NEW DELHI  - India’s nuclear energy regulator is weak and lacks independence which poses “grave risks” to the country, the national auditor warned on Thursday in a report.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) said it had analysed the performance of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) in light of the expansion of nuclear power in energy-starved India.

It warned that the organisation was effectively a ‘subordinate office’ to the central government and had no powers to make rules, monitor safety at nuclear power plants or enforce standards.

“Failure to have an autonomous and empowered regulator is fraught with grave risks,” the CAG concluded in its report, pointing to the lessons learned from the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year. It added: “There is an urgent need for the government to bolster the status of AERB if it is to qualify as an independent regulator in a sector which is likely to become increasingly important.”

Responsibility for monitoring exposure to radioactive substances at nuclear power plants lay with the operators not the AERB, and the regulator had no power to put in place emergency procedures, the CAG said. Neither did it have any oversight of the decommissioning process for nuclear power plants, for which there is “no legislative framework”, and it had no way of confirming that radioactive waste was disposed of safely. India is heavily dependent on coal and produces less than three percent of its energy from its existing atomic plants. The government hopes to raise the figure to 25 percent by 2050.

In the most recent accident at a nuclear plant, more than 40 workers at the Rajasthan Atomic Power Station in northern India were exposed to tritium radiation in June and July, although none of them was seriously harmed. The CAG also highlighted the AERB’s lax monitoring of other radiation centres, including medical X-ray facilities or other industrial centres using radioactive substances.

In April 2010, a machine from Delhi University containing cobalt-60, a radioactive metal used for radiotherapy in hospitals, ended up in a scrapyard in the city. It killed a worker and led seven other to be hospitalised. “Around 91 percent of the medical X-ray facilities in the country had not been registered with AERB and as such were out of its regulatory control,” the report said.

Meanwhile, India, which is going to import uranium from Australia, will dismantle its nuclear regulator (AERB), replacing the current expert panel with a government-controlled body, a move being blasted by critics as a ‘sham’.

Legislation before the Indian Parliament will result in the AERB being replaced with the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority. The authority will be answerable to a clutch of government ministers who can direct the regulator, and even sack its members, giving rise to allegations the new body will be captive to government.