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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2730

Worries about nuclear waste

By A Science Commentator - Syndicate Features

Even chances of the so-called civilian nuclear cooperation ‘deal’ between as India and the US becoming a reality remain uncertain it may be a good thing to start paying attention to the problem of nuclear waste management. Though India has said it will not want any change in the original ‘deal’ with the US, one alternation that it might not mind is insertion of a specific clause that requires the US to assist India in safer disposal of nuclear waste. In the event of the ‘deal’ clearing all the hurdles it is certain that the use of nuclear energy in India will increase many fold and with it will increase the problem of safely disposing the used nuclear fuel. While nuclear energy is considered to be the ‘cleanest’, countries that have built nuclear reactors have to worry about ways of disposing of the ‘waste’ as it does not become inert after use and the danger of radiation remains for thousands of years.

Under the India-US nuclear ‘deal’, India will be obliged to open some of its nuclear reactors, designated as ‘civilians’ and devoted exclusively for energy generation, to rigorous international inspection. While some in the country oppose any kind of international inspection of our reactors, it may at least make it possible to better assess the extent of nuclear waste that the country will generate and then plan their disposal in the best possible way. Despite being a very costly business, it cannot be said that the manner of disposal of nuclear waste eliminates all the fears of radiation hazard and its serious consequences.

The government has questioned reports that have appeared from time to time about radiation leaks at our reactors though the critics have pointed to certain unusual diseases afflicting people in the areas near the reactors. There has been no serious radiation incident—or accident-- in India, unlike the west. The first such serious incident was reported way back in 1957 in the UK when a nuclear facility at Windscale had caught fire. The more ‘famous’ incidents were reported from Three Mile Island in the Pennsylvania state of the US in 1979 and Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986.

The world has today 450 nuclear plants, which produce 16 percent of world’s electricity. At least 24 nuclear plants are under construction in 10 countries, most of them in China and India. This means that India is also going to accumulate a huge amount of used but radioactive uranium, which will require safe burial—if such a thing is possible—at enormous costs. To get an idea of costs involved in safe burial of nuclear waste, consider this. Some time ago, Britain had announced a programme to clean up the nuclear waste in the country and decommission of 19 or 20 plants. The cost estimated initially was 56 billion pounds, which was later revised to over 70 billion pounds.

Most of the nuclear waste is generally buried or disposed of near the plant site. But about 20 years ago, authorities in the US decided to use the Yucca Mountains in Nevada as the central repository for the growing stockpile of the country’s nuclear waste. The idea was dropped because of both the prohibitive costs involved and also because of the stiff local opposition. On top of that were safety concerns, though advocates of nuclear power point out that far fewer people have died due to radiation than the number of people who have died in wars and road accidents!

Three main issues have to be taken into consideration when constructing a nuclear plant: the chances of a radioactive accident, disposal of nuclear waste and the vulnerability of the plant to terrorist attack. While the first two issues have been a worry for long, the fear of terrorist attack on nuclear facilities has lately begun to look very real. India perhaps also faces another hazard. Though acutely short of its own uranium mines, there have been reports in the past of uranium disappearing from India’s only uranium mines in Jadugoda.

A more serious aspect was highlighted in a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report, presented to parliament two months back (March 2006), which pointed to a nine-year delay in installing a sophisticated nuclear waste disposal system at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. The department of atomic energy had placed orders for the full system but not all the parts of the system were received at BARC. Even for an incomplete system the cost had shot up from the original Rs 38 lakh to Rs 52 lakh. The delay or incomplete supply of the system may be blamed on red tape or bureaucratic procedures but such an approach cannot be condoned if it relates to prevention of radiation hazard.

Because of the oil crunch, the instability in the oil-rich West Asia and increasing use of oil for politics, nuclear power generation may be said to have received a fresh lease of life with opposition to it becoming less visible than was the case in previous years. Nations like the US and Japan are frantically trying to develop the fusion technique to meet the energy needs of the world. But that is some years away.

One of the biggest worries today is global warming which is largely the result of burning of fossil fuels. Many fear that doomsday may not be far if global warming is not arrested at once. But nuclear energy leads to no carbon dioxide emission and is a highly concentrated form of energy. One pellet of uranium generates energy equivalent to something like 600 litres of oil.

There is the other side of the coin, apart from the obvious radiation danger. The transport sector may continue to emit carbon dioxide because of its continued dependence on fossil fuels. This danger may be particularly high in countries like India and China, which are only now witnessing a passenger car revolution. This danger will be eliminated only if the transport sector is able to discard the use of greenhouse gas emitting fuels.

It needs to be pointed out that the ageing nuclear plants in the world are considered a greater pollution hazard than the newer ones. Used nuclear fuel can remain radioactive for almost eternity and there can be no excuse for mismanagement in their disposal. In the US the nuclear waste is stored in underground steel-lined tanks and thick concrete walls. But when some of these old tanks had started to leak there was an outcry that it had contaminated groundwater. No country can take chances if there is any danger of contamination of groundwater, certainly not India where water seems to be becoming almost as scarce as oil.

- Syndicate Features -

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