Is Nuclear waste a major water polluter ?

Nuclear power has historically been one of the largest contributors of constant, carbon-free electricity globally . In 2019 about 10 % of global electricity was generated from nuclear energy.

Electricity generated from the world’s nuclear reactors increased for the seventh consecutive year in 2019, with electricity output reaching 2657 TWh (Trillion-watt hour) . India has 22 operating nuclear plants producing 6255 MWh (Million-watt hour) which is around a dismal 3% of its total energy mix as compared with France where 71% of its electricity generation comes from 56 nuclear plants and USA has 95 nuclear plants that contribute to around 20% of its energy needs.

How do nuclear plants work ? Like all other thermal power plants, nuclear reactors work by generating heat, which boils water to produce steam to drive turbo-generators. In a nuclear reactor, heat is the product of nuclear fission. Uranium and plutonium nuclei in the fuel are bombarded by neutrons and split usually into two smaller fragments, releasing energy in the form of heat. Uranium is mined and milled and the product – uranium oxide concentrate – is the raw material for making nuclear fuel.

Kazakhstan produces 43% of world’s uranium and caters to 80% of India’s uranium requirement annually.

And why is nuclear power considered reliable ? Power generated from nuclear plants have the highest capacity factor (at around 90%)  , meaning that the nuclear plant is running at maximum power for 90% of its time when compared to power plants running on other energy sources (see graph below) . Nuclear power plants in full-swing operation can produce energy non-stop for an entire year, which allows for a good return on investment because there is no delay in energy production unlike wind or solar plants whose outputs fluctuate with day to day climate variations.

Nuclear waste handling and impact on water pollution :

Little waste is generated : Nuclear fuel is very energy dense, so very little of it is required to produce immense amounts of electricity – especially when compared to other energy sources. As a result, a correspondingly small amount of waste is produced. Radioactive waste is typically classified as either low-level (LLW), intermediate-level (ILW), or high-level (HLW), dependent, primarily, on its level of radioactivity. Up to 90% of nuclear waste can be recycled and the rest can be disposed safely underground.

March 2011 Tsunami tragedy : Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was flooded when the earthquake hit, and its control equipment triggered a meltdown. Radioactive water started piling up at the site and even today , after 9 years , millions of tons of radioactive water are in the tanks of the reactor.

What are the disposal options for this wastewater, and why is Japan considering the ocean?

Disposal options are very limited. Since dosage determines toxicity, any solution must dilute the radioactive water as much as possible. An expert panel assembled to find solutions focused on two potential options: vaporizing the water and dispersing it into the atmosphere  or dumping it in the ocean. Though the United Nations International Maritime Organization is governing this activity, local fishers and environmentalists are worried about the impact on marine life and neighbors South Korea have banned seafood imports from Japan.

Fukushima Nuclear Plant Japan was flooded by the 2011 Tsunami ( Picture credit : Alamy)

How is India handling nuclear waste ?

India is pursuing a closed fuel cycle, where there is very little quantity of radioactive waste generated. Moreover, technologies for separation, partitioning and burning of waste are in place ,which will further bring down the quantity of radioactive waste. Kudankulam plant in Tamilnadu is supported by Russian state atomic energy corporation Rosatom, and recycles its nuclear waste and the useful radioisotopes from the waste made use of in various other applications.

What’s new ?

  1. Russia has launched floating nuclear power plants that are modular and can provide reliable carbon-free power in remote , off-grid zones where there are power shortages and limited electrical grids.
  2. France is building a new aircraft carrier that will be nuclear-powered. Costing around $8.5 Billion , the carrier will have a deadweight of 75,000 tons and carry upto 30 Rafale fighter jets and showcases France’s climate strategy committed to lower emissions using nuclear energy when compared to diesel fuel.
  3. New methods such as shock electrodialysis that generates shockwaves in water and removes the contaminants from polluted water and separates out the radioactive isotopes are being used for routine clean-ups in nuclear reactors.

In conclusion , there exists a popular misconception that due to certain parts of nuclear waste remain radioactive for billions of years, the perceived health risks arising out of radiation is extremely harmful for generations. Many countries like Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain are phasing out nuclear plants due to public concerns around safety and focus on newer clean energy technologies.

Nuclear energy is a good alternate to fossil fuels(such as coal, crude oil , natural gas) as countries race towards less CO2 emissions, improved air quality and lesser marine pollution . The need for diversification of power projects has never been greater and nuclear energy can co-exist with other renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, biomass etc. with robust safety guidelines , waste & water management and real time monitoring in place.

Russia’s floating nuclear power plant ( Picture credit : https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-49446235 )

Published by Meena Iyer

Sustainability champion and naturally committed to support the cause of healing our planet impacted due to climate change.

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