THE ENVIRONMENT IN THE NEWS

Tuesday, 16 September 2003

Tick-Tock Of Doom

Radioactive spectres haunt Andhra as Nagarjuna Sagar awaits a uranium mine nearby

S. ANAND, NITIN A. GOKHALE

At the end of the nuclear dream may lie the terrible reality of human and environmental waste. As the department of atomic energy (dae) desperately digs for new sources of natural uranium in Andhra Pradesh, the costs could be enormous. Having left a trail of deformed children and unexplained deaths of miners in Jaduguda, Jharkhand, the nuclear establishment is all set to spread the radioactive threat

Radio Red to hundreds of villages in the southern state. That is the fear which currently stalks anti-nuclear and health activists. They even warn against the impact on the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad.

The Uranium Corporation of India Limited's (UCIL's) hydro-metallurgical plant in Nalgonda district has attracted the ire of environmentalists who say its proposed open-cast mine abuts the massive Nagarjuna Sagar reservoir. It is feared that radiation- and heavy metal-contaminated storm water run-off from the uranium mines would find its way into the reservoir. This is likely to impact the entire downstream of the Krishna river basin which caters to over six districts.

 

The 1,000-acre core area includes the "buffer zone" of the notified Rajiv Gandhi Tiger

Sanctuary.

 

The processing of the uranium ore mined at Lambapur-Peddagattu will be done 18 km away, in a mill at Mallapuram that sits 4 km from another water body, the Akkampally reservoir. The Andhra Pradesh government is laying huge pipelines along a 130-km route to supply water from this reservoir to Hyderabad-Secunderabad and 600 villages most of whose inhabitants are affected by fluorosis caused by excessive presence of fluoride in potable water. Having a tailings pond-where radioactive and chemical waste from the mines and the mill will be dumped-close to the reservoir can be dangerous, fears Ravi Rebbapragada of Mines, Minerals and People, an ngo working for people who inhabit areas with mines. A United Nations Environmental Programme report of 2001 lists 221 tailings dam "incidents" the world over.

The disaster called Jaduguda should serve as an eye-opener. Says M.V. Ramana, research staff member at Princeton University's program on science and global security: "In Jaduguda, uranium mill tailings have been used to construct houses and roads; UCIL authorities have not warned the public that these emit radioactive radon and are therefore harmful to health." According to the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, 70 per cent of the total radiation exposure to miners comes from radon emissions. Besides the tailings, the 'rock overburden'-the pressure of tonnes of rock piling up as a result of mining-poses an environmental problem.

In Jaduguda, the radon-emitting tailings pond was perceived as the key hazard to the villages that surrounded it. Till 1999, the tailings pond was not fenced off and people and animals used to even walk over it. A study conducted in 2000 by two medics, Sanghamitra and Surendra Gadekar, in the vicinity of Jaduguda showed that 8 per 1,000 was the incidence of TB in the normal population. But among the miners it was 80 per 1,000. Says Surendra: "Not all cases are actually of TB. Silicosis and lung cancer are occupational diseases that afflict uranium miners the world over. But UCIL chooses to term them TB." For, this allows it to blame the affliction on microorganisms rather than the noxious byproducts of mining.

The Gadekars' study also found a high incidence of congenital deformities: "There were 60 people with congenital deformities born near Jaduguda as against just 10 in otherwise similar villages. Living in the vicinity of a uranium plant is a sure invitation to producing deformed children.