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Nuclear Power AND Waste

Published: 14th Mar, 2024

Context

India recently reached a significant milestone in its nuclear program by loading the core of its prototype fast breeder reactor (PFBR), advancing towards stage II of its three-stage nuclear program, aimed at achieving energy independence through the utilization of thorium reserves. However, the large-scale use of nuclear power is accompanied by a difficult problem: waste management.

1: Dimension- Production of Nuclear Waste & Handling

  • Nuclear waste is produced when atoms in a fission reactor absorb neutrons, resulting in the creation of radioactive elements that cannot undergo further fission. This waste, also known as spent fuel, contains radioactive fission products and elements formed through the conversion of uranium.
  • It is hot and highly radioactive, and needs to be kept underwater for up to a few decades. Once it has cooled, it can be transferred to dry casks for longer-term storage.
  • All countries with longstanding nuclear power programmes have accumulated a considerable inventory of spent fuel. For example, the U.S. had 69,682 tonnes (as of 2015), Canada 54,000 tonnes (2016), and Russia 21,362 tonnes (2014).

2: Dimension- Issues associated with nuclear waste

  • Danger for health: These waste materials can remain radioactive and dangerous to human health for thousands of years.
    • Two of the world’s biggest nuclear accidents – the Fukushima nuclear disaster (2011) and the Chernobyl disaster (1986) – were responsible for the release of a significant amount of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere, which created huge consequences for people and the environment.
  • Costly maintenance: Radioactive wastes are subject to special regulations that govern their handling, transportation, storage, and disposal to protect human health and the environment. The maintenance of these sites can be extremely costly and it requires a large amount of manpower.
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