Radioactive Waste Management – Need of the hour

Recently, on the news it was reported said that radioactive material is buried in the Delhi University campus. India’s Atomic Energy Regulator is currently investigating this claim which blatantly bluntly portrays reflects the irresponsible behaviour on the part of the University officials and professors over about the managing  of the hazardous lethal waste material. The radioactive waste emits radiations till for years.and These affect the environment along with the living beings to a great extent if not disposed off . Thus, it needs to be managed in a way so as to reduce its ill effect on the environment and to protect human well-being.

Nuclear processes like nuclear fission and fusion, which are increasingly being used today in the power industry and also in many other industries like medicine, research etc., produce generates radioactive waste as a by-product. Radioactivity diminishes over time, with the decay speed ranging from days to years depending on the half-life of the components. So in order to minimize or eliminate its harmful effects, the waste needs to be segregated for a particular period of time and then discarded depending on its category. Used fuel and High level waste are highly toxic and therefore should be handled with appropriate shielding, without letting it to leaking out in the environment. Radioactive material is found in the environment naturally also but its very low grade and hence, harmless. Soil, for example, contains traces of uranium, radium and radon. Mining of uranium and similar ores contributes to this, bringing people within its direct contact. The radioactive waste is categorized into three 3 sections depending on the level of radioactivity per mass. These are Low-level (one per cent of radioactivity from wastes), Intermediate-level ( four per cent of radioactivity from wastes) and High-level wastes (95 per cent). High level wastes are allowed to decay for 40-50 years, sealed in canisters, buried deep in earth’s crust, or stored under special ponds, isolated from the environment. Research is still going on It is still being researched across the world, how to manage these wastes more efficiently. For example, USA is developing a repository site in Nevada to dispose off all the used fuel. In Europe, most of the used fuel is sent for reprocessing. Aand after that, the separated wastes go to geological disposal sites.

Nuclear power energy industry sincerely accepts its duty to dispose the waste material, costing it into the product. But other sources of radioactive wastes like medical laboratories, research centers centres etc., sometimes show negligence and that is what happened in India 20 years ago and its ill effects can be seen till date. 20 kg of low-grade radioactive waste material containing Cobalt-60 (radioactive isotope) was buried in a pit in Delhi University campus 20 years back, as claimed by Ramesh Chandra, Professor, Chemistry Department. Even after 20 years, this waste can contain harmful isotopes of uranium. According to the police and the research teams, this is the same material which reached the Mayapuri scrap yard in New Delhi killing a worker and harming seven others. This news story which came up in April, is just one of the many such incidents in India. Last year, in the export shipment of steel elevator buttons headed to Germany, radioactive metal was found. Few months back, a “shining object” found by a railway worker severely harmed irradiated him. Such exposures and consequent health issues are so widespread and uneven, that statistics can’t be maintained kept. Exposure to other forms of hazardous waste – medical, electronic and industrial waste – is so commonplace that no one keeps a  record of statistics about the associated health problems. This whole interlinked episode is just an example of the slack and ineffective enforcement of waste disposal laws. The metal scrap that reaches the junk yards of slums and outskirts of metro cities in India contains everything – radioactive material, e-waste, toxic waste etc. Eleven different sources of radiation have b.een identified in the scrap of New Delhi’s Mayapuri region.

As analyzed by a study in Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, only half of the vast amount of waste generated by hospitals in India, is actually treated before disposal. All the untreated hazardous waste reaches the poor echelons of the society harming their health and ruining their lives beyond repair.

To tackle this problem of management of radioactive wastes, which involves all the sections of the society, a holistic approach needs to be undertaken so as to protect our environment from the ever-increasing greed and the reckless behavior of  apparently the most intelligent animal on the earth, Man humans.

Mahima Taneja