Radioactive Waste Repository at Heritage Site? Nuclear Misadventure at India’s Western Ghats

The Grand Burial Ground in a UNESCO heritage Site. In Idukki- Theni portion of the Western Ghats

VT Padmanabhan, Leslie Augustine, Joseph Makkolil

neutrinoIn our communication dated 27th March 2014, we wrote about a radioactive waste repository likely to be set up deep underground in the mountain ranges of the Western Ghats bordering Kerala-Tamil Nadu. This was based on the information provided on the website of the Tamil Nadu State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority (TN SEIAA). According to the website, on 22 April 2010, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc) Chennai, a DAE funded research centre working on pure sciences had placed an application for a project to be set up in Pottipuram Panchayat in Theni district. The project belongs to the category of “Nuclear Power Plants/ Nuclear Fuel Processing Plants/ and Industry Nuclear Waste Management Plants”. The project is currently under SEIAA scrutiny. IMSc had also handled the adminsitratory responsibilities of the India-Based Neutrino Observatory (INO), which is also a pure science being planned by a collaboration of particle physicists. INO is an underground neutrino observatory which will be accessed by a 2.1 km tunnel with its portal of entry at Pottipuram in Theni district of Tamil Nadu. Once completed, INO would be the biggest underground physics laboratory with a finished volume of 235,000 cubic meters. The potential geological, radiological and environmental hazards of the project has been published in the Current Science and the Countercurrents had been reported extensively in print, visual and electronic media. Though the project received the sanction of the Ministry of Environment and Forests in June 2011, the Union Cabinet has withheld its approval so far.

On the nuclear facility for which application was filed in April 2010, there is no information on the websites of IMSc or TN-SEIAA. In view of the fact that this and the INO were located in the same village and the application for both were filed by IMSc, we speculated that the new project will be a deep geological repository for storing India’s 50,000 tons (estimated) high level waste and both the facilities may be accessed by a common tunnel. The developments during the six days since the publication of our study report (which was also widely reported by the print and electronic media), our assessment appears to be correct.

File No : 0336/2010
Date of Application: 22-04-2010
Applicant Name : The Institute of Mathematical Sciences
Site Address : Pottipuram village, Uthamapalayam taluk
Contact Address : CIT Campus, Taramani, Chennai – 600 113
District : Theni
Category / : 1(e) Nuclear Power Plants, Nuclear Fuel Processing Plants and
Industry Nuclear Waste Management Plants
File Status SEIAA Scrutiny

Even though the report on Idukki-Theni Deep Geological Repository for high level radioactive waste proposed by the Institute of Mathematical Sciences received very wide publicity in the media, the proponent has not issued any clarification or rebuttal. However, Prof Nabha K Mondal, project director of INO says that INO is a basic science project and has nothing to do with radioactive waste. We do not disagree on this count as we have been discussing the second project also proposed at the same site. We quote Prof Mondal:

“INO proponents applied for environmental clearance with the State Environmental Impact Assessment (S-EIA) Authority on 12 April, 2010, to set up an underground laboratory for basic sciences at Pottipuram, Theni. The application clearly outlines the purpose of the laboratory and NO connection whatsoever is made with nuclear power and allied activities including nuclear waste disposal”.

We were discussing about the application submitted by IMSc to TN SEIAA on 22 April 2010, belonging to the category of “Nuclear Power Plants, Nuclear Fuel Processing Plants and Industry Nuclear Waste Management Plants”. Prof Mondal is talking about the INO proposal which was submitted on 12 April 2010.

Prof Mondal says: “On 22 September 2010, the S-EIAA transferred the application to the Government of India due to the special nature of the project”. According to SEIIA website, the project is “Under SEIIA scrutiny”.

The Government of India’s sanction letter for the INO project dated 01 June 2011 mentions four letters from TN SEIAA. They are SEIAA/TN/F No 336-2010 dated 05.05.2010, 6.7.2010, 31.12.2010 and 1.3.2011. There is no mention about any letter dated 22 September 2010, as quoted by Prof Mondal.

From all these, we are forced to stick on to our original position that the IMSc applied for two projects – one for neutrino-gazing laboratory and the other for storage of nuclear wastes.

We thought that mathematicians use only chalk or pencil to write their equations on coffee tables and black boards. How and when did they start generating radioactive waste? Our question has been answered by an insider:

“All fundamental physics institutes in India (including TIFR, IMSc, HRI etc.) are funded through the DAE. This is for historical reasons: Homi Bhabha started the Indian atomic energy programme, and also started TIFR and wanted to maintain control over both institutions. This is a serious issue in Indian science, and fundamental physics and mathematics (including the National Board of Higher Mathematics) should be decoupled from the DAE, and this is indeed a question that must be taken up.”

Incidentally, a month before the information on India’s DGR was leaked, there has been another more serious leak in USA and that was real. Since the middle of the February, highly hazardsous wastes like plutonium and other actinides have been leaking from the Carlsbad, New Mexico based Waste Immobilization Pilot Project (WIPP). The particles that leaked from the repository located 500 meters below ground has travelled towards the city centre, 50 km away. (See box on Carlsbad)

References: pdf

VT Padmanabhan, et al A lab in the womb of a whirling worm,

V. T. Padmanabhan and Joseph Makkolil, 2013, Mountain tunnelling, aquifer and tectonics – a case study of Gran
Sasso and its implications for the India-based Neutrino Observatory –

Thanks to Alexander Cheriyan, Joseph Mathew, Ramesh R, Pugal V, Sundararajan G, Satish K, Satheesh KEK

VT Padmanabhan is a member of P-MANE Expert Group and has been writing on nuclear safety, radiation and health and other environmental issues
Leslie Augustine holds an M.Sc in Biotechnology. Also a graduate in journalism, she worked as a science reporter for four years. She researches and writes on environment and technology.
Dr Joseph Makkolil holds a PhD in nanosciences and is working in the Inter university Centre for Nanomaterials and Devices, Cochin University for Science and Technology.

Carlsbad Disaster

On February 4, 2014, assumptions of very low probability crumbled at the Energy Department’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, when a fire in a large salt truck raged for hours, deep underground.
Ten days later, an even more unlikely accident happened: Wastes containing plutonium blew through the WIPP ventilation system, traveling 2,150 feet to the surface, contaminating at least 17 workers, and spreading small amounts of radioactive material into the environment.

More than a month after the fire, WIPP remains closed, and what happened underground remains unclear. It is not known whether the leak and the truck fire are connected; a waste-drum explosion or the collapse of a roof of one of the facility’s storage chambers could be to blame for the radiation event. As Energy Department contractors send robots to explore WIPP’s caverns, the future of the world’s only operating high-hazard radioactive waste repository is uncertain.     “Events like this simply should never occur. One event is far too many,” Ryan Flynn, New Mexico’s environment secretary, said immediately after the accident. The US Energy Department, which oversees WIPP, views the fire and leak as simply small bumps in the long road of running a long-term waste repository. “Without question, there is absolutely not an iota of doubt …. We will re-open,” David Klaus, the Energy Department deputy undersecretary, told the public in Carlsbad on March 8. But less than two weeks later, New Mexico seemed to have the last word on the immediate response to the accident, when it cancelled its permit for additional disposal at WIPP.


Join discussion: leave a comment