Issue of Nuclear Waste pollution – Explained, Pointwise

Introduction

The establishment of nuclear plants happened as an alternative to thermal power stations due to their low carbon footprint. However, a particular issue associated with their functioning is the generation of nuclear waste (or radioactive waste). This waste is highly contaminated and requires proper processing and treatment before its release into the environment.

The issue of nuclear waste has again come to the limelight. Japan decided to release the accumulated wastewater in Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean. 

What is Nuclear Waste?
  • Radioactive (or nuclear) waste is a by-product of nuclear reactors, fuel processing plants, hospitals, and research facilities.
  • It can be in gas, liquid, or solid form. The level of radioactivity can also vary depending on the radioactive waste. 
  • The waste can remain radioactive for a few hours or several months or even hundreds of thousands of years. 
  • These Radioactive wastes can be classified into the following types. 
    1. Exempt waste – It includes waste that meets the criteria for clearance, exemption, or exclusion from regulatory control for radiation protection purposes.
    2. Low & Intermediate level (LIL) waste: These have low levels of radioactivity. It includes 
      • The material used to handle the highly radioactive parts of nuclear reactors (i.e. cooling water pipes and radiation suits).
      • Waste from medical procedures involving radioactive treatments or x-rays etc.
    3. High-Level Waste: These have high levels of radioactivity and are mainly produced during reprocessing of spent fuel.
      • The waste includes uranium, plutonium, and other highly radioactive elements made during fission. 
      • They have extremely long half-lives (some longer than 100,000 years). This means it take long time periods before the waste settles to a safer level of radioactivity.
Current Scenario
  • Japan has decided to release more than 1 million tons of treated radioactive water (or wastewater) into the Pacific Ocean. This radioactive water belongs to the Fukushima nuclear plant. 
  • Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant is located in the town of Okuma, Japan. The reactor is located on the country’s east coast. It is about 220 km north-east of the capital Tokyo.
  • The 2011 Earthquake(magnitude 9.0), destroyed the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant’s electricity and cooling capacity. Since then, Japan is struggling with the piling-up of contaminated water from the nuclear plant.
  • This includes liquid used for cooling and rain and groundwater that has seeped in.

How is Japan Planning to Treat Radioactive water? 

  1. Japan is using an extensive pumping and filtration system known as “ALPS (Advanced Liquid Processing System)”. The ALPS process helps in extraction of tonnes of newly radioactive water each day.
  2. However, it cannot remove some radioactive isotopes. Such as tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen.
  3. Japan is planning to release the contaminated water containing tritium into the ocean.
  4. The country believes that the release of wastewater is the most realistic option, and unavoidable in order to achieve Fukushima’s recovery.
Arguments supporting the release:
  • Japan has robust treatment plants that can dilute toxins in wastewater to permissible international standards. 
    • For instance, ALPS extracts tonnes of newly contaminated water each day and filters out most radioactive elements.
  • The storage capacity at the Fukushima site will run out in 2022.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA) supports the decision as:
    1. Radioactive elements (except tritium) will be removed from the water before it is discharged.
    2. Tritium is considered relatively harmless because it does not emit enough energy to penetrate human skin
    3. Further tritium will also be reduced to small quantities before its release into the ocean. Also, it is harmful only in large quantities.
    4. Nuclear plants around the world use a similar process to dispose of wastewater
Impact of releasing radioactive wastewater into the Pacific Ocean
  1. Health Impacts: Environmental groups like Greenpeace say that radioactive materials (like carbon-14) can remain in water post-discharge. It results in their concentration in the food chain, and further creates multiple health problems.
  2. Effect on Marine Ecosystem: There is a fear that some aquatic animals may die. As the waste discharge might hamper the stability of the marine ecosystem.  
  3. Blow to Fishing Industry: Water release will also threaten the confidence of the masses regarding the quality of seafood. People might start consuming less. Thus hampering the livelihood of fishermen.
  4. Mistrust among neighbours: Both China and South Korea have criticised the Japanese plan to release radioactive water. This may hinder their future relations.
Nuclear Waste Disposal in India:
  1. In India the nuclear waste disposal is based on the concept of – ‘Delay and Delay’, ‘Dilute and Disperse’, ‘Concentrate and  Contain’.
  2. Effective management involves segregation, characterization, handling, treatment, conditioning, and monitoring of nuclear waste prior to its final disposal.
  3. A low level of waste is stored for 10- 50 years. It allows most of the radioactive isotopes in low-level waste to decay. After that, it is disposed of as normal refuse.
  4. The management of high-level waste in the Indian context encompasses the following three stages:  
    1. Immobilization of high-level liquid waste into vitrified borosilicate glasses through the process of vitrification.
      • Vitrification is the rapid cooling of the liquid medium in the absence of ice crystal formation. The solution forms an amorphous glass as a result of rapid cooling. 
      • India has operating vitrification plants at Tarapur and Trombay.
    2. Engineered interim storage of the vitrified waste for passive cooling & surveillance over a period of time, qualifying it for ultimate disposal.
    3. Ultimate storage/disposal of the vitrified waste in a deep geological repository.
Concerns associated with Nuclear Waste
  1. Long Half-Life: The products of nuclear fission have long half-lives. This means that they will continue to be radioactive for thousands of years and pose a risk to the surrounding environment.
  2. Storage Sites: It is very difficult to find a suitable disposal site for them due to environmental and public concerns.
  3. Grave health impacts: The biggest concern is the negative effects it can have on the human body when exposed to radiation. Long-term exposure to nuclear waste radiation can even cause cancer.
  4. Adverse impact on nature: Not disposing of nuclear waste properly can have huge environmental impacts. It can cause genetic problems for many generations of animals and plants. Further contamination of water, air, and soil can also occur. 
  5. Financial Strain: If any nuclear accident occurs, then the cost of cleaning everything up and making everything safe once again is very high.
Suggestions
  1. Japan should release the wastewater gradually in consonance with international standards. Further Fukushima’s food products in Fukushima have to adhere to the 50 Bq/kg radiation. This will win consumer trust.
    • Becquerel is the SI unit of radioactivity. Bq/kg refers to becquerels of radioactivity per kilogram.
  2. In the Indian context, India should construct a deep geological repository for disposing of high-level waste. The government has to give priority to the areas having remoteness from the environment and the absence of circulating groundwater in such construction.
    • Further, the repository must have the ability to contain radionuclides for geologically long periods of time. 
  3. Similarly, due adherence to Environmental impact assessment also observed before establishing a waste disposal facility. 
  4. India also has to enable Greater Research and Development towards the development of new vitrification technologies like Cold Crucible Induction Melting (CCIM).
    • It has the capability to treat various high-level waste forms with better waste loading and enhanced melter life.
Conclusion

India requires nuclear energy in the form of an alternate fuel that would meet its future demand and climate commitments. Nuclear plants can be established and operated only when there is significant public trust in their functioning. This automatically demands the safe disposal and management of nuclear waste.

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