On one side, managers of uranium mines lure poor inhabitants with jobs. On the other, the invisible radioactive radon gas lurks in the mines to sign death warrants by lung cancer for the mining workers. Ignorance of atomic radiation coupled with an eagerness to improve their standard of life has made many all over the world victims of uranium mining. This is in addition to the irreparable damage to the environment. In the end, around the abandoned mines, generations are doomed to lead lives of pain and misery. The story has been the same in several parts of the world. Navajo Indians in the midst of Navajo reservations that stretch from New Mexico into Arizona and the aboriginal Canadians in Canadas north-western areas of Saskatchewan and Ontario and in other continents, all have been at the receiving end. Now it commences for a second time in India in the Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh in south India, while the first instance in India is more or less complete in and around the uranium fields of Jadugoda in Jharkhand in the north.
Uranium mining is known to be hazardous. Apart from the usual risks of mining, uranium miners worldwide have experienced a much higher incidence of lung cancer and other lung diseases. There are several studies indicating an increased incidence of skin cancer, stomach cancer and kidney disease among uranium miners. Uranium is the heaviest metal that occurs in nature. It is an unstable material that gradually breaks apart or decays at the atomic level. Any such material is said to be radioactive. As uranium slowly decays, it gives off invisible bursts of penetrating energy called atomic radiation. It also produces more than a dozen other radioactive substances as by-products. These unstable by-products, having little or no commercial value, are known as uranium decay products. They are discarded as waste when uranium is mined. One of them is a toxic radioactive gas called radon. The others are radioactive solids.
Core issues of uranium mining
- Uranium and its decay products buried deep in the earth are brought to surface
- Radon gas produced in the mine causes lung cancer
- Leftover piles of materials or uranium tailings contain over a dozen radioactive materials. There is no perfect storage of these radioactive materials to prevent them from finding their way into the soil, water, plants, animals, fish and humans
On 18 February 2003, the minister for mines and geology, A Uma Madhava Reddy, government of Andhra Pradesh, said in the Legislative Assembly that the atomic minerals division of Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL), having found deposits of uranium to the order of 11.02 million tonnes in Peddagattu area of PA Palli mandal of Nalgonda district, had applied for a mining lease covering Lambapur and Peddagattu areas, and that it was being processed. The corporation, she also said, wanted to establish a hydro-metallurgical plant for processing the ore. Uranium deposits are also reported to be present in Srikakulam and Visakhapatnam districts.
On 20 August 2003, the chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu publicly stated that a decision will be taken only after evaluating all aspects including employment opportunities against the damage to the environment and after allowing sufficient understanding to develop in the minds of people. This assurance by the chief minister is encouraging. Therefore, there is a need to examine the question: Is it in the public interest to grant license to Nalgonda uranium project?
CANCER : There are several studies to show higher rates of lung cancer among uranium miners. According to the latest available facts admitted to by British Nuclear Regulatory Board, there is no such thing as a safe dose of nuclear radiation.
WATER: During routine mine and milling operations, radioactive substances and other chemical contaminants (including sulphuric acid) will escape into water.
The Jadugora track record
Senior officials of the forest department voiced their concern that the Lambapur-Peddagattu uranium mining project in Andhra Pradesh is spread over the reserve forest in violation of the provisions of the Forest Act, and the uranium processing plant is less than six kilometres from the Nagarjuna tiger reserve, and it violates the provision of Indian Wildlife Act which disallows industrial activity within 25 kilometres of a notified sanctuary. Mining is an activity capable of increasing noise levels and environmentalists are seized with the apprehension that the project, if it takes shape, will drive away the wildlife in the area. The tiger reserve and the adjoining reserve forest is home to tigers, bears, several species of deer and other animals.
There are four areas with promising uranium deposits: the Singhbhum district (Bihar), West Khasi hills (Meghalaya), the Bhima Basin area (Gulbarga district of Karnataka), and the Yellapur-Peddagattu area of Nalgonda district (Andhra Pradesh). Having failed to obtain a license in other areas, the UCIL is pressing for it in Nalgonda. In Meghalaya, UCIL faced opposition from the local Khasi tribe which has so far prevented UCIL from developing a commercial uranium mine at Domiasiat in the north-eastern province of Meghalaya. A senior UCIL official said in May 2003, Every time we turn up at the uranium mines at the Domiasiat uranium project in Meghalaya, the tribes people chase us with bows and arrows and swords They call us the agents of death and threaten to kill us if we try to mine uranium.
During mining, the uranium and its decay products buried deep in the earth are brought to the surface, and the rock containing them is crushed into fine sand. After the uranium is chemically removed, the sand is stored in huge reservoirs. These leftover piles of radioactive sand or uranium tailings contain over a dozen radioactive materials, which are all extremely harmful to all life forms on earth. The most serious of these are thorium-230, radium-226, radon-222 (radon gas) and the radon progeny including polonium-210. If this radioactive sand is left on the surface and is allowed to dry out, it can blow in the wind and be deposited on vegetation far away, entering the food chain. Or it can wash into rivers and lakes and contaminate them.
Thorium-230 is the uranium decay product with the longest lifetime. It lasts for hundreds of thousands of years in human terms, forever. Thorium is especially toxic to the liver and the spleen. It has been known to cause leukaemia and other blood diseases. It decays to produce radium-226, which in turn produces radon gas (radon-222). So the amount of radium in the waste and the quantities of radon gas produced by it will not diminish for a long time, because they are constantly being replenished by the decay of the very long-lived thorium-230.
Radium-226 is one of the more dangerous uranium decay products. It is a radioactive heavy metal and a potent alpha emitter. As it decays, it produces radon gas as a by-product. Radium is chemically similar to calcium, and, when ingested, it migrates to the bones, the teeth and the milk. It is readily taken up by vegetation. In aquatic plants, it can be concentrated by factors of hundreds or even thousands.
Radon-222 is a toxic gas created by the decay of radium-226. Most of the radon is normally trapped in the ore-bearing rock deep within the earth. But when the rock is excavated and crushed, a lot of radon gas is released into the air. The uranium miners breathe this radioactive gas into their lungs. Radon (the gas and its progeny) is a very powerful cancer-causing agent. Even small doses inhaled repeatedly over a long time can cause lung cancer.
Uranium tailings constantly produce large amounts of radon gas through the decay of radium in the tailings. This gas can travel thousands of kilometres with a light breeze in just a few days. As it travels, it continually deposits solid radon progeny on the ground, water and vegetation below. Radon also dissolves readily in water and can be transported by ground-water into wells and streams. Radioactive radon gas decays, producing seven radioactive decay products called radon progeny. These solid radioactive materials attach themselves to tiny dust particles and droplets of water vapour floating in the air.
Safety track record at Jadugoda, Jharkand
Nuclear issues in India are treated as something quite out of purview of the ordinary citizen, which can only be comprehended by a select group. This is the main reason for the Indian public's disconnect with the risks of nuclear technology. An environment impact assessment undertaken by UCIL on the Nalgonda uranium project requires a thorough examination. It will be of no use if the examination is left to people who thrive on grants and favours from the department of atomic energy. Furtheremore, it is irrational not to separate nuclear weapon pursuit from that of nuclear power for producing electricity. This irrationality has resulted in starving funds for hydropower projects and alternate sources of clean energy from solar, wind and ocean waves. The hydropower plants and projects to store surface water would not only give electric power but would also result in drinking water, navigation and fishery.
The Nalgonda uranium project has many dangers in store for the people of Nalgonda district and other areas in Andhra Pradesh as radioactive material is bound to enter the soil, water, plants, animals, fish and even humans resulting in irreparable damage. The people of Nalgonda cannot be left to become victims of irrational plans aiming to achieve 20,000 MW of electricity from nuclear power by the year 2020. Nalgonda uranium project is anti-people.