NUCLEAR WASTE (Syllabus: GS Paper 3 – Sci and Tech)

News-CRUX-10     13th March 2024        

Context: Recently, India loaded the core of its long-delayed Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) vessel, bringing the country to the cusp of stage II powered by uranium and plutonium — of its three-stage nuclear programme.

Nuclear Waste

  • About: It is a byproduct from nuclear reactors, fuel processing plants, hospitals and research facilities.
  • Fission Reaction: In a fission reactor, atoms of certain elements undergo bombardment by neutrons, causing them to destabilize and break up, yielding energy and different nuclei.
  • Debris Formation: Example: Uranium-235 nucleus absorbs a neutron, leading to fission producing barium-144, krypton-89, and neutrons. Debris elements that can't undergo further fission become nuclear waste.
  • Fuel as Source: Spent fuel from reactors contains radioactive fission products and elements produced during uranium conversion, contributing to nuclear waste.
  • Radioactivity and Storage: Nuclear waste is highly radioactive and requires secure storage facilities to prevent environmental contamination or leakage.
  • Managing Spent Fuel: The primary challenge in handling nuclear waste lies in managing spent fuel.

oSpent fuel is both hot and radioactive, necessitating underwater storage for several decades.

India's Approach to Nuclear Waste Management

  • Presence of Reprocessing Plants: According to a 2015 report by the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), India operates reprocessing plants in Trombay, Tarapur, and Kalpakkam.
  • Trombay Facility Operations: The Trombay facility reprocesses 50 tonnes of heavy metal per year (tHM/y) from spent fuel of two research reactors.

oIt aims to produce plutonium for stage II reactors and nuclear weapons.

  • Tarapur Reprocessing Plants: Tarapur houses two reprocessing plants, one handling 100 tHM/y of fuel from certain pressurized heavy water reactors (stage I).

oThe second Tarapur facility, commissioned in 2011, has a similar capacity of 100 tHM/y.

  • Kalpakkam's Role: The reprocessing facility in Kalpakkam processes 100 tHM/y of nuclear waste.