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As India’s Nuclear Dreams Step Up, Are We Ready To Handle The Waste?

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By Mousom Singha:

Even with the failure of India making it to the prestigious and economically beneficial Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) for the time being, it is hopeful that our country will eventually be able to gain membership in the near future. With 47 out of the 48 members of NSG approving India’s bid, it is only a matter of time before the news breaks in. At this juncture, we should ask ourselves as a nation if we are really ready to assume such a responsible position in the league of nations. Do we have the economic backing? What about the human resources? What about technology? In this article, I shed some of the drawbacks and the advancements in a particularly troublesome area of being a nuclear state: nuclear waste management. Not only is this area one of the most cumbersome problems to handle, but also it requires meticulous planning for years ahead of starting operations.

Nuclear waste production is an especially large obstacle to the widespread acceptance of nuclear power. A commercial nuclear power plant produces about 20 metric tons of high level nuclear waste per year. This means that there are about 9000 metric tons produced worldwide each year. Spent nuclear fuel is irradiated fuel or targets comprising of uranium, plutonium, minor actinides and other fission products. There are three types of wastes given out by nuclear plants.

table 1

Low level wastes are those which have light radioactivity in them. Office materials used in nuclear plants, rags, tools, clothing etc fall under this category. These wastes consist of 90% of the waste volume and 1% of waste radioactivity. Storing these wastes for 10 to 50 years will cease the radioactivity present in these and thereafter can be disposed off as normal refuse.

Intermediate level wastes have higher radioactivity than the previous category. These wastes consist of resins, chemical sludge etc. These account for 7% of the waste volume and about 4% of the radioactivity volume (World Nuclear Association, 2014). These wastes are solidified in bitumen or concrete and are buried deep underground for disposal.

High level wastes mostly comprise of the spent fuel itself and the principal waste from reprocessing units. These wastes consist of 3% of the waste volume and about 95% of the waste radioactivity (World Nuclear Association, 2014). These are very difficult to dispose off as these have very long activity life. Table 2 shows the half lives of some of high level wastes to throw some light on their activity life.

table 1
Table 2

The fuel pellets used by current reactors have a cladding of metal around the uranium fuel mixture. This cladding wears out after a certain period of use due to radiations and other causes. This in turn limits the life of the fuel pellets. The current life cycle of 4 years allows only 3% of the energy present to be extracted for practical use. The low efficiency causes the used fuel pellets to have about 97% of their energy intact and hence makes them very radioactive. These pellets are active for about a few hundred thousand years. In reprocessing, the idea is to use these same used waste pellets to generate more power. The worn out cladding is first removed and the used fuel pellets are then immersed in molten salt. This mixture is put into the core of the reactor to initiate the required reactions. Without the cladding, the fuel pellets can be used as long as they keep on supplying energy, thus removing the life cycle barrier of 4 years for a pellet. Hence, as a result, this produces just a little amount of waste materials. The final used fuel possesses a radioactivity period of just about a few hundred years, which falls under the solution set of current engineering advancement. Figure 1 shows a schematic flow diagram for usage of reprocessed material.

figure 1
Figure 1

There have been rapid developments in nuclear technology over the past several years, many of which show promise for solving the above said problem. Standing out from the herd is an approach taken by Dr. Leslie Dewan and Dr. Mark Massie of MIT.

They have invented a new type of nuclear reactor, the Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (henceforth, WAMSR), that can help solve the nuclear waste problem. The WAMSR consumes nuclear waste as it turns it into electricity, reducing the mass of the high-level actinide waste. Furthermore, it produces an enormous amount of electricity. The current high-level nuclear waste stored globally amounts to about 270,000 metric tons. If the existing high-level nuclear waste were put into WAMSR reactors, they could produce enough electricity to power the entire world for 72 years, even taking into account projected increases in worldwide energy demand.

In WAMSR, the idea is to use these same used waste pellets to generate more power. The worn out cladding is first removed and the used fuel pellets are then immersed in molten salt. This mixture is put into the core of the WAMSR to initiate the required reactions. Without the cladding, the fuel pellets can be used as long as they keep on supplying energy, thus removing the life cycle barrier of 4 years for a pellet. Hence, as a result, the WAMSR produces just about 3 kilograms of waste materials. The final used fuel possesses a radioactivity period of just about a few hundred years, which falls under the solution set of current engineering advancement.

Another issue which plagues the reputation of nuclear power is safety.

Though nuclear accidents are very rare in perspective to the usage of nuclear energy and its production, they are very disastrous in nature. A single nuclear accident can cause immense damage of unimaginable consequences to human life and the biodiversity in the surrounding areas, not to mention the sociological, economical and psychological disturbances. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and in more recent times, Fukushima disasters stand testimonial to this harsh reality.

Keeping in line with such incidents, Dr. Dewan and Dr. Massie have designed their WAMSR to have a ‘walk-away’ safety feature.

Conventional nuclear power plants require a constant source of electric power to continuously supply coolants to the core to prevent a meltdown. In the WAMSR model, this problem is tackled very innovatively. The core which is filled with molten salt and the fuel pellets is the seat of the reactions. The core in addition has a plug at the bottom made of solidified salt – the very same material used in the molten state. Continuous electrical power supply is required to maintain the solid state of the plug. In case of a power failure, the heat of the reactions in the core melts the plug. Hence the whole reaction mixture flows into an auxiliary container, thus halting further heat production. In such cases, personnel are required to just walk-away as the molten mixture takes about 3 days to solidify.

In conclusion, it can be said that as the world moves towards cleaner and safer technologies for all its aspects, it is only fitting that nuclear industry moves in tandem. Hence the effort shown by the young and innovative scientists is awe-inspiring for budding engineers and scientists alike to follow in their footsteps.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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