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[NEW DELHI] India has announced that it will set up a new, independent nuclear regulatory authority and invite international experts to conduct safety audits of its nuclear power plants,

The steps to allay public fears following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant breakdown in March were announced this week (26 April) at a joint media briefing by three ministers. It included a minister from the prime minister's office, V. Narayanaswamy; environment minister Jairam Rames; and Prithviraj Chavan, chief minister of the western state of Maharashtra, where India plans to build its largest nuclear power plant at Jaitapur.

A bill on the new nuclear watchdog to replace the current atomic energy regulatory board (AERB), set up in 1983 under India's department of atomic energy, will be introduced in the next session of the Indian parliament beginning July.

India will also invite the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) operational safety review team (OSART) to help with its safety reviews, Narayanaswamy announced.

Environmental experts and even some former nuclear scientists, including former AERB chairman A. Gopalakrishnan, have been long pointing out that India lacks a truly independent nuclear regulatory agency.

In a column in the Daily News and Analysis paper on Tuesday, Gopalakrishnan said that India's nuclear safety audits —  in 1979 after the US Three Mile accident and in 1986 after the Chernobyl accident, have never been made public. In 1995, when he ordered a fresh review as AERB chairman, it was also never made public. He wrote: "… this subservient organisation [AERB] had remained a silent and inactive spectator for 12 years (since 1983) on the face of these serious safety deficiencies".

Gopalakrishnan supported OSART involvement in India's future nuclear safety audits. "Such an OSART review will be fully unbiased, technically comprehensive and instil a lot more public confidence than a review conducted solely by a captive and relatively inexperienced AERB, or through a peer review by the World Association of Nuclear Operators ..." he observed.

Meanwhile, the Indian government also announced on Tuesday that there would be no rethink on the controversy-ridden Jaitapur plant, with six 1,600 megawatt reactors, to be built by the French firm Areva. The first two reactors are scheduled to be ready by 2019.

Opponents cite environmental concerns: the site is one of India's richest biodiversity hotspots; it is in a mildly seismic zone; and it will use untested technology from Areva.