New Delhi: A fresh public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court on Friday challenging the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s civil nuclear power programme.

Kalpakkam power plant. File photo.

The petition has been filed under Article 32 of the Constitution contending that the government’s programme violates the fundamental right to life.

If the Supreme Court takes up the petition, it could mean added pressure for the UPA government, already battling allegations of corruption and inefficiency. It also has the potential to halt the ambitious civil nuclear power dreams of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The UPA government was tested in its previous term when it won a Parliamentary trust vote in 2008 by a slim majority over the civil nuclear agreement with the US.

The petitioners claim that India’s nuclear safety standards are inadequate. They contend the lack of transparency in the safety process “reinforces our apprehension that they (the govt) have no intention to take the public into confidence on nuclear safety".

The petition cites examples of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan this March as well as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine as reasons for India’s nuclear power programme to be subject to independent reviews and scrutiny.

The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the top government agency entrusted with ensuring safety standards at nuclear power plants in India, conducted a safety audit of all nuclear power plants just over two months ago, in the aftermath of the Fukushima incident. All plants were given clearances by the Board.

India has about 14 nuclear power plants, and as per current law liability arising out of any accident from a plant rests with the operator. This liability is a “no-fault" burden, capped at 500 crore. In the event of more damage, the Indian government would be liable to the extent of 2,312.9 crore. The petitioners want the liability to be “absolute", “unlimited" and rest on both the operators and the suppliers. They also want the recent nuclear liability law to be struck down as being unconstitutional.

“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 recognized as part of the law of the land under Article 21 of the Constitution," they said.

More recently, there has been public opposition to the government’s nuclear plans at Jaitapur in Maharashtra and Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu, where the state wants to set up more power plants.

The petition also wants a “health and safety review of the uranium mining regions" across India, besides asking the government to explore alternative energy options after conducting cost-benefit analyses. Another demand of the petition is for the court to nullify all the existing agreements signed between the “government and private companies, for supply of nuclear reactors and equipment, based on private negotiations, without any competitive process/bidding/tender, without proper technical & safety evaluation, without transparency."

Jacob P. Koshy contributed to this story.