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'Away from reactor' spent fuel storage plan rekindles protests against Kudankulam nuclear plant in India

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Kumar Sundaram ‒ Editor,

The Indian government has announced a public hearing on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Away-From-Reactor (AFR) storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from the reactors at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP). This public hearing will be held on July 10 at Radhapuram in the Tirunelveli district, on the southern-most tip of India where the nuclear plant is located. The facility hosts six reactors – four of which remain under construction. Two units were officially commissioned in 2013 and 2016 although they have been marred with unprecedented shut-downs and outages since the beginning.1,2

The announcement of this AFR storage facility has come as an unintended outcome of the local communities' protest against the nuclear project, in a weird turn of events that is itself symptomatic of deep-seated problems of India's nuclear sector.

Parallel to the intense grassroots agitations against the KKNPP in the immediate post-Fukushima years, a sympathetic environmental NGO named Poovulagin Nanbaragal filed a court case which, in its journey from the state high court to the country's Supreme Court, took an increasingly narrow techno-legal character.

On the one hand, the court did not look at issues like loss of livelihoods for thousands of farmers and fisherfolks, absence of disaster preparedness by the local authorities and environmental issues that were initially raised in the petition. It did however deliberate on matters of nuclear technology in ways that gave an upper hand to the nuclear authorities by default. Not only did the Supreme Court go way beyond its purview in upholding the necessity of nuclear power for the overall development of the country, something that should be essentially a policy decision, it also put unquestioning faith in the nuclear establishment and allowed it to change the goalposts repeatedly.

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), the plant operator, and the non-independent Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, initially pledged, when the court case was at the state level, to implement the 17 recommendations of the post-Fukushima safety audit although it was conducted internally and was not comprehensive.3 The Madras High Court gave them a clearance based on that affidavit.

Then, in 2013, when the case reached the Supreme Court, the Regulatory Board declared its own recommendations non-mandatory and said they could be implemented even after the reactor goes online. Similarly, the NPCIL also altered its previous commitments. Amid such jugglery, the Supreme Court gave a verdict in favour of the nuclear project with a few conditions. The court, evidently, had no other independent bodies to consult as the nuclear sector in India functions in complete opaqueness and has a monopoly on expertise on everything nuclear.

One of the crucial conditions on which the Supreme Court gave a go-ahead to the KKNPP in 2013 was finding a solution to nuclear waste within five years.4 While the NPCIL had initially promised to find a Deep Geological Repository for nuclear waste from Kudankulam, it changed the fine-print and included an AFR facility for spent fuel as an interim measure. In 2018, when the five-year conditional period ended, the Supreme Court granted it a four-year extension to build an AFR facility.

As per NPCIL's plans, the AFR facility being planned on-site at the Kudankulam nuclear plant and will be built on 0.35 hectares of land.5 The plant will cost around US$77 million and its construction is planned to commence in September this year. The facility will store 4,328 fuel assemblies after they have cooled sufficiently inside the primary containment of reactor buildings for five years each. In the initial agreement signed between India and USSR in 1988, nuclear waste was supposed to be shipped back to Russia.

Public hearings: designed not to listen to the people

When it comes to environmental public hearings, especially in the case of nuclear facilities, the NPCIL's conduct in earlier instances, as well as this time, does not invoke any confidence among people who are going to be potentially affected.

A hurriedly drafted EIA report for the AFR has been made available at District Collector's and taluka office in Radhapuram, but the administration has not taken efforts to put the document online or actively distribute it among the people to invite informed discussion. The report is however available on the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board's website.

The EIA study has been conducted by Mecon India, an entity notorious for carrying out plagiarized EIA reports to provide clearance for dubious projects. Mecon's EIA has been rejected in the past for the Mithivirdi nuclear plant.

The People's Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), a local umbrella organization spearheading the agitation for several years, rightly contends that "the Kudankulam nuclear power project has the length of 5.4 km and the width of 2.5 km. It is quite dangerous to pack in six to eight reactors, a reprocessing plant, desalination plants, and administrative offices, etc. so densely in this 13.5 square km area."6

Local residents and independent experts have raised important questions. PMANE states: "Between 1-2 reactors and 3-4 reactors, there is only a gap of 804 meters. Similarly, between 3-4 nuclear power plants and 5-6 reactors, the distance is only 344 meters. How can the AFR facility be built in this already crowded campus? Even if it was built, it would pose great dangers to the local people, and to the people of Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Kanyakumari districts."

The biggest concern at this stage is the brazenness with which the government of India, the NPCIL and the local authorities deny the need for a comprehensive environmental impact assessment at Kudankulam. For Units 1 and 2, no EIA was ever done, on the spurious ground that India did not have a law mandating environmental clearances in place before 1994. The Supreme Court agreed to this illogic.

For Units 5 to 8, EIA hearings were orchestrated in 2007 in a farcical manner, with shabbily-conducted research upon which no open discussion was allowed for the local communities. The administration declared the hearing successful despite overwhelming opposition and crucial questions that remained unanswered.

It is also important to note that the initial design envisaged in 1988 has drastically changed, and desalination plants have been added to provide cooling water for reactors which will have their own additional environmental impacts. Hence, the legitimate demand for a long-term and comprehensive environmental study taking into account all reactor units and other facilities.

Spent fuel and renewed resistance

Spent fuel is anything but harmless waste. In fact, it is taken out of a reactor precisely because it becomes too radioactive to be used for producing electricity. It contains high levels of radioactivity and toxicity. However, India officially does not consider spent fuel as nuclear waste as it has massive reprocessing plans, at least in principle although actual progress in this direction has been tediously slow.

Even as the country's nuclear establishment runs 24 nuclear reactors, Kudankulam will host its first declared spent fuel storage facility, and that only after getting strict instructions from the court. As admitted by the NPCIL itself in its legal affidavit, "the AFR facility is a challenging task on account of no previous experience with long storage requirements of high burnup Russian type PWR fuel and thereby being the first-of-its-kind facility in India."7

The resistance to the Kudankulam nuclear plant is far from being a spent force although the government had its way in 2013 after brutalizing thousands of local people from the local population. This time, the district-level citizens' groups have given a call to protest on June 25, while regional political platforms and leftist parties have also announced concerted protests on June 25.8

Rounds of intimidation have also started again, as movement leader Dr. S.P. Udayakumar notes in his recent open letter to India's President.9 His wife, children, parents, and comrades are facing threats on a daily basis and the police are creating every thinkable obstacle in the way of organizing protest gatherings and mobilizing people.











In brief

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Opposition mounting against refitting Gentilly-2.
More than 250 Quebec municipalities and regional municipal governments have banded together to demand the province shut the door on nuclear energy by mothballing Hydro-Quebec's Gentilly-2 nuclear reactor instead of rebuilding it. Copies of a resolution thus far adopted by 255 municipal bodies were presented to three opposition members of the Quebec legislature on September 10 by Mayor Gaetan Ruest of Amqui, Que., who has been spearheading a campaign launched in 2009. The thick stack of identically worded resolutions will be introduced in the full legislature after the assembly reconvenes Sept. 21. Public opinion polls show almost two-thirds of Quebecers are opposed to a plan by Hydro-Quebec to rebuild Gentilly-2.
Ottawa Citizen, 11 September 2010

China: people largely distrustful of the nuclear industry.
It is not any longer a European and North-American problem: now there is a shortage in nuclear professionals for their rapid expansion of nuclear power in China too. According to senior government officials, China's nuclear power industry is demanding more professionals than the country can produce, a potential threat to safety. China has six leading universities that train nuclear specialists. Neither Zhang or Li gave specific figures for the shortage, but an official with the China Nuclear Society estimated the country would need 5,000 to 6,000 professionals annually in the next decade or so, versus a yearly supply now of about 2,000. Li also stressed that "public education was critical because people were largely distrustful of the industry." A lack of professionals has often been identified as a reason that a rapid expansion of nuclear power is unrealistic.
Reuters, 20 September 2010

Urani? Naamik.
An amendment has been made by the Greenland government to the standard terms for exploration licences under the country's Mineral Resources Act of 2009. The amendment allows the Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum (BMP) to approve that comprehensive feasibility studies can be undertaken on mineral projects that include radioactive elements as exploitable minerals. Within this framework, projects are considered on a case-by-case basis at the government's discretion. 
Australian-based Greenland Minerals and Energy has lodged an application under these new regulations that has been approved by the BMP. The company says that it is now in a position to commit to commence definitive feasibility studies in 2011 as planned. The studies, it said, will generate the necessary information to determine development parameters for the Kvanefjeld deposit. The Greenland government has stressed that although radioactive elements may now be surveyed, their extraction is still not permitted.

The Kvanefjeld deposit is eight kilometres inland from the coastal town of Narsaq, near the southern tip of the country. It has a deep water port. Uranium comprises about 20% of the value of minerals able to be produced from Kvanefjeld.
World Nuclear News, 13 September 2010

India: Further delay Kudankulam.
The commissioning of the first unit of the Kudankulam nuclear power project has been put off by a further three months from the previously revised scheduled date of completion. According to Nuclear Power Corporation of India, the first unit is expected to be commissioned in March 2011. Previously, it had mentioned December 2010 as the expected date of commercial operation. The 2,000 MW, two units of 1,000 MW each, nuclear project that is coming up at Kudankuklam, southern Tamil Nadu with Russian technology, reactors and fuel, has suffered a huge delay in commissioning.
The first of the two units was originally supposed to begin commercial operations in December 2007 which means, the project has already slipped by three years and three months. The second unit, initially scheduled to start commercial operations in December 2008, is now expected to go on stream in December 2011., 5 September 2010

Spain: blockades after rumors decision waste storage. Spain delays the decision on nuclear storage site after news that the temporary dry-storage facility for high-level radioactive waste would be built in Valencia region revived long term opposition to the plan. According to a spokeswoman for the Valencia autonomous government, Spain's industry ministry announced on September 17 that the facility would be located in Zarra, a municipality in region. But the government was later forced to say it was not a final decision because of strong public opposition, according o statements to the Europe's environmental news and information service ENDS. The industry ministry rejects this interpretation, saying it only informed the regional government that Zarra was "well placed" to house the facility and that the decision would be "discussed" at the September 17 meeting of Spain's council of ministers. A spokesman said the government "hopes to have a decision soon".

Local residents and environmentalists responded to the news by blocking the Valencia-Madrid motorway on Sunday. The Spanish government has been trying to find a site since years. The search has become increasingly urgent since existing localized storage capacity is insufficient for the high-level waste produced in the country.
ENDS, 20 September 2010

U.A.E.: Raising debt to finance nuclear project.
Abu Dhabi is expected to raise debt to finance more than half the cost of its initial US$20 billion nuclear project, defying a warning by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that lenders could shy away from nuclear development. Yukiya Amano, the IAEA director general, said international lenders were “reluctant to support nuclear power projects”, amid a surge of interest in nuclear development by new countries.  Credit Suisse Group AG has been appointed as financial adviser for the United Arab Emirates’ nuclear power program, Emirates Nuclear Energy Corp. announced. So far no other banks have been appointed as advisers for the project, according to a report in Bloomberg. HSBC Holdings Plc may also be selected to advise state-run Emirates Nuclear Energy, although the bank is yet to be formally appointed for the role, which includes securing debt commitments for the project, ('Middle East bussines intelligence since 1957') reported on its website September 15.

No firm plan for the financing exists yet but Abu Dhabi has already accessed debt markets to pay for energy infrastructure such as power plants and pipelines.  But the Abu Dhabi financing could be raised by a combination of export credit, syndicated loans and government bonds, depending on the appetite of global investors after the global recession. Credit Suisse will help develop a financing structure advantageous to Abu Dhabi.

Another way to subsidize nuclear power are export credit agencies. Those agencies from countries supplying the materials and parts are also expected to shoulder part of the financing. This would ease the pressure on Abu Dhabi’s government financing, which is already being funnelled into civic and industrial diversification projects, with a budget deficit forecast this year. Government guarantees on the loans, by contrast, can be a crucial ingredient to a 'successful financing'.
The Nation (UAE), 21 September 2010 / Bloomberg and, 15 September 2010

U.K.: The end of the towel controversy. Sellafield's towels controversy is over after a change of heart by management over plans to stop issuing and washing towels used by workers in the 'active' areas of the nuclear site. There had been protests by the site unions who feared contamination could be left on clothing and carried off the site. Sellafield Ltd wanted workers to help cut costs by bringing in their own towels and taking them back home for washing. Towels amount to more than half the site laundry wash load. Management still thinks too many towels are being used but is ready to talk to the unions about other cost-cutting options.
Whitehaven News, 8 September 2010

Bulgaria: beach contaminated by uranium mining.
The sand from the Bulgarian Black coast bay "Vromos" is radioactive and "harmful for beach goers", according to experts from the Environment and Health Ministries. A letter, send to the Governor of the Region of Burgas, Konstantin Grebenarov, asks local authorities to make people aware of the results and place signs warning visitors to not use the beach. The radiation level is twice as high than the norm for the southern Black Sea coast, but the danger is not in the air, rather in the sand which contains uranium and radium. The contamination is coming from the now-closed nearby mine which deposited large amounts of radioactive waste in the bay between 1954 and 1977. The increase of radiation levels in the area over the last three years is attributed to some radioactive waste that has not been completely removed.

In the beginning of August, Grebenarov, already issued an order banning the use of the beach located between the municipalities of the city of Burgas and the town of Sozopol, near the town of Chernomorets. At the time Grebenarov said he made the decision after consulting with experts from the Health Ministry and the Environmental Agency.

The order triggered large-scale protests among hotel and land owners around the bay, saying the order serves business interests and aims at lowering property prices in the area. The Governor says the warning signs, placed at "Vromos," and removed by local owners, but will be mounted again.

During a visit early August to Sozopol, Finance Minister, Simeon Djankov, promised the owners to make sure there would be a second measurement, and if it proves the radiation is within the norm, the ban would be lifted. But now it turns out that a separate measurement, done by the Executive Environmental Agency in mid-August, had the same results.
Sofia News Agency, 2 September 2010