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Dr V Pugazhenthi, a physician in Kalpakkam who has crossed swords with the nuclear establishment over safety of reactors, says that the opposition of environment group Poovulagin Nanbargal to the proposed facility to store spent fuel from Kudankulam nuclear is not based on scientific reasoning and serves largely political purposes. The DMK government has taken a position against the Away From Reactor (AFR) facility and its MP T R Baalu has spoken against it in Parliament. Baalu demanded that the facility not be constructed, and added that the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) has admitted it had no experience in long-term storage requirements of the type of fuel used in Kudankulam.

While giving site clearance, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board had insisted as far back as 1989 that an AFR should be constructed at Kudankulam. Poovulagin Nanbargal has said that the AFR facility is dangerous and will turn the local population into laboratory mice for radiation exposure. The Supreme Court in 2013 ordered the NPCIL to construct a deep geological repository (DGR) for long-term storage of nuclear fuel in India. The corporation said that for 10 years a DGR will not be required. It said that for the first five years the spent fuel can be stored in the reactor itself, and promised to construct an AFR facility by 2018. That year the NPCIL told the court it had run into technical problems in constructing the facility and will need another five years. A 2019 public hearing on the ARF could not be held due to opposition. Now the corporation has asked for online responses and feedback to its proposal.

Dr V Pugazhenthi

Quite often, environmental activists work as individual activists or through non-governmental organizations. They tend to be non-political, at least publicly, even if they sometimes support causes with a direct political bearing. Dr Pugazhenthi has campaigned against the Kalpakkam nuclear plant saying he has seen the impact of radiation on the health of the local population. He says the DMK government is seeking to turn the Kudankulam AFR into yet another center vs state issue whereas various clearances and work at the plant have happened over many decades during the regimes of both the AIADMK and DMK.

Dr Pugazhenthi explains that compared to the reactor which he opposes on grounds of safety, the Spent Fuel Storage Facility is quite benign. No fission reaction takes place there and the facility is a temporary one before the fuel is reprocessed and used again.

The proposed Spent Fuel Storage Facility (SFSF) will be at the Kudankulam power plant complex but outside the reactor itself. Dr Pugazhenthi explains that compared to the reactor which he opposes on grounds of safety, the SFSF is quite benign. No fission reaction takes place there and the facility is a temporary one before the fuel is reprocessed and used again. Citing court documents that form part of Poovulagin Nanbargal’s petition against the SFSF, he says that India has SFSFs elsewhere including in Tarapur. India also has proven reprocessing technology, so it wouldn’t be too tough to reprocess the fuel and put it back in use.

There is an ongoing controversy over what should be done with the atomic waste that would be left after reprocessing and which would need to be stored. All over the world, deep geological repositories (DGR) have been proposed. Mountains would be bored through and the waste stored there for eternity is the idea. The US where some 20% of power production comes from nuclear plants had proposed to establish a DGR at the Yucca Mountains in Nevada but this project was given up because of technical issues. France has begun the process of having a DGR. Nuclear power is 70% of all power produced in France and its nuclear capacity is 10 times that of India. This means much more waste generation than India where nuclear power supplies 3% of Indian power production. Atomic energy officials say that the amount of atomic waste produced in Indian nuclear facilities after reprocessing is miniscule. It can be comfortably and safely stored in Waste Immobilization Plants, which also India has experience with.

As per the original India-Russia agreement, the spent fuel from Kudankulam was to be transported to Russia. Later those terms were changed and the fuel was to remain in India.

Dr Pugazhenthi faults Poovulagin for characterizing the Spent Nuclear Fuel as atomic waste in Tamil. He adds that the spent fuel is typically sent for reprocessing and pushed back into the nuclear fuel cycle for energy generation while true atomic waste is that small portion that comes out of the reprocessing facility and cannot be reused.

Dr Pugazhenthi faults Poovulagin for characterizing the Spent Nuclear Fuel as atomic waste in Tamil. He adds that the spent fuel is typically sent for reprocessing and pushed back into the nuclear fuel cycle for energy generation while true atomic waste is that small portion that comes out of the reprocessing facility and cannot be reused

During reprocessing, countries squirrel away bomb making material from the fuel from nuclear plants and make bombs. International treaties and the International Atomic Energy Agency try to keep a close watch on the fuel coming out of nuclear power plants and account for them to ensure they are not diverted for bomb making. The Kudankulam power plant comes under what are called IAEA safeguards, which means the spent fuel will be monitored by the IAEA and accounted for so it doesn’t go into making bombs. Kalpakkam is dubbed “for military use” by the IAEA.

India has 22 nuclear reactors out of which 12 are under IAEA safeguards for which fuel is imported. Countries export nuclear fuel to India only if the reactor is under IAEA safeguards. Dr Pugazhenthi says since Kudankulam is under IAEA safeguards what happens to the fuel there is transparent and can be accounted for.


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