Gorleben: lessons that India can’t afford to waste

While Germany struggles with the nuclear waste menace, Indian policy-makers are oblivious of the risk amid massive expansion of nuclear projects.  

P K Sundaram

Gorleben, once a rather sleepy town on the bank of Elbe in Germany, has become a symbol of both insanity and hope in the nuclear age.

Self-assured that history has come to a halt at their feet, the rulers of what was then the West Germany selected Gorleben as a place where they could silently store their highly radioactive waste. They assumed the tonnes of waste in Gorleben could safely wait for ages till the technology to deal with nuclear wastes arrives. The reason it was selected as just that. Being on the border of East Germany and surrounded on three sides by the river Elbe which formed the border the West German government had no fear of anybody coming from the East. On the west side there was just one road leading in that could easily be controlled.

Now it is in the middle of the country and fairly easily approachable.

Not only they failed to predict about the technology, which has not materialized even after four decades, they also failed to predict about themselves: the German Democratic Republic (GDR) ceased to exist after 1989.  Gorleben, which they thought would be safe for waste disposal as it fell on the well-guarded GDR border, is now a bustling town: with much larger population, an active economic life and some important transport routes passing through it.

Gorleben is to receive 120 tonnes of nuclear waste this year, lots of which is high level waste. The waste comes from La Hague in France where Germany sends its spent nuclear fuel to be reprocessed. According to a  governmental contract with the French reprocessing company Cogema, Germany has to take back the residual waste. The container for the irradiated fuel is called “Castor” (Cask for Storage and Transport of Radioactive Material).  Every year since 1996, the train bringing this nuclear waste from France has met fierce opposition, with anti-nuke activists from all over Germany and other parts of Europe and US joining local farmers to protest against the nuclear dump. Along the Castor’s route in France and Germany, people organize most imaginative mass protests: singing, dancing, blocking the train route and confronting the police while suffering its repression.

A train with 11 containers, holding about 123 tons of refuse, left the treatment plant in France for Dannenberg, a town in about 20 kilometres from Gorleben. (Credit: EPA/RUVR)

The Gorleben transport container storage unit (Transportbehälterlager Gorleben)  hosts about 100 containers at present. Its total capacity is of 420 containers. This is an interim storage where spent fuel elements and vitrified, highly radioactive waste is being stored for next few decades. Once this waste is cooled off, this waste is supposed to be sent to the Long-Term Waste Storage Units in Salt Dome. This long-term storage facility is also controversial as experts have raised serious questions over its viability for coming 24,000 years.  The results of exploratory geological drillings done in 1980s have shown that the rock salt there may prove to be unstable and can even seep into ground-water and contaminate it.

This year, Gorleben witnessed very high-voltage protests. As Germany has recently decided to phase out its nuclear program, it was Castor’s last journey to Gorleben. But from 2014, nuclear waste will be transported to Germany for storage from a British processing plant at Sellafield. Also, the waste facility in Gorleben is still under consideration for domestically produced nuclear waste. The train’s total load this year is reportedly equal to “44 times Fukushima”, according to the Greenpeace spokesperson.

The activists used a so-called sit-down siege - they sat on the road and the rail tracks, so that the police had to remove them by force and the peaceful protest often turned into a scuffle. (Credit: RUVR/EPA)

Fierce protests are going on in Germany with reports that the government has removed protesters from railways after a violent scuffle. Nearly 23,000 people gathered in Dannenberg near the French border to oppose the nuclear waste dump.  Amid the protests on both sides of the border, the French authorities had to delay the train for 24 hours. In Gorleben, police used water cannon and tear gas upon hundreds of protesters staging a road-blockade, injuring more than 20 people.

On Sunday night, the train failed to get to Dannenberg because the protesters organised a live siege of the railway (Credit: RUVR/EPA)

On Sunday, German farmers turned out a flock of sheep to block the passage of the lorries. (Credit: RUVR/EPA)

 Nuclear Waste in India: 

India boasts of complete nuclear fuel cycle facilities: from uranium mining to reprocessing. At every step of this cycle, huge amounts of nuclear waste is produced. According to a 10-year old conservative estimate, Uranium mining and millin itself produced  4.1 million tonnes of waste. Large amounts of waste is produced in reactor operation(22,000 cubic meters of low level and 280 cubc meters of intermediate level) and reprocessing (5000 cubic meters of high level waste, 35000 of intermediate level and  21000 of low level waste).  400 tonnes of nuclear waste finds its way to the spent fuel storage without reprocessing.

Even as the nuclear energy generation in India is slated to rise from the current less than 3% to 25% in the coming decades, the Indian nuclear establishment is using its standard method: pretending the problem just does not exists. At the start of this year, the then Minister for Forest and Environment, Jairam Ramesh simply sniffed out the concerns about nuclear waste as immaterial. He said: “today, we don’t have a waste management problem. We will have it by the year 2020-2030”  He also used the opportunity to castigate the environmentalists for their ‘ironical’ stand against nuclear energy, dubbing it clean and green. Besides forgetting to mention the fairly large carbon footprints of nuclear industry, Mr. Ramesh also obscured an obvious fact: when it comes to nuclear waste, 2020-2030 is a horizon not too far. Substances like Plutonium remain lethally radioactive for more than 24,000 years whereas our policy making system is marked by political leaders who do not think beyond their 5-year electoral period.

In India, we do not know whether our nuclear establishment has any long-term nuclear waste handling plans. The waste is generally stored inside the reactor premises in the hope of future safe disposal or reprocessing. The government experts have not come up with any satisfactory answers to the question regarding waste storage raised by the people’s movement in Koodankulam. Within one week of negotiation with protesters, the nuclear establishment has come up with three contradictory statements: very little waste that can be melted into a glass ball, ‘some waste’ that would be kept at the Koodankulam plant and reprocessed and 25% waste according to Dr. Kalam.

Radioactive waste is a problem inherent in the nuclear technology, to which no country has been able to devise a permanent solution so far. Highly toxic substances like Strontium, Cesium, Iodine and Plutonium are generated at various stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. These radioactive wastes continue to  cause diseases such as cancer and leukemia for hundreds of years. Nuclear waste is invisible and almost impossible to decontaminate once it enters the food chain and environment. Disposing nuclear waste is not only difficult technically, it is also an extremely expensive process.

While the Gorleben protest highlights the problem of nuclear waste imminent in Europe, it should also ring alarm in India which is on the brink of a major expansion. Gorleben also underlines that adopting a narrow technological-determinist  approach to nuclear issues might lead to grave troubles as nuclear safety is not only a technical issues, it is also influenced by forces of history and society given the long-term consequences of radiation. We can not allow this nuclear insanity driven by lack of long-term and wider perspective in policy making. As our former Chief of Naval Staff recently remarked: “it has been an oft repeated cliché that war is too serious a matter to be left to generals. By the same token, it is time to ask if nuclear decisions are far too serious to be left to nuclear scientists, the nuclear industry and the nuclear techno- politicians!”



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