NPCIL’s stand on spent fuel riles environmentalists

A view of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant

A view of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant  

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) has sought another five years’ time from the Supreme Court to set up an ‘Away From Reactor’ (AFR) facility to store the spent nuclear fuel from the operations of Kudankulam units 1 & 2.

Earlier this month, the NPCIL filed an application before the Supreme Court after it failed to meet the five-year time given by court to set up the AFR in its judgment of May 2013. The deadline ends in May 2018.

The State-owned nuclear power corporation submitted in its affidavit that setting up the AFR for the two units “is a challenging task on account of no previous experience with long-term storage requirements of high burn-up, Russian-type PWR fuel”.

As these two units were ‘first-of-its-kind’ facilities, there is a need for considerable intensive interaction with the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Russian specialists for technical conceptualisation and detailing of the facility, the NPCIL said.

In May 2013, the Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to the Kudankulam plant to begin operations, rejecting a challenge to it based on environmental concerns and safety.

Petitioner surprised

The petitioner in that case, G. Sundarrajan of environmental NGO ‘Poovulagin Nanbargal’, expressed surprise at the NPCIL’s submission.

“How can they continue running the plant and plan to set up two more units without having the technical knowhow to store the spent fuel?” he asked. The application is likely to come up for hearing in due course.

Explaining its stand, the NPCIL said there was under-estimation in assessing the time needed for setting up the AFR . However, it said spent fuel assemblies, as per design, are required to be kept in the Spent Fuel Pool, at the Kudankulam nuclear plant site, for a minimum of 5 years before they can be shifted to the AFR for long-term storage.

The earliest the AFR facility of the KKNPP units 1 & 2 can receive the first lot of spent fuel assemblies will be on or after September 2020, the NPCIL added.

‘Govt. responsibility’

If a situation arose, wherein the AFR was not available and the spent fuel pools inside the unit 1 & 2 reactor buildings reached full capacity, as per AERB procedures and directives, “the further operations of the respective reactors of Unit 1 or 2 or both, would get automatically ceased, as it would not be possible to carry out further refuelling operations,” till the AFR is commissioned.

It also said a Steering Committee set up last year had worked out a revised date of April 2022 “as being [a] reasonable date for the commissioning of the AFR facility”.

While submitting that various agencies were working towards commissioning the AFR as early “as technically feasible”, it said the management of spent fuel, including providing the facilities for long-term storage such as the AFR and the construction of DGR [Deep Ground Repository] etc., are the primary responsibility of the Union of India.”

“Nuclear fuel, as per the Atomic Energy Act, can only be owned by the Union of India and is leased to the NPCIL for the limited purpose of its use in nuclear power reactors for the generation of electricity,” the NPCIL said.

How can they continue running the plant and plan to set up two more units without having the technical knowhow to store the spent fuel?

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