A successful organization of any nuclear power programme is hinged on an efficient strategy for nuclear waste management, and after 2009, India gained full sanction for being a part of the global nuclear energy market.
Since then, India’s nuclear capacity in the nuclear power programme has been growing exponentially. Globally, the share of nuclear power in electricity generation had witnessed a decline from 17 per cent to 11 per cent between 1995 and 2015 (R. Anderson, 2015). India however, plans to increase its nuclear power capacity to 14.6 GWe by 2024 and to 63 GWe by 2032, and has plans to have 25 per cent of its electricity supply to be supplied by nuclear power by 2050 (World Nuclear Association, WNA, 2016).
Until 2009, India’s exclusion from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty due to its nuclear weapons programme hampered India’s full participation in the global nuclear market. It also harmed India’s efforts at developing civil nuclear energy. India possesses low reserves of uranium (a nuclear fuel). However, during this period India has developed a nuclear fuel cycle that utilizes its thorium reserves.
The highest amount of electricity from nuclear energy is utilized in India in the states of Maharashtra (690 MW) and Gujarat (559 MW) (CEA, 2013). India’s energy consumption grew to more than twice than that of 1990 to 25,000 PJ by 2011 (WNA, 2016). India’s dependence on imported energy sources and the slow pace of reform in the energy sector are hindrances to energy self-sufficiency in India.
One-third of the population is not connected to any electricity grid and 19 per cent of the population is without any electricity, while three-quarters of electricity supplied in India comes from coal (WNA, 2016), which is plentiful in India as a cheap source of energy but is a major contributor to greenhouse gases and overall pollution, other than being a perishable resource. As such, the trend in India is to look for other sources of energy for electricity generation that are cleaner, cost-effective and productive. India also needs to move forward in the long-term from its energy dependency on a perishable energy source.
Some Benefits of Nuclear Energy
Nuclear power as an energy source is a sustainable source of energy, whether it is evaluated from the point of view of impacts on the climate, waste disposal and safety (provided caution is exercised), land use and technology transfers. First of all, nuclear power plants do not produce greenhouse gases such as carbon di oxide, carbon monoxide, methane, etc, allowing nations to honour their commitments towards meeting emission targets under the various international conventions and domestic pollution control targets, while generating great amounts of energy at the same time.
Nuclear power plants are also a concentrated source of energy production, and lead to judicious land use. The abundance of uranium, the fuel for nuclear power plants, and the extremely high conversion rates allows long-term energy consumption with low amounts of fuel.
Nuclear power can also be a cost-effective form of energy production for developing economies, provided that they have access to nuclear technology. These allow nuclear technology to be utilized for the generation of a cost-effective and relatively sustainable form of energy without constantly harming the environment, unlike fossil fuels.
Nuclear Waste Management in India
However, nuclear power can cause problems the form of toxic radioactive material in the form of nuclear waste that is hard to dispose of.
Nuclear waste management is dependent on its properties, which can be radioactive, chemical, or physical properties. High-level radioactive wastes are made up of complex amalgamations of radionuclides (radioactive forms of elements) of about 30 to 40 different elements.
Most of these radionuclides are toxic and emit radioactive particles like alpha, beta or gamma rays during their decay. The disposal of high-level radioactive wastes requires their storage i.e. containment and concentration.
There are different time periods for which high-level radioactive wastes need to be isolated and stored, depending on the amount of time the radioactive wastes take to decay i.e. reach a level roughly equal to naturally occurring radiation levels i.e. to that of uranium ore for example. The time period required can sometimes extend up to more than 1,00,000 years and as this makes storage difficult, technologies are being developed in an effort to reduce the time period to about 1,000 to 10,000 years.
The nature and severity of the health effects of radiation exposure depends upon the amount of radiation and the time for which one is exposed to radiation. Radiation exposure in relation to human health can be chronic or acute exposure. Continuous or intermittent exposure to radiation over a long period of time leads to chronic exposure. In chronic exposure the health effects are observed a certain time period after exposure to radiation, and most commonly leads to cancer. Other health effects include genetic changes, cataracts, tumors, etc.
Acute exposure occurs when large parts of the human body are exposed to large amounts of radiation and can occur one time or multiple times over intervals of time (USEPA, 2017). Acute exposure leads to radiation sickness, which is a collection of health effects taking effect within 24 hours of acute exposure to radioactivity involving mainly cellular degradation and its various symptoms.
Smaller exposures can lead to gastrointestinal effects, nausea, vomiting and reduced blood counts. A larger exposure can lead to neurological effects and even death. As the cells of pregnant women and foetuses divide rapidly, providing greater opportunity for radiation to spread and cause cell damage, they are particularly at risk of exposure to radiation.
In terms of the governance of radioactive wastes, the first point is that radioactive wastes can only be handled by trained personnel who are specialists. They mostly work in among the 446 nuclear power plants operational in the world that produce radioactive wastes (IAEA, 2017).
However, other than the organizational aspect, the only legal policy to implement safety standards in managing radioactive wastes internationally is the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.
While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) manages nuclear safety in the international arena, in India the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) formulates policies and lays down safety standards concerning nuclear energy.
The AERB exercises regulation by laying down guidelines and a licensing system based on stage-based evaluation. India’s nuclear safety programme includes reactor design policies, radiation exposure targets, radioactive waste management, and preparedness for nuclear emergencies.
Nuclear scientists say that India is vigilant towards radioactive wastes as regards the environment and believes in containment and concentration of radionuclides rather than their eventual dispersal in the environment (U.C. Mishra, BARC, 2011).
In a bid to develop an efficient strategy for nuclear waste management, India has recently developed a method for nuclear waste immobilization of high-level nuclear waste using a sodium-barium-borosilicate glass matrix.
India is also trying to use the same matrix to manage nuclear wastes generated from the closed thorium fuel cycle method of producing nuclear energy.
Conventionally the hot wall induction furnace technology is used in the development of inert glass matrices. India has however recently been developing by itself cold crucible induction melters and Joule heated ceramic melters in developing inert glass matrices for nuclear waste management (Sengupta, Kaushik & Dey, 2017).
The geological immobilization of radioactive wastes, seen as among the most effective techniques, or a similarly effective storage technology effectively implemented would represent the best alternative to India in the disposal of nuclear waste.
One only needs to remember the Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island disasters to understand the horrific impacts radiation discharges can have on the environment and health. In such a scenario, a proper method and discipline of storing radioactive wastes, coupled with a regulative infrastructure that supports nuclear safety and an international regime that facilitates and ensures the presence of safety standards and infrastructure in case of deficiencies in India’s nuclear power programme is imperative.