By Douglas Busvine
NEW DELHI, Jan 26 (Reuters) - A civil nuclear pact struck at summit talks between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Barack Obama could help clear a logjam of stalled projects, the head of U.S. nuclear power plant maker Westinghouse told Reuters on Monday.
Daniel Roderick, president and CEO of Toshiba-backed Westinghouse Electric Co, said a commitment by India to “channel” immediate costs arising from any nuclear accident to the plant operator marked an important step forward.
But he said he was looking for more detail on a nuclear liability insurance pool that India has proposed that would involve a state insurer and be backed by the government.
“The term breakthrough is appropriate,” Roderick said in an interview in New Delhi. “We have been in such a logjam for such a long time that making forward progress with a large stride instead of not even a baby step is pretty significant for us.”
At their first summit in September in Washington, Obama and Modi set up a contact group to address ambiguities in a 2010 liability law passed by India that put ultimate responsibility for any accident on nuclear equipment suppliers, and not on plant operators.
The law sought to prevent a repeat of the battles for compensation over the Bhopal gas disaster three decades ago, but had the effect of stalling billions of dollars in projects under a U.S.-India nuclear alliance struck in 2006.
The Indian side said it was not able to change the law, but still made a convincing case that costs - such as rehousing people away from a nuclear accident site - should be borne by a plant operator and not its suppliers, said Roderick.
“Legal experts have looked at and said, OK, yeah that makes sense,” he said. “They believe they have that issue solved.”
On the nuclear liability insurance workaround, Roderick said he looked forward to hearing more details but welcomed the commitment from the Indian side to finalise the proposal in the coming weeks.
Under the plan, the state-run insurance company GIC Re and four other Indian state companies would contribute 7.5 billion rupees ($122 million) to the pool and the government would contribute an equal sum.
“I am very optimistic if we can get past that hurdle, and if the insurance does what has been discussed ... then maybe we can move forward,” Roderick said.
Westinghouse is keen to launch its AP1000 reactor in India, where it has partnered with Larsen & Toubro, but has not progressed beyond a $10 million feasibility study and the award of a site in Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
It is already building eight AP1000 reactors in China and four in the United States. The first of the 1,100-megawatt reactors should enter service in China in early 2016.
The AP1000 uses a ‘passive’ technology in which water cools the reactor core under the force of gravity. That means, said Roderick, that it can remain safe in the event of an accident similar to the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan without external power or human intervention. (Reporting by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Roberta Rampton and Raju Gopalakrishnan)