Nuclear waste will not magically disappear. So who will be made to suffer its toxic effects?
ON 21 NOVEMBER, the Solicitor General of India, Rohinton Nariman, declared in the Supreme Court that the country’s high-level nuclear waste has found a final resting place in the unused mines of the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF). Nariman is appearing for the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) in a case challenging the imminent commissioning of the Koodankulam reactors. Incensed by the choice of Kolar as India’s nuclear dumpyard, people of the town in Karnataka protested with a bandh on 23 November, forcing some in the UPA government to deny any such plans. On 27 November, the NPCIL clarified in court that it had no plans to dump nuclear waste in Kolar.
Neither the original statement in court nor the subsequent retraction should be taken lightly. Such flip-flopping on crucial facts exposes the nuclear establishment’s cavalier attitude towards people’s safety. In its affidavit to the Supreme Court on 7 November, the NPCIL had indicated that “R&D” (research and development) towards identifying a suitable site for permanent storage of long-lived nuclear waste has been in progress for over three decades. This included experimentation in the abandoned Kolar mineshafts. That is as specific as the affidavit gets. All other statements on spent-fuel management are casual, vague and replete with many a wishful “if this, then that”.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warns that “spent fuel remains radioactive for thousands of years, and hence needs stringent isolation and safety measures”. In Koodankulam, for instance, the initial plan was to export the spent fuel by sea directly from the plant to the erstwhile Soviet Union. Now, many years later, the plan is to store them inside the containment for seven years, and then move them to a yet-to-be conceived away-from-reactor facility onsite. From there, they are to be removed at some undisclosed time in the future, to a yet-to-be conceived reprocessing facility, or a yet-to-be identified final disposal site through an undisclosed railway or road route.
This change — from exporting spent fuel to keeping them indefinitely onsite — radically alters the safety scenario. Spent-fuel assemblies are stored underwater in specially made pools. With every passing year, the number of fuel assemblies in the pools increases to a point where the radioactivity in the pool far exceeds the radioactivity in the reactor cores.
Most official views on spent-fuel management are replete with many a wishful ‘if this, then that’
A spent-fuel pool at Fukushima in Japan was badly damaged by the 2011 earthquake. If another earthquake were to drain the water in the pool, the spent fuel could explode, releasing up to 10 times more radioactive cesium than Chernobyl — a second Level 7 accident.
The Koodankulam plant operators are unprepared for any such event. To an RTI query on contingency plans for a Level 7 accident, NPCIL responded with a one-liner: “Level 7 accident is not envisaged at KKNPP.”
Spent-fuel management demands clarity, not platitudes that seek to convey that nuclear waste will magically disappear. Last week, Nariman told the apex court that spent fuel is reused for generating electricity, and that reprocessing spent fuel was the key to India’s three-stage nuclear programme. In an interview to The Hindu, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, Director Sekhar Basu said, “Our policy is to reprocess all the fuel put into a nuclear reactor.”
Such statements fail to reflect the whole truth. While India does reprocess some of its spent fuel, it does not yet produce electricity from the recovered plutonium. In a published paper titled India’s Atomic Energy Programme: Claims and Reality, physicist and activist Suvrat Raju writes: “Of the three planned stages, only the first stage comprises conventional nuclear reactors that use uranium as a fuel. The second and third stages were to consist of fast-breeder reactors and thorium reactors.” After more than 50 years, “only the first stage has been implemented, albeit unsuccessfully,” he notes.
Developing these technologies involves tremendous financial and radiation risks, besides delays. The Kalpakkam Atomic Reprocessing Plant, a tiny unit to reprocess waste from a fastbreeder test reactor, took 13 years to commission. India’s first 500 MW fast-breeder reactor in Kalpakkam was to have been commissioned earlier this year, but is still under construction.
The government’s passionate subsidising of the nuclear programme notwithstanding, India has a total installed annual reprocessing capacity of a paltry 300 tonnes of spent fuel in Tarapur and Kalpakkam. In an email to this writer, MV Ramana, a physicist critical of the economics and safety of nuclear power, stated that this is not sufficient even to handle the 376 tonnes per year of spent fuel generated by the Kaiga, Madras and Tarapur atomic power stations. The six Koodankulam plants alone would generate 150 tonnes of spent fuel.
Recent political developments, too, are bound to skew the economics of the three-stage programme, which had gained currency and relevance at an earlier time when the country was denied nuclear technology and uranium fuel, and had to depend on scarce local reserves of low-grade uranium. However, in September 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers Group that controls uranium fuel trade lifted a 30-year post-Pokhran embargo on India. Today, not only are uranium imports possible, but fuel suppliers are likely to be begging for buyers. With Japan, Germany, Switzerland and even France easing out of nuclear energy, demand for fuel is bound to come down. Now that uranium is easily available from global suppliers, reprocessing for the three-stage programme no longer seems to be the centre-plank of India’s nuclear strategy.
Is that why the government has purchased 32,000 MW worth of reactors from France, USA, Russia and South Korea, all of which will run on imported fuel? These will contribute 700 tonnes of spent fuel annually, for which no reprocessing capacity has been conceived. At $10 million/tonne rates cited by the US Department of Energy (DoE), a 700-tonne reprocessing plant will cost $7 billion (Rs 35,000 crore).
ACCORDING TO the Union of Concerned Scientists, a US-based think-tank, “Reprocessing and the use of plutonium as reactor fuel are… far more expensive than using uranium fuel and disposing of the spent fuel directly.”
Cost analysis of recovered fuel versus imported fuel does not support the setting up of reprocessing facilities for fuel recovery. Neither does the waste management logic. Reprocessing does not make waste disappear. In fact, a recent study by the US DoE finds that reprocessing actually generates 160 times more low-level waste, requiring secure disposal. That is in addition to high-level waste with radioactivity lasting hundreds of thousands of years. One IAEA study estimates that reprocessing the spent fuel from a VVER (water-cooled, water-moderated) reactor, such as in Koodankulam, will itself generate 10.5 cubic metres of high-level waste per 1,000 MW, which will require final storage. Since the imported reactors are under IAEA safeguards, any recovered plutonium cannot be diverted for military uses. The plutonium recovered from India’s unsafeguarded reprocessing facilities, however, can be used for military purposes, and probably will be.
Economics, the historically partypooping show stopper, may have just put paid to India’s expensive reprocessing plans, at least for civilian purposes. Meanwhile, India still has to contend with a growing stockpile of high-level waste. Writing in Current Science in 2001, Ramana and others estimate that India’s stockpile of post-reprocessing high-level waste, as of December 2000, was 5,000 cubic metres, or the equivalent of 150 20-foot freight containers.
That is why I think the government will be seriously looking for a vulnerable community to dump the nuclear waste in — if not in Kolar, then elsewhere.
Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and volunteer with the Chennai Solidarity Group for Koodankulam Struggle