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Wednesday 26 July 2017
News updated at 2:07 AM IST

Should nukes be nullified?

The debate over nuclear energy has remained inconclusive with environmentalists and the nuclear industry at loggerheads. Antony P U discusses the effects of nuclear waste on the environment while suggesting alternate sources of energy.

Even as the brouhaha over the Kudankulam nuclear project is yet to die down, there is a lot of debate in general about how environment-friendly nuclear energy is. The country already has six nuclear plants – Narora in Uttar Pradesh with a capacity to produce 440 megawatt energy, Rawatbhata in Rajasthan (2,580 MW), Kakrapar in Gujarat (1,840 MW), Tarapur in Maharashtra (1,400 MW), Kaiga in Karnataka (880 MW) and Kalpakkam in Tamil Nadu (940 MW).

Seven more nuclear plants have been proposed – Kumhariya in Haryana, Bargi in Madhya Pradesh, Mithi Virdi in Gujarat, Haripur in West Bengal, Jaitapur in Maharashtra, Kovvada in AP and Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu.

The proponents of nuclear power claim that as a cheap and clean source of energy, it offers an appealing alternative to traditional sources like coal. But nuclear energy has long been a dilemma for environmentalists. It is associated with troubling environmental issues.

Waste disposal is the most critical problem associated with radioactive power generation. At each stage of operation, radiation increases multifold. The dire subject of massive quantities of radioactive waste accruing at the 442 nuclear reactors across the world is rarely addressed by the nuclear industry. Each typical 1000-megawatt nuclear reactor manufactures 33 tonnes of thermally hot, intensely radioactive waste per year.

The robotic decommissioning of an intensely radioactive reactor at the end of its 20 to 40-year operating lifetime, involves transportation and long-term storage of massive quantities of radioactive waste. Already more than 80,000 tonnes of highly radioactive waste sits in cooling pools next to the 103 US nuclear power plants, awaiting transportation to an unfound storage facility.

The long-term storage of radioactive waste continues to pose a problem. The US Congress in 1987 chose Yucca Mountain in Nevada, 150km northwest of Las Vegas, as a repository for America's high-level waste. But Yucca Mountain has subsequently been found to be unsuitable for the long-term storage of high-level waste because it is a volcanic mountain and is transected by 32 earthquake faults.

Waste contaminates a huge area in its vicinity for thousands of years. Even if there is no nuclear accident, an area of 30-35 km radius around each of the units gets contaminated by nuclear radiation regularly. Radio active waste has severe impact on vegetation including agriculture.

Trees near Jaduguda uranium mines of Jharkhand have deformed seeds. Agricultural produce around uranium mines is bound to carry unacceptable amounts of radioactive content. Radioactive boars are on the rise in Germany thanks to Chernobyl. In Chernobyl, an area of 1,00,000 sq km is uninhabitable for 20,000 years.

The worst accident in US commercial nuclear power plant history – Three Mile Island accident – happened in 1979 due to the meltdown of fuel rods resulting in the release of small amounts of radioactive gases into the environment. The scope and complexity of the accident became clear over the course of five days.

Radioactive isotopes

Nuclear reactors consistently release millions of curies of radioactive isotopes into the air and water each year. These releases are unregulated because the nuclear industry considers these particular radioactive elements to be biologically inconsequential. This is not so.

Unregulated isotopes include the noble gases krypton, xenon and argon, which are fat-soluble and if inhaled by persons living near a nuclear reactor, are absorbed through the lungs, migrating to the fatty tissues of the body, including the abdominal fat pad and upper thighs, near the reproductive organs. These radioactive elements, which emit high-energy gamma radiation, can mutate the genes in the eggs and sperm and cause genetic diseases and deformed babies.

Tritium, another biologically significant gas, is also routinely emitted from nuclear reactors. Tritium is composed of three atoms of hydrogen, which combine with oxygen, forming radioactive water, which is absorbed through the skin, lungs and digestive system. It is incorporated into the DNA molecule, where it is mutagenic and results in malignancy.

Following exposure to radiations, the incubation time for cancer is five to fifty years.
Four of the most dangerous elements made in nuclear power plants include Iodine 131, released during nuclear accidents at Sellafield in Britain, Chernobyl in Ukraine and Three Mile Island in the US, Strontium 90, another power plant product that lasts for 600 years, Cesium 137, yet another product which also lasts for 600 years and Plutonium 239, one of the most dangerous elements known to humans.

More than 200kg is made annually in each 1000-megawatt nuclear power plant. Plutonium can last for 5,00,000 years and is the best fuel for nuclear weapons. Only 5kg is necessary to make a bomb and each reactor makes more than 200kg per year. The nuclear fuel cycle itself utilises large quantities of fossil fuel at all of its stages - the mining and milling of uranium, the construction of the nuclear reactor and cooling towers.

Alternatives

India can save 30-40 per cent of its electricity deficit by simple conservation techniques like improving the efficiency of existing power plants and decentralising electricity generation to reduce long distance transmission losses.

The cost of implementing these efficiency improvement measures is much less than that of setting up new plants. We can save 30 per cent increased demand of electricity by using energy-efficient electrical infrastructure at home and judiciously reducing wastage. Natural sources of energy are cheap and unlimited.

They don’t kill. Solar energy has the potential to feed earth 1,000 times more than atomic energy. Solar water heaters in Bangalore save 900 MW of peak load. Total electricity generated in 2006 was 1,60,000 MW. Electricity required by 2032 to sustain eight percent growth is 8,00,000 MW. The government’s projected energy production by all nuclear plants is just 60,000 MW i.e.; hardly 10 per cent of the electricity deficit. Should lives be risked for just 10 per cent of electricity?

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