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Managing Nuclear Waste: Comparative Analysis of India and Pakistan

The management of nuclear waste is a critical aspect of any state’s nuclear safety mechanism, yet the frail approaches by countries like India leave much to be critically analysed. A comparative analysis of the strategies of India and Pakistan reveals glaring shortcomings and highlights the urgent need for reform and accountability of India’s nuclear safety structure. India, often publicized for its ambitious nuclear energy program, has made irrational strides in establishing facilities for nuclear waste management and disposal. For instance, the disposal of nuclear waste of Jadugoda in the Subarnarekha River contaminating water with heavy alpha radiation, with levels 192% higher than safe limits set by the World Health Organization. However, in its pursuit of nuclear advancement, India has emerged as an irresponsible state when it comes to handling nuclear matters, primarily due to its inadequate regulation, negligent enforcement, and lack of transparency. Therefore, this piece highlights the need to intervene and take serious steps to ensure better regulation and accountability of India’s nuclear waste management.

India's pursuit of using closed fuel cycle processes, reprocessing and transmutation technologies, apparently aimed at waste reduction and management, raises valid concerns regarding proliferation risks and the potential diversion of nuclear materials. Moreover, India's illegal transfer of nuclear waste to Africa has raised alarms about the broader implications of its nuclear waste management strategies and practices and concerns among the African public. Reports of HLW nuclear waste being improperly disposed of in water within the state of India, even contaminating water sources used by vulnerable communities, highlight the grave consequences of India's mismanagement in this regard.

According to a study, India makes around 5 tons of nuclear waste annually. However, the Indian government's tendency to prioritize nuclear arsenals advancements over safety and environmental concerns is evident in the numerous incidents of radioactive contamination and leaks reported near the nuclear facilities. Instances such as the theft of several kilograms of semi-processed uranium by a criminal gang, from a state mine in Meghalaya, northeastern India, in 1994, highlight the alarming vulnerabilities in India's nuclear security mechanism. Similarly, four years later, a federal politician was caught near the West Bengal border in possession of 100 kilograms of uranium sourced from India’s Jadugoda mining complex. These incidents highlight the irresponsible handling of nuclear materials within India, often overshadowed by attempts to shift blame onto neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan. Furthermore, a separate operation in India led to the recovery of 57 pounds of stolen uranium, shedding light on the glaring incompetency of Indian security forces in safeguarding nuclear assets.

Despite being caught red-handed, the Indian state consistently accuses Pakistan of irresponsibility, conveniently ignoring its own incompetency’s in nuclear security protocols. In contrast, no such incidents and reports have been observed regarding Pakistan's approach to nuclear waste management, safety and security as it appears more cautious and responsible. In 2003, members of a jihadist group, were apprehended in a village on the Bangladesh border with 225 grams of milled uranium, allegedly obtained illicitly from a mining employee, with intentions to use it into explosives. Although initially attributed to Kazakhstan, subsequent investigations pointed towards a uranium mining complex at Jadugoda, eastern India. In 2008, another criminal gang attempted to smuggle low-grade uranium across the border to Nepal from one of India’s state-owned mines. Simultaneously, a separate group facilitated the illicit transfer of uranium to Bangladesh, aided by the son of an employee at India’s Atomic Minerals Division (IAMD), responsible for supervising uranium mining and processing.

Shockingly, in 2009, a nuclear reactor employee in southwest India deliberately poisoned dozens of colleagues with a radioactive isotope, exploiting numerous security loopholes/gaps  within the plant. Additionally, in 2013, leftist guerrillas in northeast India illicitly acquired uranium ore from a government-run milling complex and utilized it to fashion crude bombs before being apprehended by law enforcement. If a state cannot ensure the security of its nuclear assets domestically, how can it be trusted to protect them from nonstate terrorist organizations? In such cases, the international community consistently perceives Pakistan as an irresponsible state, raising concerns that its nuclear assets are vulnerable to falling into the wrong hands. Meanwhile, instances of Indian negligence go largely unnoticed.

Conversely, globally Pakistan ranks higher than India in terms of nuclear safety and security protocols. Pakistan’s nuclear power plants include robust systems for the safety and security. The IAEA team during a survey in Pakistan observed that enhancements in Pakistan's regulatory functions and operations have led to advancements in nuclear safety. They also mentioned that the progress is evident in the formulation of regulations and the reinforcement of mechanisms for regulatory inspections, authorizations, emergency readiness and response, occupational radiation protection, and environmental radiation monitoring. The team added that, although a national policy exists for the secure handling of radioactive waste and spent fuel, as well as decommissioning and waste disposal, but Pakistan could derive additional advantages from increased participation in international collaboration in this domain.

Pakistan has developed a national radioactive waste strategy encompassing pre-disposal measures, off-site transportation, and disposal methods tailored to the classification of waste. Unlike India, Pakistan does not engage in widespread reprocessing of spent fuel, opting instead for safer storage options and plans for future dry storage facilities.

However, in terms of India aiming at regional and global security, it must prioritize greater oversight and regulation of their nuclear facilities, as well as enhance cooperation with international bodies like the IAEA. India also needs to enhance its Nuclear security to represent itself as a responsible state. Civil society should be included in nuclear related decision, specifically in the areas where the nuclear waste is being dumped and the victims are disregarded. By holding governments accountable and advocating for transparency and public participation in nuclear waste management processes and practices, health concerns and grievances of these people can be catered.

In conclusion, the comparative analysis of India and Pakistan's approaches to nuclear waste management exposes significant flaws in India's practices, while highlighting areas where Pakistan demonstrates greater caution and responsibility. Indian authorities can learn from Pakistan’s security strategy and can take the actions needed for secure nuclear program and waste management accordingly.  Urgent action is needed to address these deficiencies, prioritize safety, and ensure a sustainable future for nuclear technology. Only through transparency, accountability, and international cooperation can India mitigate the risks associated with nuclear waste and safeguard the well-being of their citizens, citizens abroad and the environment.