Tuesday, October 14, 2008

123 Agreement - of nuclear wastes and other risks

The controversial Indo-US Nuclear Deal has finally been signed. It was inked the other day by Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State and Pranab Mukherjee, the Indian Foreign Minister. Hugely controversial, it had a chequered progression to its eventual sealing after three long years.

During the protracted debate on the Deal whether in India or abroad nuclear power was touted as a clean source of energy though the West does not seem to reckon it as such any longer. In the US nuclear power plants have not been built for decades. France, too, has reduced the contribution of nuclear energy in its total power output. Yet, curiously, never for once was a mention made of the hazardous radioactive wastes that the nuclear power reactors generate. True, these do no emit greenhouse gases, but the wastes generated by them unless safely consigned can imperil life and the environment. Curiously, this was never touched upon even as the US and others are up against the unsolved problem of permanent interment and isolation of nuclear wastes.

Classified into three categories – low level, intermediate level and high level wastes (HLW) – disposal of nuclear wastes has to be managed with great care for protecting people and the environment from their lethal radiation. Around 95% of wastes generated by nuclear power plants are HLW which include uranium, plutonium and other highly radioactive elements. They are low in volume but high in their lethality, if allowed to escape into the environment. Some of these have thousands of years of “half life”, i.e. they take thousands of years to decay to half of their potency. Hence after being stored for around 40-odd years in leak-proof sealed cooling casks, these have to be permanently buried in deep underground geologically suitable repositories – by far an expensive proposition.

The nuclear wastes of the power plants of the US, having been stored above ground for around 40-odd years, are now due for permanent burial. A site in Yucca Mountains in Nevada has been selected for the purpose but the Nevadans are somewhat worried. After all, none can guarantee that the wastes will never leak out. The Yucca Mountains facility is likely to be ready by 2010. But, one doesn’t really know whether the site will ever be used for the intended purpose.

In India Waste Immobilisation Plants have been operating in Tarapur, Trombay and Kalpakkam. Vitrification, a complex technology possessed by only a few nations, has been successfully developed in the country and vitrified wastes are, reportedly, stored in a specially designed Solid Storage Surveillance Facility (SSSF) for about 30 years prior to their disposal in deep geological formations. No one knows whether any such geological formation has so far been identified. Speculations are, however, rife that scientists may eventually pitch in for a site in the deserts of the province of Rajasthan in north-west of the country.

Now that the Nuclear Deal has been sealed numerous nuclear reactors worth billions of dollars are going to be imported from the US, France, Russia and sundry others by an energy-hungry India. It, indeed, has big plans. Currently contributing only 3% of the electricity produced in the country, the government of Dr Manmohan Singh intends to take the share of nuclear power to 33% by 2020. There will naturally be corresponding increase in the waste generated, for permanent interment of which the country will have to find appropriate site(s).

Besides, although so far there have been no accidents like those of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, for which Indian scientists deserve all credit, yet chances of one occurring cannot be discounted with the rise in general sloppiness in every sphere of activity in the country. Proliferation generally breeds all round compromise in quality and that may well happen with the proliferating nuclear power industry. Besides, numerousness of atomic power complexes will act like magnates for the disaffected and the hostile elements in the neighbouring countries. If infiltration and exfiltration continue with such ease as at present, the country will never be short of prowling bombers.

The government, therefore, needs to prepare in earnest for handling various implications of the expected inrush of nuclear power plants over the next decade or so. Apart from looking for appropriate safe geological sites, the government will , inter alia, have to take care of at least two more serious implications: one is, of course, to ensure zero-tolerance of slapdash way of functioning and the other is about virtual sealing of the Eastern, Northern and Western borders to prevent their facile penetration by terrorists.

Since harnessing nuclear power in a big way for civilian use is a high-risk venture the country and its people would seem to need to pull themselves up by the boot-straps.

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http://www.bagchiblog.blogspot.com Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...