Archive for punjab
By Adnan Farooq
If the leaching ponds containing the effluents of a milling and leaching plant are not covered in water, the dumped waste can dry up and gets blown all over by winds, as often happens in and near Dera Ghazi Khan
Dr. A. H. Nayyar is Director of the Ali Institute of Education, Lahore. He is a physicist, who retired from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad after serving it for over 30 years. After retirement, he worked at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad, dealing with policy issues in education and energy. Dr. Nayyar holds a visiting position at Princeton University, USA, where he studies technical issues in nuclear disarmament. He is a member of the International Panel on Fissile Materials.
In an interview with Viewpoint, he describes the hazards dumping of nuclear waste poses to the people of Pakistan. Read on:
How much nuclear waste is created in Pakistan and what are the dangers posed by this waste to our lives?
Let me first describe the different kinds of nuclear waste.
The first is the low level waste resulting from uranium ore processing. Only a few fractions of a kilogram of uranium are extracted out of tons of the ore. The rest, which is in thousands of tons, contains low level radioactivity, and poses health risks to people exposed to it. Radon gas is the main source of risk. This is the situation around uranium milling plants, like the one in Dera Ghazi Khan or Qubul Khel. In the newer uranium mines in Isa Khel, in-situ leaching is being done, and it is not known how much radioactivity is released to the environment from this process.
It has been conclusively shown in India that the health of the population around uranium mines gets seriously hurt by the mining activity, including severe skin ailments, cancers of various kinds, especially of lungs and skin, genetic disorder in new births.
The second is the high level waste from reactors of any kind. In a reactor, an isotope of uranium fissions and gives off energy. The parts in which a uranium nucleus is split are very highly radioactive and remain poisonous for thousands of years. The spent fuel of a reactor consists of such a material. Nobody in the world, nobody, knows what to do with this waste. Hundreds of thousands of tons of this waste is just lying in protective enclosures around the world. Nobody has found a safe way to dispose off this waste. Reactor accidents of the kind of Chernobyl can spew a large amount of such waste into the environment over thousands of square kilometers around the accident site, causing extensive loss of life and agriculture.
Pakistan has three kinds of reactors: power reactors, as in Karachi and Chashma, reactors made to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, as in Khushab, and research reactors as in Nilore, Rawalpindi. Spent fuel from power reactors remains stored in cooling ponds on site, nearly for ever. Spent fuel from plutonium production reactors is reprocessed to extract plutonium and the remaining uranium, and the highly radioactive waste containing fission products is stored in a specially protected waste site. Spent fuel from research reactors is stored as such in storage sites.
We hear about Dera Ghazi Khan when it comes to dumping of nuclear waste. If there are other places too becoming pits for nuclear waste?
Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission holds most of its activities secret, and does not let citizens know where it dumps nuclear waste. Presently the Commission is directly under the Ministry of Defence, and hence its work has become highly confidential. Even when it was under the Ministry of Science and Technology, it would not allow any probing into its activities. We do not know which other places are being used as nuclear waste dumping sites.
Do as citizens we have any right to know about nuclear waste dumping procedures?
Given that radioactivity from nuclear waste directly impacts citizens’ health, it becomes a fundamental right of citizens to know what risks such activities pose to them. If there are dumping sites near a population centre, the activity can seep into ground water and make it unusable. If the leaching ponds containing the effluents of a milling and leaching plant are not covered in water, the dumped waste can dry up and gets blown all over by winds, as often happens in and near Dera Ghazi Khan. It is criminal that the Atomic Energy Commission does not share any information on waste dumping procedures it adopts. In principle, there is the Nuclear Regulatory Authority meant to oversea the work of PAEC. But PNRA is mostly staffed by persons seconded from the Commission, and loyalties die hard.
As Pakistan is not a party to Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty while it has recently signed nuclear deals with China. What will be the implications of these deals for Pakistan’s nuclear program?
Pakistan will get nuclear power reactors manufactured in China on soft payment conditions. The fuel will come from China, and the highly toxic spent fuel will be stored in Pakistan. Each of the new reactors would cost an arm and a leg, and yet each would add only 1.5% to the installed electricity generation capacity. Nuclear electricity is viable only in countries that are short of other options. Many countries of the world have therefore shunned it for ever. The main reasons why Pakistan is insisting on buying new reactors include (a) it wants to secure the same status of global acceptability as a nuclear state as India has acquired after the US-India nuclear deal, overcoming the embargo the international nuclear agreements had imposed on it after the 1998 nuclear tests; (b) nuclear reactors provide a raison d’etre to the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission.
From VIEWPOINT, Pakistan