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India’s radioactive waste repository coming up in western ghats - the UNESCO heritage site

12 May 2014

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India’s Deep Geological Repository for Radioactive Wastes (DGRRW) Coming up in Idukki­ Theni portion of the Western Ghats

by VT Padmanabhan, Leslie Augustine, Joseph Makkolil

Last month the Government of India allotted Rs 100 crores to the Department of Atomic Energy to start the construction work of the India­based Neutrino Observatory (INO) in Idukki­Theni districts of Kerala­Tamil Nadu states. INO will be the biggest underground particle physics laboratory in the world and will be used to detect the high­energy collimated neutrino beams manufactured in Fermilab, Chicago. We had discussed the geological, radiological and enviromental impacts and weapon connection of this project at length earlier.1 2 It now appears that neutrino­gazing is only a cover story; what they are going to build there is a Deep Geological Repository for Radioactive Wastes (DGRRW). All the paper works for INO was done by the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), Chennai. After receiving all the government sanctions, the headqarters of INO was shifted to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Mumbai. However, the Tamil Nadu government handed over 27 ha of grazing land in Pottipuram village of Theni district to the Kalpakkam ­based Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Reseach (IGCAR) ostensibly for construction of surface facilities for INO.

In April 2010, around the time INO’s Pottipuram site was finally decided and informal approval from the Central Ministry of Environment was received, IMSc submitted a project application to the Tamil Nadu State Enivironmental Impact Assessment Authority’s (TN SEIAA). The only information on this project available is given below:3

File No : 0336/2010
Date of Application: 22­04­2010|
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

Nuclear power plant and nucler fuel processing plant require plenty of water which is not available at Pottipuram. So the third category – nuclear waste management plant­ seems to be more appropriate. We presume that the plant in question is a ’Deep Geological Repository’ (DGR) for storing high­level radioactive waste from nuclear reactors that the DAE officials have been talking about during the past couple of years.

If DAE’s dream of generating 40,000 MW(e)/yr materializes, India will have to deal with 1200 tons of spent fuel­ 2400 cubic meters ­ every year. The total waste at the end of 50 years will be 60,000 tons (120,000 cu m). Assuming 5 cubic meters of carved space for every cubic meter of stored waste, the total finished volume of the repositories will be 600,000 cubic meters, spread over an area of about 12 to 15 sq km. INO will have a finished volume of 235,000 cu m. Hence the total void that will have to be created in Idukki­Theni portion of the Western Ghat will be about 835,000 cu m. The mass of rock to be blasted out will be more than 2.3 million tons. About 3000 tons of gelatin will be used for the explosions. All in a small area of less than 15 square km in the midst of a geologically fragile region and a UNESCO biodiversity hotspot.

Seismicity and aquifers

According to RK Bajpai, geologist and expert in underground disposals at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) "the geological domains suitable for a DGR are also expected to lie in low seismicity prone area, with minimum groundwater, surface water, forest cover, agriculture, mineral wealth as well as absence of structural pathways like fault, shear, dykes etc.”4 Except the mineral wealth, all other factors are present in the proposed site.

The facilities will be located right in the middle of the highly deformed portion of the Suruli ductile Shear Zone. According to the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), both Idukki and Theni districts are in seismic zone ­3. INO’s EIA contractor, the Coimbatore based Salim Ali Centre for Orninthology and Natural History (SACON) ’demoted’ the region to zone­2.5 The bird­watchers’ club has taken over the role of the Bureau of Indian Standards!

According to Kushala Rajendran Idukki reservoir ‘is among the few in India that has a preimpoundment record of the background seismicity’ and is ‘listed as one of the 53 known global examples of reservoir­ triggered seismicity... Starting July 2011 microtremors were felt in the area and the sequence included at least three earthquakes of magnitude ML ≥ 3.0 and 20 tremors were recorded until November 2011’. They conclude that ‘the recent activity in the vicinity of the reservoir is unusual’6. In another paper, CP Rajendran et al note that “the sources in central midland Kerala had been generating notable earthquakes many times in the past. Frequency of such earthquakes points to the fact that this region hosts relatively larger number of potential seismogenic structures, compared to other parts of Kerala”. The authors ascribe the “perceptible increase in seismicity during the recent times in Central Kerala to the anthropogenic activities” and predict that an earthquake of magnitude ML4.5 to 5.5 can be expected to recur in the region every 25 years.7

For underground tunnel projects, detailed geo­technical study has to be conducted to ensure that there will be no damage to human­made structures and natural resources like aquifers. It is not known if such a study has been undertaken for the Idukki­Theni DGR. Such a report was prepared for INO, which has been treated as confidential and is not available in the public domain. We have a copy of the ’geotechnical’ study report (GTR) for INO, which is based on a study of six samples drilled from the portal of entry. The geologist did not even visit the surface area above the laboratory, leave alone taking samples. There is not a word about dams or aquifers in GTR. Detailed critique of GTR has been published elsewhere.8

According to BARC, “few promising areas lying in NW and Central India, occupied by good quality granites were systematically investigated using satellite data, geological and structural mapping on different scales, geophysical surveys viz. electro­magnetic, resistivity and magnetic to generate three dimensional structural and lithological models. These models were validated and refined with shallow and deep drilling amounting to about 5000 m in 25 boreholes. After characterizing the host rock for its geochemical, hydraulic and rock mechanical properties, about 22 zones, 100 sq km each have been demarcated as potential regions for further investigations. One on these zones has been investigated in detail to narrow down an area of about 4 sq km as suitable candidate site”.9

Waste Management issue in the Supreme Court

During the argument on Kudamkulam NPP in the Supreme Court, the solicitor general said in the open court that the KKNPP waste would be taken to the deep abandoned mine shafts at the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) in Karnataka. The NPCIL’s affidavit stated that “a long­term deep geological repository (DGR) has been developed in one of the Kolar mines.”

There is no mention of the Idukki­Theni site in Kerala­Tamil Nadu in any of the above announcements. Incidentally, the application for this project was filed in April 2010, the affidavit in the Supreme Court, the ministers statements in the Parliament and the AEC chairman’s press conferences – all happened after IMSc’s application to TN government.
Can we trust them?

The nuclear industry has been face to face with its worst crisis for the past one month. A deep­underground, high ­level radioactive waste respository, designed to store the wastes from US weapon facilities located in Carlsbad, New Mexico has been leaking since the middle of the last February. Leaks are not news, but this one is, because the facility was designed not to leak for at least 1,000,000 years. The underground facility, opened in 1999 sits 400 meters below surface in a salt deposit. Some two decades of deliberations and planning had gone into making of this facility.

All forty odd nations with nuclear programmes have been trying to find a safe place for DGR. The proposed Yucca mountain repository in USA for storing the waste from the civilian sector has been abandoned because of safety concerns in 2009 after 20 years of research and spending US $ 8 billion. Recently, the County Cabinet in Cumbria said “No” to the British proposal for the DGR. Thomas Buscheck, et al Of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in USA says that total containment even for 10,000 years “are unprecedented in history. For perspective, 10,000 years is the interval since the end of the last Ice Age, and the great pyramid of Cheops is less than half as old as that”.10

All the proposed sites for nulcear power plant in India are being opposed by the people, peacefully and resolutely. DAE’s attempts to aquire land for the proposed DGR in Central India have been unsuccessful. We do sympathize with the nuclear establishment. Those nuclear physiscists have generated millions of units of electricity – 3% of the total generated in India. Three percent of gross national happiness, three percent of pleasure. Natural justice demands that the beneficiaries should also share the wastes. It is in this background that the nuclear scientists have been forced to devise such ingenious method of hiding their toxic legacy behind a seemingly innocuous neutrino gazing lab.

DAE came into being in 1950 CE and it will go out of existence sooner. The rivers Periyar, Vaigai and Vaippar and the aquifers underneath the hills have been there much longer, supporting a diverse, rich and beautiful eco­system consisting of bees, butterflies and people. The Earth is a ‘living planet’ with acupuncture points and Idukki is one among them. Digging such massive caves clandestinely without the knowledge and consent of the stakeholders and the local and state governments do not augur well in a democracy. We hope the science leadership of India will behave more sensibly and withdraw its extinction protocol. Bhabha and Nehru, the main architects of India’s failing nuclear establishment, deserve a different, life and love­affirming memorial.

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

VT Padmanabhan is a member of P­MANE 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.