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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.