Time for India to stop reprocessing spent nuclear fuel

M. V. Ramana | Economic Times

Recent media reports suggest that all is not well within the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). Scientists have reportedly written to the Prime Minister seeking intervention in the management of the Centre. Their complaints mostly revolve around internal matters such as harassment and promotions, but an important revelation should be of public concern. One scientist has reportedly alleged that his supervisor had directed that effluents from the reprocessing plant be released into sea with radioactivity levels much higher than permissible limits. Absent transparent inquiry, we cannot ascertain the veracity of this allegation, but there is a historical basis for taking this seriously and be concerned.

Operating nuclear reactors generate not just electricity but also irradiated fuel. This “spent fuel” includes uranium that has not undergone fission, plutonium, and highly radioactive materials called fission products that are produced when uranium nuclei undergo fission. BARC practices what is called reprocessing, wherein the spent fuel is dissolved in acid and various chemicals added in order to separate out plutonium from it. The plutonium is to be used as fuel in other reactors or to make nuclear weapons.

Reprocessing also generates multiple waste streams classified on the basis of their radioactive concentration into low, medium and high-level waste. Low-level waste has relatively low concentrations of radioactivity but comprises over 80 percent by volume of the wastes produced and is a major management problem. Because it is produced in such large volumes, nuclear establishments around the world routinely release low-level waste into the environment. This radioactivity makes it way into marine life and can be detected at great distances.

Low-level waste is likely the effluent reportedly discharged into the sea. That such discharges occur routinely at Trombay is known. Likewise, there are also routine releases of radioactive effluents from the reprocessing plants at Tarapur and Kalpakkam. Academic papers by BARC scientists offer various pertinent details. For example, a 1994 paper in the Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry reports that the effluents from BARC’s reprocessing plant are discharged into “the Bombay Harbour Bay, which joins the Arabian Sea about 15 km southwest of the waste discharge point”; “at Tarapur,…in the Arabian Sea coastal region”; and that radioactive neptunium concentrations in sea water close to the point of discharge sometimes exceed background levels by a factor of about 5000. Other papers from 2013 and 2014 in the same journal record measurements of radioactive contaminants such as radium and cesium from reprocessing effluents in marine sediments.

There is also evidence of radioactive wastes being discharged at hazardous levels. In his 2007 book, Technology at the Core, Ashok Parthasarathi, Science Adviser to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, recalls the mid-1960s when an underground tank at the Trombay reprocessing plant used for storing irradiated spent fuel once became severely contaminated. Instead of storing it safely, the radioactive water was pumped out into the sea and waiters at the BARC canteen, who went to the shore “for ablutions”, were contaminated. In turn, they passed on the radioactivity to technicians, who were then identified as contaminated by radiation monitors in the labs. Sometimes what goes around, comes around.

What makes this routine contamination more egregious is that it is completely unnecessary. As detailed in a 2015 report from the International Panel on Fissile Materials, the practice of reprocessing of spent fuel is slowly dying out. Early in the nuclear age, many countries used to or planned to separate plutonium from spent fuel in the expectation that the world would soon run out of uranium. This assumption was mistaken; geologists have long concluded that global reserves of uranium ore are very large.

As a result, over the years, most countries have stopped reprocessing. The United States and Germany abandoned this practice in the 1970s and 1980s respectively. The United Kingdom has decided to end its reprocessing program as soon as its existing contracts are fulfilled — around 2018. Even France, the country with the highest reliance on nuclear power, is questioning reprocessing. Currently, only Russia and India are expanding reprocessing capacity. Japan’s nuclear establishment wants to operate the Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant, but has not managed to do so even after spending $20 billion (¥2.19 trillion) over two decades to construct it.

The gradual withdrawal from reprocessing is primarily driven by economics. Reprocessing is hugely expensive; constructing and operating this highly complex facility filled with radiological and chemical hazards costs billions of dollars. In addition, large amounts of money have to be set aside to deal with the radioactive waste and decommissioning of the facility. The alternative way of dealing with the spent fuel, namely directly disposing it of in a geological repository, is significantly cheaper. In 2007, the economist J. Y. Suchitra and I published a paper in International Journal of Global Energy Issues that used the actual expenditures on the Kalpakkam Reprocessing Plant near Chennai to demonstrate that reprocessing of spent fuel in India costs about 25 times what it would cost to directly dispose it. In a subsequent 2011 paper in the same journal, we showed that the use of plutonium to fuel reactors was also not economical.

From both an environmental and economic perspective, therefore, reprocessing of spent fuel simply makes no sense. Add to this the risk of potential accidents at reprocessing plants and associated facilities, and it should be clear that even if nuclear power is being expanded, it would be better to stop reprocessing spent fuel.

M. V. Ramana is with the Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University and the author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India (Penguin 2012). He is a member of the International Panel on Fissile Materials.