrors of mercury poisoning took effect Wednesday
  • The treaty requires governments to stop mercury mining, continue to cut mercury use in industry and slash emissions
  • Governments that signed the treaty must also meet tough conditions for storing and safely disposing mercury waste

The 2013 Minamata Convention was named for the Japanese bay from which mercury-tainted fish left thousands of people with severe brain damage in 1956. Industrial wastewater had been dumped into the bay for more than 20 years.

So far, 128 countries have signed the treaty and 74 have ratified it.

“The Minamata Convention shows that our global work to protect our planet and its people can continue to bring nations together,” UN environmental chief Erik Solheim said Wednesday. “We did it for the ozone layer and now we’re doing it for mercury, just as we need to do it for climate change.”

ALSO READ: Exploiting Nature, Exploiting Lives – HUL’S Mercury leaching in Kodaikanal

Mercury was commonly used in batteries, fluorescent lights, felt production, thermometers, and barometers. These uses have been phased out. The treaty requires governments to stop mercury mining, continue to cut mercury use in industry and slash emissions.

Mercury is an extremely poisonous metal that never breaks down. Contact with it attacks the nervous system and can cause brain damage, severe emotional problems, coma, and even death. Children are especially at risk.

Mercury forms naturally in the environment but is also man-made for industrial uses.

“There is no safe level of exposure to mercury nor are there cures for mercury poisoning,” the U.N. says.

Governments that signed the treaty must also meet tough conditions for storing and safely disposing mercury waste. (VOA)

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Satirical Weekly Charlie Hebdo Mocks Chancellor Angela Merkel in First German Edition, almost 2 Years after Islamist Militants attacked its top Editorial Staff in Paris

The magazine is known in France for ridiculing political and religious leaders

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The first issues of the German version of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo are for sale at a newsstand in Berlin, Dec. 1, 2016. VOA

The first German edition of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo hit the news stands on Thursday, with a front page lampooning Chancellor Angela Merkel, almost two years after Islamist militants attacked its top editorial staff in Paris.

The magazine also picked on another symbol of post-war German might — Europe’s biggest carmaker Volkswagen, still struggling to recover from its diesel emissions scandal.

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“VW backs Merkel,” reads the headline, with a picture showing a VW mechanic fixing 62-year-old Merkel on a hydraulic lift, saying: “A new exhaust pipe and you’ll run for another four years.”

Merkel announced last month she would stand for a fourth term in elections next year.

Launch posters showed Merkel sitting on the toilet reading the magazine, with the slogan: “Charlie Hebdo. It’s liberating.”

The magazine, known in France for ridiculing political and religious leaders, became a symbol for the freedom of expression after two militants broke into an editorial meeting at its Paris office in Jan. 2015 and killed 12 people.

The Islamists accused the magazine of blasphemy for printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

NewsGram brings to you top news around the world today.

Some German customers said they were buying the magazine as a gesture of solidarity.

“For me, this is more a feeling that I support this and I want it to continue now that it has just started,” said Tim Wuennemann.

An initial run of 200,000 will be printed in Germany — twice the circulation of the country’s current best-known satirical magazine, Titanic. Some of its contents will be original, some translated from the French.

The boundaries of satire were tested this year when Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan took legal action against German comedian Jan Boehmermann for broadcasting a satirical poem suggesting the president engaged in bestiality and watched child pornography. (VOA)