Plan to store spent nuclear fuel at Tamil Nadu’s Kudankulam faces stiff resistance

Those opposing the move argue that storing the spent nuclear fuel near the plant in a temporary storage facility could pose major risks to the environment and people.
An elderly man seen walking on the coast as Kudankulam plant is seen in the background
An elderly man seen walking on the coast as Kudankulam plant is seen in the background
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An Away from Reactor (AFR) storage facility to be constructed for Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) in Tamil Nadu has raised concerns among several stakeholders, including environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists in the state. Recently, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) allowed the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), a body regulating nuclear reactors in India, to construct a storage facility for SNF for units 3 and 4 of the nuclear plant. The approval given by the AERB is valid for five years.

According to a report in The Hindu, the storage facility for SNF for units 3 and 4 will be constructed where the operations of units 1 and 2 are underway. While granting permission for the construction, the AERB stated that NPCIL will be responsible for the overall safety of the facility. It also said that during the site inspection, it was checked if the site can withstand external hazards while also making sure that the functioning of both the site and plant at the same location does not cause any radiological impact beyond the limits set by AERB.

However, AERB’s approval has evoked criticism from many, including the ruling DMK government in the state, which said that setting up a temporary storage facility is against Supreme Court guidelines. Critics also argue that storing SNF near the plant could pose major risks to the environment and people.

Politicians and activists oppose move

DMK Parliamentary leader TR Baalu recently wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying that storing of SNF at the site will, in the long run, pose a dangerous and long-term health and environmental risk. In the letter, Baalu said, “NPCIL and the Union of India are bound to look at the probabilities of potentially harmful events and the consequences in future. Noticeably, NPCIL does not seem to have a long term plan, other than stating and hoping that in the near future, it would establish a Deep Geological Repository (DGR).”

DGR is a mechanism by which hazardous and used nuclear fuel is stored away from human habitats deep underground in a sealed manner, as a long-term protection to both environment and humans. The radioactive waste is generally stored in a stable geological environment so as to avoid accidents.

Activists and politicians argue that instead of an AFR storage facility – which is temporary – the government must establish a DGR first, which is a long-term and safer way of storing SNF. They also point out that the SNF should be stored far away from the site of the power plant, as per Supreme Court and other safety guidelines.

Baalu, in his letter, further said that Section 17 of the Atomic Energy Act envisages present and future safety of nuclear power plants along with the people and environment around them. “Hence, a permanent DGR is of utmost importance, which should be planned now,” Baalu said.

Additionally, the letter stated, “The Supreme Court has said that SNF should not be permanently stored within the Kudankulam nuclear power plant site. Therefore, the consent by AERB is a violation of the SC’s direction.”

Besides this, Tamil Nadu Assembly Speaker M Appavu, who is also DMK’s MLA from Radhapuram where the plant is situated, had earlier raised serious concerns over the facility’s construction. He pointed out that with China having business interests in Sri Lanka and the island nation being close to the nuclear power plant, caution had to be exercised. Appavu further said that several residents in Kudankulam were already battling cancer and other ailments, and in case of any accident the district will face lasting damages. He urged the Union government to store the SNF far away from human habitation.

Speaking to TNM, SP Udayakumar, anti-nuclear activist and founder of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), said, “It’s crucial that the government has a blueprint for its projects rather than blindly implementing them. It’s the responsibility of the government to lay down a detailed report about where to safeguard SNF and if the chosen place is safe. But without working on a DGR, deciding on interim storage will only panic people, especially those living nearby.”

Udayakumar said that for any proposed project, the Project Affected Persons (PAP) should always have the final say and officials should act fairly while reporting it to higher-ups. He alleged that officials and ministers, including the Prime Minister, are being negligent and indifferent to the affected people. “The PM, who is also the Minister of Atomic Energy, and the officials should be transparent with the public about the consequences of each project, and explain how it works scientifically. They should inform the people where and when the DGR will be set up. On the contrary, the public has been kept in the dark,” he added.

When asked where the SNF should be stored, Udayakumar said, “India is a highly populated country, and the consequences of anything going wrong are manifold. Hence, choosing any region should be done scientifically.” He also welcomed TR Baalu’s statement and said, “The decision should ultimately be taken by people residing in the particular region and not ministers and officers in Delhi or Chennai.”

Environmentalist G Sundarrajan said, “The decision to set up the AFR storage facility at Kudankulam is concerning because over time the government might convert it into a DGR. Setting up a DGR initially is the only solution. Six nuclear reactors and three AFR facilities for all its units in a single complex is highly risky.”

MG Devasahayam, former IAS officer and Chairman of ReBuild Kanyakumari who has been vocal in his opposition to the Kudankulam nuclear plant, said, “AERB granting permission is condemnable. The proposed storage facility is barely 25 km from the famous pilgrimage and tourism destination of Kanyakumari. This will affect the lives and livelihood of local residents in ways the government cannot anticipate.”

Devasahayam strongly urged the Union government to drop the construction of the AFR storage facility.

(With IANS inputs)

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