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Ensure safety without secrecy

While technology is making nuclear energy more cost-efficient and nuclear waste management safer, the political wrangle continues.

india Updated: Mar 22, 2006 12:10 IST

Prof. Bernard L Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh has calculated the loss of life expectancy (LLE) due to various risks in the US. The LLE of staying unmarried is 2000 days, working as a coal miner 1100 days and living near a nuclear power plant a mere 0.4 days. Such optimism is rare in popular perceptions of nuclear energy issues.

While technology is making nuclear energy more cost-efficient and accessible and nuclear waste management safer, the political wrangle continues. Opposition exists at all levels of the nuclear fuel cycle, ranging from concern over health and environmental hazards from uranium mining, to the politics of fuel imports, reprocessing and waste disposal, as well as concern over reactor accidents.

Sustained exposure to plutonium and uranium may lead to cancer or internal organ damage and affect reproduction. But most studies have proved inconclusive partly due to secrecy, faulty radiation dose record keeping, focus on deaths over disease, inadequate follow-up, and relatively small survey samples even in civilian nuclear programmes. If the government's nuclear lobby has nothing to hide, it must dispense with secrecy as public awareness and participation in the process is crucial.

Nuclear energy is not without environment-friendly features. It produces no sulphuric acid or greenhouse gases. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, in 2004, US nuclear power plants prevented 3.43 million tons of sulphur dioxide, 1.11 million tons of nitrogen oxide, and 696.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the earth's atmosphere. The IAEA estimates that a 1000MW(e) coal-burning plant produces about 3000,000 tons of radioactive ash annually, compared to a similar nuclear plant producing 800 tons of low and medium level radioactive waste and about 30 tons of high-level waste that can be isolated from the biosphere.

Uranium milling and mining produces over 4 million tons of waste in India, with Jaduguda mines as the primary source of indigenously produced uranium. Over the years, these mines have faced intense pressure from neighbouring communities and environmental groups. Similar fears are steering opposition to proposed uranium mining in Meghalaya and Andhra Pradesh. However, mining need not be a hazardous activity as proven by broad public support for it in Canada's Saskatchewan province, the world's largest producer of uranium.

The depletion of uranium resources has spurred imports and spent fuel reprocessing. While fuel imports raise the spectre of proliferation, reprocessing necessitates temporary storage of highly radioactive by-products. India generates over 400 tonnes of spent fuel for storage, treated and stored at each site.

The temporary storage of highly radioactive material is a politically sensitive issue, connected to contamination and proliferation concerns. It was India's 1974 nuclear test that provoked a reversal of U.S. policy on commercial plutonium reprocessing. The world's spent nuclear fuel already contains enough plutonium for over 200,000 nuclear bombs!

Nuclear waste decays faster than chemical waste, and the need for safe disposal is prompting innovative solutions. Future plans include burying it below the seabed, launching it into outer space, and storing it on remote islands. Current international consensus is on placing it deep underground in a "geologic" repository.

In 2010 Finland will have the first such operational facility. Similar experiments in US, France and Germany are facing intense political pressure and public opposition. In India, BARC is continuing research on final disposal of high-level and long-lived wastes in a geological repository.

With the share of nuclear power set to grow in India, it is imperative to ensure safety and efficiency through international best practices, comprehensive security guidelines and informed public participation.