Where will the nuclear waste go?
FOLLOWING the signing of an agreement with Russia on November 2, 2011, to set up two, 1000 MWe nuclear reactors at Rooppur, Sergey V. Kirienko, director general of the State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) of Russia, announced that Russia would supply nuclear fuel for the lifetime of the plant and "also the spent nuclear fuel will be taken back to Russia."
Subsequently, we were told repeatedly by the concerned authorities in Bangladesh that we had no reason to worry about nuclear waste from the proposed Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant (RNPP). Kirienko again assured the prime minister of Bangladesh during her visit to Russia last January that they would take back the nuclear wastes as per agreement (UNB, January 16, 2013).
We were, however, surprised by a contradictory statement given by Yu Sokolov, Vice-Chairman of Rosatom, at the recent international seminar on nuclear power in Dhaka. To a question from the floor, he said that Russia would take back the spent nuclear fuel but there was no agreement between Bangladesh and Russia about the management of the nuclear waste. He further added that as per existing regulations, Russia cannot manage nuclear waste from other countries.
The minister of science and technology of Bangladesh, who was present at the seminar, did not contradict the statement of Sokolov. Does this mean that Russia may ultimately send back the high-level nuclear waste to Bangladesh? If this happens then why were we misinformed about the management of the nuclear waste from the Rooppur plant?
What will Bangladesh do with the high-level nuclear waste? In an article (The Daily Star, Novenber 3, 2011) I explained that nuclear wastes are separated from the spent fuel through reprocessing and classified as low, mid and high-level wastes depending on their half-lives. The half-life is the time taken by a radioactive substance to lose half of its activity. Low and mid-level nuclear wastes can be disposed of relatively easily when their activities naturally come down to a negligible level through disintegrations in a reasonably short time.
High-level nuclear waste, which consists of 3% by volume of all radioactive waste and contains 95% of the radioactivity, can have half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years. The high-level waste is vitrified i.e. turned into glass, sealed inside stainless steel canisters for storage or disposal in dry and stable geological formations, preferably inside abandoned salt mines deep underground. Liquid high-level wastes are evaporated to solids, vitrified and stored like solid wastes.
Unfortunately, there is no such geological formation in Bangladesh and, therefore, it is not possible to permanently store high-level waste in our country. The other alternative is to store the waste inside a thick heavy concrete vault in an isolated area and guard it, including an exclusion zone, against human intrusion. It will also be difficult to find an isolated and environmentally safe location for storage of high-level nuclear waste in a densely populated country like Bangladesh.
It is, therefore, essential that the issue of management of high-level nuclear waste is resolved satisfactorily through discussions with Russia before the start of construction of the nuclear plant at Rooppur. Secondly, it is expected that the government takes the people in confidence and tells the whole truth, not the half of it, while dealing with nuclear power.
The writer is a former chief engineer of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission.