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Radioactive repercussions

Many fear that new uranium mines in Andra Pradesh, India, will affect the health of locals.

by Meera Shah

Photo courtesy of Shri Prakash

Not on our land! People protest against the uranium mines in Jaduguda.

In the state of Andra Pradesh in India, worldwide discussions about the use of nuclear energy are hitting closer to home. On February 6, 2006, the Ministry of the Environment and Forests approved a uranium mining project in the district of Nalgonda that has faced much controversy. Existing uranium mines in India can no longer sustain the country's demand for nuclear power and the government-owned Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL) plans to open a mine and processing plant at the Nagarjunasagar reservoir. Although this has raised job prospects for locals, the Movement Against Uranium Project (MAUP), a coalition of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), and many local residents fear that the project could pose serious health risks.

Dr Satya Lakshmi from MAUP cannot believe that locals were kept in the dark about this project for so long. Although uranium reserves were discovered in the area in the early 1990s, it was not until August 2003 that an information session was held by the state Pollution Control Board to inform residents of the plan to mine for uranium and the potential risks.

One of the main concerns is the large amount of radioactive waste that will be produced in the form of uranium mill tailings. In India, uranium deposits are extremely low grade and typically only contain about 0.1% uranium. Hard rock is blasted deep underground in the mines to extract uranium ore, which is then carried to the surface by trucks or skips. The ore is taken to a mill where it is crushed into a fine powder, purified using a chemical process, and reconstituted in a solid, usable form known as "yellow cake". The non-usable parts are radioactive by-products, which make up 99.9% of the material extracted, and must be carefully disposed of.

Photo courtesy of Shri Prakash

Workers near the mines of Jaduguda, photographed for the documentary "Buddha Weeps in Jaduguda".

Past experience shows that the UCIL may not be taking enough precaution when disposing of this waste. At the Jaduguda mine in the state of Jharkhand, where the UCIL has been mining and processing uranium for the past 30 years, tribal people living close to the mines have been developing cancers and genetic diseases and many children have been born with mutated limbs. One small village reported 10 disabled children and older villagers claim there have been many more health problems since the mines opened.

According to environmental activists from groups like MAUP, radioactive waste deposited in ponds is responsible for the health problems in the region. Tailings are carried from the mine through pipelines and pumped into three tailings ponds. Although they are treated with lime and barium chloride to neutralise radon, a radioactive gas released from rocks when uranium ore is extracted, it is believed that they are still radioactive. India's Atomic Energy Act states that no one should live within five kilometres of tailings ponds, but in Jaduguda, seven villages lie within one and a half kilometres of the ponds. Women and children bathe there and the water seeps into surrounding rice paddies. Residents also complain that one of the ponds often floods, forcing people and cattle to wade through it.

The UCIL, however, denies that these health problems are caused by exposure to radiation. In 1998, they carried out a health survey led by prominent doctors and radiologists who concluded that the cases they examined were affected by factors such as malnutrition, malarial infections and congenital anomalies which could not be ascribed to radioactivity. They also claim that the level of radiation in the tailings pond is equivalent to that of the surrounding environment and that the pond is fenced off as a precautionary measure.

The mines will bring new jobs and boost the region's economy but for mine workers there are even more serious health risks than for ordinary residents. Miners face a high risk of developing lung cancer by inhaling alpha particles that are emitted from radon. Although alpha particles are too large to penetrate through skin, they can be inhaled and cause damage to internal organs. If the damage occurs within the generative cells of the ovaries or testes, it can be passed on to the miners' offspring.

In India, many people believe that nuclear energy is the way forward, as it is a cleaner and more economical alternative to fossil fuels. Although there are many potential benefits, it seems like there is still much work to be done to prove to locals that they won't bear the brunt of the consequences.

For more info:

Uranium Crisis

India to set up new uranium mines

Press Release Movement Against Uranium Project, Hyderabad, India

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First Science 2014