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Uranium mining in India – just another kind of nuclear disaster

The real cost of uranium mining  October 29, 2018

The case of Tummalapalle By Krishna Shree and Rajesh Serupally, First PostGangotri was 10 when the first boil appeared on her leg — an itchy pustule that soon led to others. Two years later today, both her legs are covered in scabby blisters that continue to spread. Doctors haven’t been able to diagnose her condition or cure it.

Gangotri is a chirpy, carefree child — she unselfconsciously showed us the skin disease (pictured above the headline) that has so changed her life. However, the mood in her village — Kottala in Kadapa district, Andhra Pradesh — is one of anger. Gangotri isn’t the only one to suffer from the mysterious ailment, other cases abound, as do other conditions: unheard-of diseases, death of livestock, loss of crops. Bad news is in plenty, and residents point to one culprit: the neighbouring Tummalapalle uranium mine.

The mine started its operation in 2012 after getting the requisite environmental clearance in 2006; the uranium ore in the Kadapa Basin is the largest reserve in the country. The neighbouring villages of Tummalapalle, Mabbuchintalapalle, Bumayigaripalle and Rachakuntapalle of Velpula and Medipentla Mandals and 60 hectares in Kottala village of Vemula Mandal were acquired by Uranium Corporation of India Limited (a government enterprise) for ‘tailing disposal’ — these are the areas where waterborne refuse material is pumped into a body known as a tailing pond. This is where the radioactive mining waste has been dumped for the past six years.

The Tummalapalle project, consisting of an underground mine and processing unit, processes 2,350 tonnes of ore per day (according to a letter sent to the Uranium Corporation of India by the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board). Only 1,305 grams of uranium can be extracted out of the 2,350 tonnes and the rest becomes radioactive waste which is dumped into the tailing pond. It’s been six years since the plant was commissioned, in April 2012. So if we do the math, then till today the plant has dumped some 51,46,500 tonnes (that’s 5,14,65,00,000 kg) of radioactive waste into the tailing pond.

The remnants of the mining process are stored in the form of a semi-solid slurry, pumped to the pond located six km away from the unit. This slurry contains thorium and radium, which are common components of the leached material and airborne dust from uranium ore tailings and waste piles. They pose a serious health hazard if inhaled or ingested. When we visited the tailing pond, we noted that neither is the area cordoned off, nor does it have restricted entry. The locals with their cattle frequent the area for grazing and other such activities, almost as if it is a normal thoroughfare.

Global safety protocol dictates that all tailing ponds be lined with bentonite clay and polyethene to avoid polluting ground water. But the tailing pond at Tummalapalle is unlined and the radioactive slurry has found its way into all the neighbouring water bodies. It has affected everything in its wake, from livestock to crops and has started to show its effects on the people as well.

The ground water in surrounding villages has become contaminated by uranium and other heavy metals according to a Centre for Materials for Electronics Technology (C-MET) report. This test was carried out at the behest of YS Avinash Reddy (Member of Parliament elected from Kadapa ) after having received complaints from the locals about the apparent water contamination.

Dr Babu Rao, a retired scientist from the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT, Hyderabad) says, “They admit that they have not lined the pond as per the conditions given in the CFE (Consent For Establishment document). UCIL claims that they have followed the more stringent norms of Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). It does not stand to scrutiny with the reality at the pond. Now that the pond is full, it is difficult to cross check the permeability of the bottom. Side slopes abutting the tailings are not lined or compacted — as is evident visually. Slopes are highly porous and may be causing severe seepage loss of liquid coming with tailings. Even the bottom is not seepage proof. Approximate calculations indicate a loss of at least 43 m3/day from the bottom surface. That is a lot of contamination.”

After numerous complaints, UCIL established an RO plant (Reverse Osmosis for water purification) in KK Kottala and Mabuchintalapalle. Kanampalli’s request was denied. Ravi Nayak, the Mandal Praja Parishad (MPP) president of Kanampalli told us, “Despite offering our land free of cost to set up the RO plant, UCIL never approved one for our village. Now we are buying drinking water from outside.”

In KK Kottala, Mabuchintalapalle and Kanampalli, as soon as people found out we were there to talk about the mine, they started pouring in with complaints. Most of these were about chronic skin problems which doctors had been unable to cure, uniformly present in people of all ages since all of them still use the contaminated groundwater for cooking, washing, bathing etc. They showed us their limbs covered in itchy black scabs. A similar pattern of skin problems was seen in the livestock as well.

Karthik, a nine-year-old from KK Kottala, has been suffering from skin problems for the past few years. He constantly itches his body, pain visible on his young face. His right thigh had finally healed after years of medication. But the disease has now reappeared on his left hand and is spreading again.

The rashes are just the first strike. Thorium and radium present in mine tailings which have contaminated the water sources, have been shown to lead to a higher risk of cancer (eg. cancer of the bone).

Uranium, which is a radioactive element, has a half life of 2,40,000 years and emits radiation for thousands of years. Uranium radiation has the ability to damage human DNA. A team comprising members of NAPM (National Alliance of People’s Movements) and HRF (Human Rights Watch) measured radiation at different places in and around the tailing pond on 11 June 2018, as part of their study of the impact of the mine. The reading were recorded using a Radiation Dosimeter. At the tailing pond, the reading was as high as 0.80-0.90 µSv Microsievert/hour (a measure of the amount of radiation that a person is exposed to during one hour in the specific area). And at a farm in Kanampalli, it was found to be 0.26 µSv Microsievert/hour. The maximum permissible limit is set at 0.24 µSv Microsievert/hour by internationally accepted standards on background radiation.

Chandra Nayak’s farm was once flourishing but the past few years have been bleak. When we visited, the farm only had droopy plantains trees with blackened, shrivelled branches to show.

The death of the cattle in the affected villages made us recount the words of Ghansham Birulee of Jharkhandi Organisation Against Radiation. Birulee was among the first people to witness the effects of uranium mining in Jaduguda in Jharkhand. “The animals started leaving Jaduguda area immediately after the mining started… They must have sensed the radiation earlier than the humans,” Birulee had said.

Back in Kunampalle, P Narsimulu a 65-year-old resident, says, “The livestock in the village has been dying in large numbers since last year. The goats have been shedding hair excessively. They are unable to walk properly due to weak bones. This is all due to radiation.”

The Lambada community in Kanampalli is among the worst affected. They do not own any land and depend on cattle (goats, cows, buffaloes) to make a living. We spoke to Bhaskar, who lost 30 of his goats over the last couple of years. “I didn’t even have money to take all of them to the vet. Each injection costs more than Rs 175 and the vet himself was 12 km away in Pulivendula. I just sat and watched them die one after the other.” ………..

Ashish Birulee say that “once the mining starts it would be very difficult for the locals to shut it down even when they finally learn and realise (the full extent of) the problems. Jaduguda should be taken as an example. Whatever the villagers are going through is real — severe health problems and cancers are very common. And the future is sure to be much worse, and people should take that as a given. UCIL will never accept the truth that uranium mining and dumping of radioactive waste negatively impacts human health and environment.”

“It took almost five decades for the effects of the radiation to become evident in Jaduguda. But by what we can see in Tummalapalle, it might take less than 15 years for it to become the next Jaduguda,” he adds. Birulee points out that UCIL still hasn’t answered a question which the people of Jaduguda have been asking for decades: “What will happen to us once the mining stops?”

If Jaduguda is any indication, UCIL will disappear from the site as soon as the project loses its economic viability. Those who live in the area will be left grappling with the tonnes of radioactive waste left behind. Where will these people go for help? Who should they complain to, about the way their lives have been bartered in the name of development and better economic prospects? Amid the finger-pointing any real solution remains elusive. https://beyondnuclearinternational.org/2018/10/29/the-real-cost-of-uranium-mining/

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October 29, 2018 - Posted by | environment, health, PERSONAL STORIES, Uranium

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