There are two parts to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Kudankulam, and each is equally important. Much to the relief of the Centre, which had invested hundreds of crores of rupees there, the Tamil Nadu government which desperately needs electricity, and the nuclear establishment whose very raison d’etre had been challenged, the court has said the power plant can now be switched on. But it has laid down important caveats on safety — the chief concern of those opposed to the project — and urged the authorities to roll-back the hundreds and thousands of cases that have been foisted, mostly unfairly, on the protesters. Apart from underscoring the need for the plant to satisfy all environmental safety conditions stipulated by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the judges have wisely tasked Kudankulam’s operator — the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited — and its regulator, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, with a review of the plant every three months, after initially certifying the safety and reliability of all the components and systems installed. It would add to the credibility of India’s atomic energy establishment if it widens the ambit of such reviews by making them truly independent and transparent. The AERB today is not independent of the Department of Atomic Energy, which is the parent body of NPCIL, and the government itself plans to replace it with a more credible Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority. In the interim, and indeed even after the NSRA comes into being, the Supreme Court ought to subject these reviews to judicial scrutiny. This approach would mirror the apex court’s efforts to strengthen the independence of the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Apart from expeditiously withdrawing the cases lodged against those who participated in the anti-nuclear agitation, the Tamil Nadu government must also actively follow-up the neighbourhood development and housing programmes for which funds have been allocated. While judicial orders can help ensure that Kudankulam starts its operations on a sound footing, building public confidence will depend on the approach of the nuclear establishment to a host of issues: of safety of nuclear material, handling of spent fuel, and the need to build scientifically validated nuclear waste repositories without delay. Since spent fuel is not to be reprocessed at Kudankulam, and must be transported to other facilities as per international safety norms, it is reasonable to expect that the modalities, if not the details, will be shared with the country. For instance, is transport by rail adequately protected? Equally, it is incumbent on the Centre and Tamil Nadu to show demonstrable proficiency in emergency and disaster management preparedness up to the district level, as mandated by national guidelines. After Fukushima, it should be clear that indifference to safety can jeopardise the future of the entire nuclear energy programme.