The charade of the Kudankulam waste repository: How India’s nuclear establishment hoodwinked the courts

S. P. Udayakumar | Times of India

When we build a house, do we set up the closet in the toilet, lay the disposal pipes and wait for them to get filled up before constructing a septic tank? Or do we see the waste management as an integral system and complete the entire process? If yes, can the country’s million times more complicated and dangerous nuclear waste management be any different?

This is the imbroglio now at Koodankulam. The Union government and its Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) along with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) plan to construct the halfway storage facility called the ‘Away From Reactor’ (AFR) for the under-construction Units 3 & 4 leaving the AFRs for the currently running Units 1 &2 high and dry. They try to convince us that the final resting place for all the country’s accumulated nuclear waste, a Deep Geological Repository, is not an immediate necessity.

But we, the anti-nuclear activists and other civil society organizations, argue that the country must have a clear blueprint for the ambitious nuclear power program and cannot be haphazard or wishy-washy in nuclear waste management. We contend that the DGR must be planned and prepared before setting up the AFRs at Koodankulam and other reactor sites across the country.

When the Supreme Court gave a green signal to the Koodankulam reactors 1 & 2, it laid out 15 conditions for the nuclear department to fulfil and building a Deep Geological Repository (DGR) by 2018 was one of them. When there was no progress on this, Poovulagin Nanbargal (Friends of the Earth) in Chennai approached the SC again and the nuclear department sought additional time. On July 2, 2018 the SC granted time until April 30, 2022. But nothing has happened on the DGR front so far.

We get three types of wastes from a nuclear power plant: low-level, mid-level and high-level wastes. The very low-level wastes such as mops and glouses could be disposed of in landfill-type sites. The low-level waste that includes low concentrations of long-lived radionuclides and high concentrations of short-lived radionuclides will be buried within the exclusion zone in leak-proof subterranean facilities such as RCC Vaults/trenches/tile holes for hundreds of years. Both mid-level and high-level wastes must be sequestered in deep geological repositories (DGR) for hundreds of thousands of years.

Heat-emitting and highly radioactive spent-fuel rods are generally kept in spent-fuel pools at the reactors for five operational years and cooled with borated water that absorbs neutrons and stops the chain reaction that had been going on inside the reactor. As the pool gets filled up, the spent-fuel rods are moved to the AFR and reprocessed.

According to the Site Evaluation Report (SER) of the Koodankulam project, “160-180 m cu per year of cemented waste including spent absorption materials, 40 m cu/yr of compacted waste and 5 m cu/yr of cemented ash will be generated from one reactor.”

As per the October 1997 agreement, the spent-fuel rods would be taken back to Russia but on June 21, 1998 another agreement was signed between the Russian atomic energy minister Yevgeny Adamov and the DAE chief R. Chidambaram that stipulated retaining the ‘national asset’ here in India itself. There was no discussion whatsoever as to who changed the earlier decision or why or how.
It is important to note that the spent fuel rods in halfway houses such as AFR contain as much, if not more, radioactivity as fuel rods in the nuclear power reactors. These rods contain a more toxic mix of radioisotopes and are not protected in secondary containment structures as in nuclear power reactors. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster reveals the fact that radioactivity from storage sites cause greater harm to the public.

Funding the expensive waste management technology, siting costs, waste transportation and the accompanying risks, AFR and DGR construction, operation, security and most importantly the unforeseen and unforeseeable future liabilities are some of the important factors that we have to reckon with while planning nuclear waste management. Long-term radiation threats, possible explosions, impact on ground water, air contamination and deadly diseases are some of the dangers the surrounding populations face.

However, the nuclear authorities assure us orally about their scientific and technological prowess, assuage our fears and doubts with haughty nuclearese, and affirm casually that “we will cross the bridge when we come to it.”

If our Union and state governments, scientists and technocrats have not managed to clean up the dangerous Bhopal waste that has been lying there for the past 38 years, how are they going to convince us about nuclear waste management? Nuclear waste management has to be planned from the beginning and not as we go along.



The author is the convener of People Movement Against Nuclear Energy




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