Madhya Pradesh Chronicle (India)

Wednesday, September 10 1997

Question Of Reusability Of Spent N-Fuel

R Senthilnathan

India has reiterated its opposition to defining spent nuclear fuel as a waste and not as a resource for reuse as New Delhi considers it.

Indian diplomats have also repeated their call to include waste from military nuclear installations in the proposed convention to regulate nuclear waste.

Speaking at the opening day of an international meeting to finalise the convention on nuclear waste, Indian Ambassador Yogesh Tiwari said New Delhi considers spent fuel as a resource which can be reused to generate power.

``For us spent fuel is a resource, containing plutonium-239 in uranium-based spent fuel and uranium 233 in thorium-based spent fuel,'' he told delegates from more than 50 countries at the five- day meeting called by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The meeting has been called to finalise the convention on nuclear waste, to be called the Joint Convention on Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management.

Britain, France and Japan, along with India, have opposed the inclusion of spent fuel in a waste convention. The US however insists that spent fuel is waste.

Another point of contention is that the Safety Convention and the proposed waste convention cover only civilian nuclear facilities or wastes. ``If you are concerned about human safety, then how can you exclude military waste?'' one Indian official asked.

``Radioactive wastes, regardless of their origin, would demand the same degree of safety in their management,'' Mr Tiwari, who headed the Indian delegation, said.

All the five nuclear weapons countries are firmly opposed to the inclusion of nuclear waste arising from military installations.

Mr Tiwari said India cannot accept the draft convention submitted to the delegates in its present form. He said signatories have the right to choose what to place in and what to exclude from the purview of the convention.

Mr Tiwari pointed out that when IAEA member countries asked the agency to initiate work on the convention in 1994, they were of the opinion that wastes are products for which no use is foreseen. But more recently, particularly from the March 1996 meeting of a group of experts, attempts have been made to convert the convention on the Safety of Radioactive Waste management into a joint convention to include spent fuel, he said. The experts' group was established to draft the convention and agency officials as well as government representatives were members.

After months of impasse, France broke the deadlock by grasping an Austrian initiative calling for the inclusion of the spent fuel in the convention, but to be dealt as a distinct subject separately from other radioactive waste.

The proposed waste convention caps years of efforts to bring all safety aspects of civilian nuclear facilities under internationally accepted standards. The 1994 Nuclear Safety Convention, which entered into force last October, was the first step in which countries agreed to maintain high levels of safety features in planning, designing, construction, operation and emergency preparedness of civilian nuclear facilities.

Having failed to include the waste aspects in that convention, a number of countries urged further work to have a separate convention dealing with waste which would unify existent non- binding regulations.

Exactly when the convention will come into force is still to be finalised. One proposal is that it should enter into force three months after ratification by 25 countries, at least 15 of them having a nuclear power plant.

Once in force, signatories will be obliged to maintain a high standard in storing and eventual disposal of wastes. Besides, the convention also claims the primary responsibility of ensuring that safe waste disposal lies within the territory of a country where it was generated.

There are generally three kinds of waste generated from nuclear facilities, including research reactors and power plants. The low level waste (LLW) accounts for about 80 per cent of the total generated waste but just one per cent of radioactivity. The second is low and intermediate level waste and the third is the high level waste (HLW) which, like spent fuel, is extremely radioactive.

In the US, for instance, just one per cent of the waste is HLW but it accounts for 95 per cent of the radioactivity, the environmental group Greenpeace claims.

While some countries treat the waste to reduce volume and then keep it in surface storages, others like Britain used to discharge part of their low level wastes into the sea until a 1993 convention banned it.

The only waste whose treatment still evades a solution is HLW, including spent fuel. As it is extremely radioactive and hot, it is usually kept in water pools and then stored in over-ground storage tanks, but this is a temporary measure until a permanent solution is found.

Many nuclear experts held in high regard by the IAEA claim the ideal solution is constructing repositories deep under ground - as deep as 500-1,000 metres - and having natural and man-made barriers to prevent radioactive material leaking. The first such repository is not expected to be pressed into operation before the year 2010.- IANS.