Bench says it's not averse to idea of setting up independent regulatory body

The Supreme Court on Friday indicated that it would not go into the safety aspects of all nuclear plants in the country and all such concerns could be addressed to respective High Courts.

A Bench of Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia and Justice Swatanter Kumar, however, said it was not averse to going into the issue of setting up an independent regulatory body to conduct safety reassessment of all existing and proposed nuclear facilities.

The Bench was hearing a public interest writ petition, jointly filed by Common Cause; the Centre for Public Interest Litigation; former bureaucrats, including T.S.R. Subramanian; the former Chief Election Commissioner, N. Gopalaswami; and university professors seeking a safety reassessment of all nuclear facilities in the country, and a comprehensive long-term cost-benefit analysis of the plants.When counsel Prashant Bhushan insisted that the court issue notice and examine this petition, the Chief Justice said: “These plants were constructed over the years. Every plant has its structure. The area and the people are also relevant. We are not technical experts or qualified to examine them. We cannot pass across the board norms for all reactors.”

When the Chief Justice wanted to know whether representations were made pointing out security concerns, Mr. Bhushan said many letters were written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Department of Atomic Energy, but no action was taken. However, Attorney-General G.E. Vahanvati told the Bench: “The petition only annexes 93 letters. The government has not received any representation.”

Mr. Bhushan said he would produce the representations made and the letters written to the Prime Minister, and the court granted two weeks for doing so and adjourned the hearing till then.

The PIL questioned the constitutional validity of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, which indemnifies nuclear manufacturers/suppliers and caps the financial liability of operators. It also sought a stay on all proposed plants until the safety and cost-benefit analysis was carried out. The March Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan had turned out far graver than originally feared. The reactors and overheated spent-fuel pools had spewed out radioactivity that had now spread over hundreds of square kilometres.

The petitioners wanted costs and risk factors thoroughly factored in and the highest level of safety ensured before a plant was cleared for commissioning.

The petition pointed out that four 700 MWe pressurised heavy water reactors, two at Rawatbhata in Rajasthan and two at Kakrapar in Gujarat were under construction. “Two reactors at Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu and two reactors in Haripur district of West Bengal are under construction based on Russian design” and the nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu had met extremely stiff opposition from people in the area.

The petition said: “the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, by capping the financial liability of operators and by making suppliers not liable, violates the ‘polluter pays' principle and the ‘absolute liability' principle which have become recognised as part of the law of the land under Article 21 of the Constitution, and puts to grave and imminent risk the right to safety, health, clean environment and life of the people of India guaranteed under Article 21.” Hence the writ petition sought to declare the nuclear law as unconstitutional and void.

Keywords: nuclear safety

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