Monday, 25 November 2013

Nuclear Waste disposal facility at Kalpakkam commences even as anti-nuke activists cry foul

The third nuclear Waste Immobilization Plant (WIP) in the country and the first in the state was inaugurated at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at Kalpakkam by the President of India Pranab Mukherjee remotely from BARC in Mumbai on Friday (November 15, 2013) even as anti-nuclear activists cried foul citing lack of environmental clearance and non complaince with Interational safety standards. 

WIP facility director Amitava Roy said that the plant was now processing intermediate level liquid waste from reprocessing plant and the performance has been encouraging so far. WIP is designed to process radioactive liquid waste generated by reprocessing spent fuel from pressurised heavy water reactor. The waste is processed to immobilize the radioactivity for storage and disposal in solid form for geological disposal at a later date.

However, anti-nuclear activists here claimed that the Kalpakkam facility did not meet international safety standards and was not suitable for storing nuclear waste as the facility was way close to an under sea volcano.  

According to scientists at WIP, the Pressurized Heavy Water Reactors (PHWR) generates power and release spent fuel comprising of Uranium (235), Plutonium and radioactive fission product in liquid state. Uranium (235) and Plutonium which comprise 97% of the spent fuel serve as reprocessing fuel and are fed into a different type of reactor while the nuclear waste produced, which accounts for the remaining three percent, need to be disposed off effectively.

“Nuclear waste from reactors are usually classified as high-level waste, intermediate level waste and low level waste depending on the concentration of radioactivity. The High and Intermediatel level wastes are treated sufficiently and immobilized (transformed from liquid to solid state) and disposed off,” said a senior scientist at BARC.

The High Level Waste at the WIP here are vitrified using a Joule Heated Ceramic Melter with borosilicate glass to ensure absolutely minimal leaching of the radioactive materials and then stored in metal canisters that are sealed for later disposal at an identified geological location. These canisters would be buried deep under the surface of the earth after going through a cooling process. 

The Intermediate Level Waste is first pretreated to recover traces of heavy metals and then subjected to ion exchange treatment for removal of Cesium and Strontium usiing indigenously developed selective ion exchange resins. After the removal of Cesium and Strontium that are treated as High Level Waste, the remaining liquid waste is treated in the Central Waste Management Facility.

Speaking to reporters facility director Amitava Roy said that India is one of the few countries in the world to have indigeniously developed Joule Melter technology and to have an operating experience. “State of the art systems are incorporated into the plant for remote Operation and Maintenace and also decommissioning of the facility,” he said.

The other two WIPs in the country, also commissioned by BARC, are located at Tarapore and Trombay in Maharashtra while the disposal mechanism of commercial nuclear reactors in the country remain unclear.

Nuclear power to meet surging energy needs of country in next 30 to 40 years

While the significance of commissioning the Waste Immobilization Plant (WIP) at Kalpakkam might seem as just one more milestone in the country’s nuclear power programme to the common man, scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre claim that it takes the country one giant step forward in meeting India’s burgeoning power demand. 

Senior scientists at BARC pointed out that India’s nuclear programme has classified into the three stages and having an effective waste disposal technology is of paramount importance. “In the first stage of our nuclear research, natural Uranium is used as fuel to generate power which has been proven as a success. The second stage uses Plutonium recovered from the spent fuel of the first stage to generate more power through fast breeder reactors to exploit maximum potential of natural uranium. The significance of WIP is in fixing radioactive fission products in a safe and environmentally friendly mode,” said senior BARC scientist J. Daniel Chellappa.

However, the third and most crucial phase of the country’s nuclear power plan would be to process nuclear power from Thorium which is present in monazite, a mineral that is abundant in the coasts of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Odissa. “While we have very limited reserves of natural Uranium, India and Brazil have the largest deposits of monazite and the next level of nuclear reactors would be fast breeder reactors that would convert Thorium to Uranium and tap into these reserves to generate nuclear power,“ Mr. Chellappa said.
The third phase of the nuclear programme as envsioned by the founding fathers of the country’s nuclear policy would take another 30 to 40 years by which time there would be sufficient fuel deposits to meet the country’s power needs. 

Despite several attempts by nuclear experts and activists to highlight the  illegal mining of monazite for export purposes by private firms, monazite has been mined in a large scale from coastal India for the past several years.

Activists claim Kalpakkam not suitable for nuclear power station or storing radioactive waste

Even as nuclear scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre are rejoicing over the Waste Immobilization Plant’s successful operation, anti-nuclear activists here claim that there is proof that BARCs waste disposal facility at Kalpakkam meets international standards.

“All over the world, there has been no effective solution for the disposal of nuclear waste. While our nuke scientists claim that they cover it with borosilicate glass and bury it ensuring safety, the nuclear plants at Kalpakkam do not meet International standards unlike the more modern ones,” says V. Sundar Rajan from Poovulagin Nanbargal, the organisation that has approached the courts regarding safety standards at the Kalpakkam nuclear facility.

He pointed out that when their organization had sought the identity of the location for burying nuclear waste, they did not receive a proper response. “Earlier, they said they would bury in Kolar but now they have changed that after the locals there protested. We are still unsure as to where this fuel would be buried and if there would be a public consensus on that,” Sundar Rajan said.

The anti-nuclear activists claimed that Kalpakkam was located within 100 kilometers of an under sea volcanoe and was unsuitable to be a site for nuclear power generation. “The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is currently investiging the site’s proximity to the volcanoe after we highlighted it and in this context adding more components and reactors at Kalpakkam is not advised,” he said. “Besides, there has been no Enivornmental Impact Assessment done to study if the site is suitable for storing nuclear waste even for a short term.”

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