New Delhi, Sept. 13: The Supreme Court today refused to interfere for now with the fuel-loading process at the first of the two nuclear reactors in Kudankulam, protests against whose commissioning led to a death in police firing this week.
On August 20, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, India's nuclear safety watchdog, had granted provisional approval to the fuel-loading process, which is expected to begin soon.
The apex court bench, which is hearing an appeal against a Madras High Court order refusing to intervene in the fuel-loading process, has posted the next hearing for September 20.
The high court had rejected the demand, made in a public interest litigation (PIL) by an information technology engineer who raised public safety issues.
Anti-nuclear activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan argued for the PIL today, pleading with the court to stop the fuel-loading as that would amount to a "fait accompli". The government opposed the plea.
"Every milestone has been achieved. We are two days away from fuel-loading," attorney-general G.E. Vahanvati told the bench of Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Dipak Mishra.
"Rs 14,000 crore has been spent," added solicitor-general Rohinton Nariman. He said commissioning of the plant would take at least two months from completion of fuel-loading.
Bhushan dubbed the issue a "matter of life and death" for those living around the plant. He added that the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board's own experts had identified 17 problems with the plant that needed to be addressed.
"The government cannot say that we will operate the plant first and then address safety action later," he said.
Bhushan said the US had not commissioned a single nuclear plant after the Long Island catastrophe. He cited how at least two lakh people had to be evacuated when a tsunami hit the nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan, last year. Given the population density in Kudankulam's neighbourhood, he said, at least 15 lakh people would have to be evacuated from a 30km radius in a crisis.
Bhushan argued that the 17 safety measures suggested by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board should be a precursor to commissioning of the plant. This prompted the bench to state: "We take it that you are not against commissioning of the plant but you want to ensure that it is absolutely safe."
Bhushan did not deny this but argued that the agreement for the plant seemed to have completely exempted the suppliers from any liability in the event of an accident.
Vahanvati countered this by saying that every plant has in-built safety mechanisms and that these 17 steps were additional safety checks.
The two 1,000MW reactors at Kudankulam will significantly boost India's current installed nuclear capacity of 4,780MW, he said, and will be a boon for power-starved Tamil Nadu.