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Government's 'nuclear' find draws criticism from scientists

Sunday, 24 March 2013 - 6:33pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Government scientists claim they can separate actinides, a toxic component in nuclear waste, and reduce its life from 20,000 years to about 300 years. But not all are convinced.

The government says it has found “a pathbreaking step” in the disposal of radioactive wastes generated by nuclear power plants: Its scientists claim they can separate actinides, a toxic component in nuclear waste, and reduce its life from 20,000 years to about 300 years.

But not everyone is convinced especially scientists from the Indian and the international community who 
are sceptical about the claim.

Exposure of the general population to radiation is a result of releases of actinides into the soil, air and water.

On the sidelines of the centenary session of the Indian Science Congress earlier on in January, ex-chairman of Atomic Energy Commission, Srikumar Banerjee stated, “Tarapur Nuclear Power Plant has set up a large-scale unit to chemically filter out toxic minor actinides.”

If replicated on a large scale, the scientist claimed, would make handling of nuclear waste safer.

But SK Malhotra from the Public Awareness Division of the Department of Atomic Energy told DNA, “We are in the process of developing the Accelerator Driven Subcritical (ADS) systems since the last five to ten years. We are developing the technology by which actinides will be 'incinerated' with less half-life. It is doable and it's only a question of time.”

“Nuclear waste stored on site must be considered a military security issue,” said Nobel Laureate Dr John Byrne, Director of the Centre for Energy and Environmental Policy on his visit to Mumbai on Wednesday.

About the separation of actinides, Byrne, a world renowned Professor of University of Delaware in the United States, told DNA, “It would be very surprising indeed. These results are far from clear. I have not read the report. This is a complex matter and we need a lot of scientific data to indicate the positive results.”

Dr Buddhi Subbarao, who has a PhD in nuclear technology from IIT, Mumbai and is an advocate of Supreme Court of India, concurred Byrne's view. “Nobody is there to verify these claims. There is no analysis here,” he said.

Byrne added, “The data should be made publicly available on the Internet so that the global scientific community can analyse it. The Indian government should put it up on their website.”

Criticising the use of nuclear technology and underlining it's hazards, Byrne stated that unanticipated problems of nuclear power have been overwhelming all over the world. “If the Japanese, who are the most prepared lot to handle tsunamis could not see it coming, then I'm not sure who can.”

The claim at the Indian Science Congress

Actinides are a bunch of 15 metallic chemical elements, which impart toxicity to radio-active wastes in spent fuel. They are some of the most dangerous radioactive poisons. If the minor actinides are “partitioned” or removed, the rest of the waste is dominated by materials having a half-life of about 30 years.

So, in 10 half-lives, (300 years) they will have negligible activity. The partitioned minor actinides can then be “transmuted” or burned in Fast Breeder Reactors (FBR) or in Accelerator Driven Systems (ADS), the Department of Atomic Energy had stated in an affidavit in the Supreme Court.

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