New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday refused to give any direction to the Government on the appointment of an independent regulatory body to oversee nuclear plants, saying it cannot "convert this court into Parliament".

The Apex Court, however, kept the issue open by asking those against the construction of such plants to come out with the solution on nuclear safety through a "public debate" and assured them that it will "look into it".

A bench headed by Chief Justice S H Kapadia said it was "conscious" of the fact that the matter was important as it concerns Article 21 (right to life) of the Constitution but expressed reservation in looking into the safety aspect of all nuclear plants for its lack of expertise.

"So far as safety of public is concerned, Article 21 is in our mind which can certainly be argued but for other aspect we cannot convert this court into Parliament," the bench, also comprising justices A K Patnaik and Swatanter Kumar, said.

The Apex Court, at the same time, asked the petitioners to place before it within four weeks the models adopted by United States, United Kingdom, France, Canada other countries on the appointment of regulatory body, independent of the government and establishment, to overlook the nuclear safety.

"You have a public debate and come out with a solution we will look into it," the bench said.

However, when advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the NGO Common Cause and others who have filed a PIL on the issue, made reference of Lok Pal Bill during the hearing, the bench asked him "not to mix up two things".

"Don't compare this issue with Lokpal. Lokpal is different," the bench said. At the outset, when the bench wanted to know if any Bill on the issue was before Parliament, Bhushan said there is one, which, however, was not about independent regulatory body.

The PIL has sought court's direction for halting construction of all proposed nuclear power plants in the country till their proper security assessment is done by an independent body.

During the arguments, Bhushan said people of the country were sitting on a "time bomb" which can explode any time and mentioned an article written by eminent nuclear scientist A Gopalkrishnan, who is also an expert in nuclear safety and in the past chaired the convention on nuclear safety to which India was a signatory.

At this submission, the bench asked, "When he was a chairperson, why didn't he insist for nuclear safety.

"What kind of independent regulator he is suggesting?" the bench asked and said, "We want a solution till Parliament makes a law".

While Bhushan was answering court's questions, Attorney General G E Vahanvati said it was for the government to look into the issue of appointment of regulatory body.

When the argument was made that the regulator has to be independent of the government, the bench said most of the scientists in India are government employees.

Bhushan referred to the model adopted by US for appointment of the regulator.

"Why don't you give us the model," the bench said and asked him to place before it within four weeks the models and posted the hearing after the winter vacation.

He said he will place the models of nuclear safety of UK, US, France and Canada. The court in the last hearing on November 14 had asked the NGO to place before it e documents to show that its grievances were not addressed by the concerned authority.

It had placed the letters and representations made by some bureaucrats, defence officials and scientists on the issue saying that not all but "only a couple of them received routine acknowledgement of receipt of letter".

The bench during the last hearing observed that "these plants were constructed over the years. Every plant has its structure. We are not qualified to examine them. We cannot pass across the board norms" for all reactors.

"There are conflicting versions. We do not say that it (PIL) is not important," the bench had said while questioning the petitioners whether they have approached the government on the issue.

The petitioners also placed before the court copy of statements issued by a group of 60 eminent citizens expressing concern over nuclear safety and India's nuclear power policy.

Besides, it also placed research studies and papers highlighting serious risks of catastrophic accidents, thefts, sabotage and terrorist attacks at India's various nuclear facilities.

The PIL said an expert nuclear regulator, independent of the government be set up to conduct comparative cost-benefit analysis vis-a-vis other sources of energy.

They urged the Apex Court to declare as "unconstitutional" the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010 and "appoint an expert independent body to conduct a thorough safety reassessment of all existing and proposed nuclear facilities across the country". They said the Apex Court should declare that in the event of a nuclear accident, all nuclear operators and nuclear suppliers would be jointly and severally, and absolutely liable for civil damages, and their financial liability would be unlimited.

On the last hearing, the members had also urged the Apex Court to quash all agreements signed between the government and private companies for supply of nuclear reactors and equipment based on private negotiations, without any competitive process and safety evaluation.

It had pointed out Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd is planning to construct 36 imported reactors by 2032.

Four 700 MW Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors, two each at Rawatbhata in Rajasthan and Kakrapur in Gujarat, are under construction. Two reactors each in Tamil Nadu's Koodankulam district and West Bengal's Haripur district are under construction based on Russian design, the petition said.

The Koodankulam plant has met with stiff opposition from people in the area and the project work has come to a standstill since last month as the agitators intensified their protest by blocking roads leading to the site.

(Agencies)