India’s failure to properly dispose nuclear waste | By Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi

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India’s failure to properly dispose nuclear waste


CURRENTLY, the issue of scientific disposal of nuclear waste has taken up global attention.

Agreeably, radioactive material largely consist of unstable atoms, radio nuclides that emit excess energy as radiation, hence nuclear wastes have the strong potential not only to make global climate unhealthy, but also to exuberate risks of nuclear terrorism.

In South Asia, India absolutely fails to avert the emerging threats of nuclear waste terrorism. This article addresses this issue based on some irrefutable observations.

According to the recently published BBC report, ‘how to build a nuclear warning for 10000 years’, published this month, is an eye opening insight in that it says that nothing seems more threatening for our future generations than the concealed nuclear radioactive reserves, which is a caveat for the countries building miniature nuclear reactors.

And yet, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) greatly underestimated the risk and potential contamination of a nuclear waste fire triggered by a quake or a planned attack, experts writing in the journal “Science” said.

In addition, it is fairly argued that ‘’an uncontrolled nuclear reaction in a nuclear reactor could result in widespread contamination of air and water.

India-Pakistan signed the agreement — to reduce the risks of nuclear accidents in 2007—which has been extended in 2017.

According to Article 1 of the said pact signed between New Delhi And Islamabad,’’ Each Party shall maintain and improve, as it deems necessary, existing national measures including organizational and technical arrangements, to guard against accidents.

Unfortunately, no such progress is reported on this behalf. As for the management of the nuclear waste disposal in India, we note that the Indian Point has one of the largest quantities of the “spent fuel” in the northeast.

While the nuclear plant owners in other countries such as Germany and Canada are implementing more robust measures to protect the irradiated fuel onsite, the Indian government is totally failing to do so.

“Whilst over 90 per cent of the radioactivity will decay naturally in about 1000 years, some of the radioactive waste will remain hazardous for over 100,000 years.

It is unanimously angered that surface storage is not a permanent disposal solution as it requires constant monitoring, security, maintenance, and protection from natural processes, environmental changes and events as well as malicious intervention.

Nuclear wastes are classified into two categories: the high-level radioactive liquid waste (HLW) and low level waste (LLW).

High-level radioactive liquid waste (HLW) — containing most (~99%) of the radioactivity in the entire fuel cycle — is systematically produced during reprocessing of spent fuel.

Planning for management of HLW thus takes into account the need for their effective isolation from the biosphere and their continuous surveillance for extended periods of time spanning several generations.

Whereas, Indian ores, which generally contain about 0.1% of uranium oxide (UsOg), are mined by conventional methods. Scientists say, nuclear workers, village residents and children living near mines and factories are falling ill after persistent exposure to unsafe radiation.

The civil nuclear deal pact — signed between Washington and New Delhi in October 2008, despite an American diplomat’s warning from Kolkata in a confidential cable to Washington the previous year that the Indian government’s “lax safety measures … are exposing local tribal communities to radiation contamination.”

Approximately 1500 tons of spent fuel are currently stored in densely packed pools at Indian Point.

In this way, India is much closed to the United States where the Nuclear Power Plants generate about 2,000 metric tons of nuclear waste (or “spent fuel”) per year.

In India, no containment structures exist over the spent fuel pools; the pools are vulnerable to a loss-of-coolant scenario; mock attack drills reveal accessibility to and vulnerability of spent fuel buildings; and two of the spent fuel pools at Indian Point have been leaking radioactive material.

Presently, India does not regard its spent fuel as waste like most other countries, particularly Canada. This is because India has a ‘closed fuel cycle’, which means that it reprocesses the spent fuel in order to reuse the uranium and plutonium present in it.

For radioactive waste management, Indian nuclear facilities house a near-surface disposal facility for Low Level Waste (LLW) and Intermediate-Level Waste (ILW). But this method lacks credibility.

In India’s case, the most glaring radioactive wrong is that the majority of the miners and communities directly exposed—downwind or downriver from radioactive releases, have been unknowing victims.

The irony is that most nearby communities have been using the radioactive waste in constructing their homes while many Indian children often play in abandoned uranium mine’s pit by the identified by a sample of miners and their families.

India’s Chief Court began its official inquiry into the health crisis at the mines in 1998, in response to a petition filed by a pro-nuclear lawyer from Delhi who was upset while seeing photos of children with severe birth defects from villages near tailings ponds—pointing the similar physical handicaps caused by the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Actually, four main tasks required with regard to the nuclear waste disposal, one the foolproof and safe recycling of the nuclear fuel, two, the systematic and scientific disposal of the nuclear waste, third, the use of next generation nuclear plants in lieu of fourth- generation and finally, waste isolation systems consisting of multiple barriers are systematically employed so as to prevent the movement of radionuclide back to the human environment.

Further, in the context of the production cycle safety, many experts agree that the hazards of the end-to-end nuclear fuel cycle can be reduced through careful observance of safety rules, labour protection, and production regulations.

Sadly, India is far behind to comply with these ascribed tasks. The manifold cases of nuclear material thefts in India have upped the ante.

It is why the Indian nuclear authorities must pay first and foremost attention towards this issue. Nonetheless, in the exigency of nuclear waste disposal, India must show resolve towards amicable compliance of the 2007 agreement, a vital move in this regard.

—The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-international law analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.

 

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