A few days ago, I saw on the news that Niger wants France to clear up radioactive waste in the French-owned uranium mines around the city of Arlit.
I was surprised that anyone would leave radioactive material lying around, and that too, France, which generally comes across as a responsible country. Fifty percent of the uranium ore from Niger’s mines goes to fuel France.
I could be wrong, but it looks like no country has a perfect plan for disposing of radioactive waste. There is a stockpile of radioactive waste from nuclear reactors in the world stored in temporary facilities. The intention is to eventually bury it deep underground in cement canisters.
I know that ‘high-level’ waste is less than 3% and the rest is ‘low-level’ waste that supposedly decays and becomes harmless over time, and this depends on the half-life of the element. I know very little beyond that and hope people who operate nuclear reactors know what they are doing.
Three months ago Japan announced that it planned to release treated radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea starting two years from now. Japan says nuclear power plants all over the world routinely release water that has minute amounts of tritium into the sea anyway!
After the Fukushima incident, some countries like Germany and France have started shutting down their nuclear reactors and are temporarily going back to coal until they can increase renewable sources of energy like wind and solar. Italy closed down its nuclear power plants in 1990 following a referendum. Some countries are opposed to nuclear power and have never set up nuclear power stations.
It seems such a shame, because nuclear makes for a cleaner environment than coal. On the other hand, there have been a total of more than a hundred serious nuclear accidents in the world, five or six of them in India . . .
To come back to Niger, I wondered why a system hadn’t been put in place in the forty years France has been mining uranium there. The locals must have been adversely affected for decades, so who exactly are these affected people?
Apparently they are mainly the Tuareg nomads, an ethnic minority, who have lived in those parts from the 5th century CE. They are spread across many countries – Libya, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, as well as Niger. They are more loyal to their Tuareg identity than to Niger and are often at odds with their government over the ownership of the land leased out to foreigners for mining uranium.
Like the Yazidis, Kurds and other ethnic groups that are spread across many countries and don’t have a nation of their own, I guess they get sidelined in the affairs of their country.
Some activists have taken up their cause. But I get the impression that the European Union politely listens to their concerns, waits for the spike in public interest to subside, and ultimately doesn’t do much.
Then again, why will the ‘world’, i.e. the G7+EU+/–Russia+/–5-emerging-economies, care about the tribulations of a nomadic tribe that doesn’t contribute to the world economy? The ‘world’ is like an eye, the economy occupies the fovea, and images of events that are seen as dragging the economy down land on the blind spot, the point that ironically connects the eye to the brain! Of course, the fact that I get my ‘news’ from English-language channels and sites decides what I ‘know’, so someone somewhere might be taking action on this and I may never hear of it.
These were some of the thoughts triggered by what I read off the ticker on TV. Then I browsed the net a bit and found that pros and cons are still being debated furiously. While environmentalists have raised concerns about the ‘dangers’ of nuclear reactors and radioactive waste, the World Nuclear Association and scientific journals and blogs have countered the ‘myths’.
So I’m none the wiser!
If I have to choose I might throw in my lot with Science, because I believe scientists take a calculated risk after working out the theoretical framework of anything experimental. And new findings are peer-reviewed and replicated by others. It is not my business to make judgments on nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.
Leave alone nuclear reactors, I wouldn’t have had the imagination to invent a bicycle if it didn’t exist! I wouldn’t think it possible to stay balanced and move forward on two narrow wheels attached to a frame, a thing on which I can stay astride only as long as I constantly work my feet up and down!