The Supreme Court on Thursday observed that ordering the closure of the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) in Tamil Nadu on safety concerns will have an adverse impact on the nuclear sector including on the huge investment done in the field.
The apex court, which was hearing a plea seeking to set up the ‘Away From Reactor Facility’ (AFR) to store the spent nuclear fuel of the reactor, asked the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) to file an affidavit within two weeks on the issue.
A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and Hima Kohli was told by Additional Solicitor General Vikramjeet Banerjee, appearing for AERB, that he has just now received the instruction on the issue, which is quite sensitive, and would like to place it before the court in an affidavit.
The top court also asked senior advocate V Giri, appearing for the Tamil Nadu government, to file a schedule for the completion of public hearings on the issue of AFR.
At the outset, advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for original petitioner G Sundarrajan and others, said that the plant needs to be shifted or closed down due to the safety concern as it would not only be hazardous to the people of Tamil Nadu but to entire South India.
However, the bench said, “For the court to order the closure of a nuclear power plant will have an adverse impact on the nuclear sector and the huge investment made in the field”.
Bhushan said that the plant has been shut down twenty times for minor accidents in the recent past and god forbid, if there is any major accident, nothing will remain.
He said that the nuclear plant is creating more and more spent fuel, which is hazardous for the population residing in the area.
He submitted that the huge stockpile of spent fuel is being stored underwater in huge tanks which is more than the fuel used in the reactor and if there is any accident, this spent fuel will be dangerous for the entire population of the area.
“It would be another Fukushima nuclear plant (of Japan) like tragedy (of 2011),” Bhushan said.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL), said that the scenario which is being created in the court is not what is actually on the ground.
“The spent fuel is not in any liquid form or gaseous form but solid form and is stored in huge tanks filled with water from where it can be used for enriching when required. These huge water tanks are not in the nuclear plant but the nuclear plant complex. It is not as dangerous for the habitation as is projected, otherwise, the government would not have allowed it to continue”, Mehta said.
The bench asked Mehta why the ‘Away From Reactor Facility’ (AFR) for safe storage of the spent nuclear fuel was not constructed despite orders of the court.
The law officer said that the Tamil Nadu government has not conducted any public hearing in this regard.
Giri said that there are certain reservations on the issue concerning the safety of plants.
The bench said that then it would be appropriate for it to adopt a median approach to push the authorities to do things that they are supposed to do.
Bhushan said that this court had during the last time granted the extension but said that no future extension would be granted.
“Delay only increases risks, as spent fuel has to be stored somewhere away from the plant”, he said.
On July 2, 2018, the top court directed the NPCIL to set up a facility for safe storage of radio-active spent nuclear fuel at Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KKNPP) by April 2022.
The apex court, which had earlier granted time till May 30, 2018, for the purpose, extended the time for the NPCIL to set up the ‘Away From Reactor Facility’ (AFR) to store the spent nuclear fuel.
The corporation then sought an extension of the deadline for setting up the storage facility till April 30, 2022.
The bench, however, made it clear that no further extension of time shall be granted to the corporation for setting up the AFR at the nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu.
The apex court had in 2013 allowed the Centre to operationalise the first unit of the nuclear plant subject to compliance with various safety measures including the safe storage of the spent nuclear fuel.
The court was earlier told that the process to complete the AFR facility was going on and the spent nuclear fuel at present is stored in the Tamil Nadu plant’s spent fuel storage bay, designed to survive earthquakes as per the specific site.
The top court had earlier asked the government and the NPCIL to find suitable safe areas to dispose of the nuclear waste and also issued guidelines on commissioning, safety and security, and environmental issues concerning the nuclear plant.