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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NUCLEAR FALLOUT

An Indian uranium mine is blamed
for a spate of horrifying illnesses
afflicting local villagers

By Soutik Biswas / Calcutta


SURUMAJHIAN IS A URANIUM miner in Jaduguda, in the northern Indian state of Bihar. He says he has been suffering from body aches and fever for the past six years. Another miner, Mohan Soren, has an eight-year-old daughter whose legs became paralyzed three months after she was born. Laxmi Saman Muran's one-year-old son is suffering from tuberculosis of the brain. And 18-year-old Simoti Majhi struggles through life with a hunched back and a useless right hand.

What is going on at Jaduguda? On the face of it, the 30,000-strong community looks like any cluster of Indian villages, with its fields, ponds and young women gliding here and there with pitchers of water balanced on their heads. But this is no pastoral idyll. In environmental circles, Jaduguda is known as India's Chernobyl, after the Soviet nuclear reactor that malfunctioned in 1986 and spewed radioactive contamination across great swathes of Europe. According to activists and local politicians, waste liquid flowing from the sprawling Jaduguda uranium complex is radioactive, endangering the health and lives of the local population. "There is poison in Jaduguda's air and water," says Shamu Majhi, a miner.

A recent report by Bihar's Legislative Council, composed of the state's elected politicians, says people living within 15 km of the mine have been stricken with cancer and leukemia, with many suffering impotency and deformation of limbs. Some 100 residents of a miners' housing project have died of cancer in the past decade, and almost 90% of those now there have acute arthritis. The council's environment committee has evacuated 46 families, affected by leukemia and other problems, from the mining areas.

Another report, by the militant Jharkhand Organization Against Radiation (JOAR), says 47% of village women have complained of disrupted menstrual cycles, and 18% say they have suffered either miscarriages or given birth to stillborn babies in the past five years. Other reported problems include skin ailments, kidney damage, hypertension, central-nervous-system disorders, insomnia and nausea.

Environmentalists and politicians blame shoddy management at the government-owned Uranium Corporation of India Ltd. (UCIL), whose Jaduguda mine supplies uranium for the country's 10 nuclear power stations. The company is a key player in India's independent - and highly secretive - nuclear-power program. Ore from the mine is processed at Jaduguda into a substance called U308 - commonly known as yellow cake - and then sent to the Nuclear Fuel Complex in the southern city of Hyderabad, where uranium fuel rods are produced.

The principal danger for people living near Jaduguda, say environmentalists, is a 40-hectare "tailing" pond used to hold liquid and solid waste produced in the processing of the ore into yellow cake. JOAR president Ghanasyam Biruli says the incidence of health problems in the area is too high to be explained by natural factors. In his view, the waste material released into the pond is radioactive.

India's Atomic Energy Act states that there should be no habitation within five kilometers of dumping grounds or tailing ponds. Even though Jaduguda has been in operation for more than 30 years, as many as seven villages still stand within one and a half kilometers of the danger zone. One of them, Dungardihi, is just 40 meters away. Another complaint: Liquid waste piped from the plant periodically floods a local road, forcing villagers and cattle to wade through it.

Regulations specify that the tailing pond has to be permanently covered with water. This rule is not always respected, but when it is, children and women often bathe in the water and even carry it back to their homes for use. Locals complain that there is no perimeter fence. When the pond dries up, dust blows through villages and on to fields. Local politician Suresh Handsa says rice production has fallen because padi are contaminated .

The mine operators also dump dry tailings at the site. Occasionally they contain what villagers say is yellow cake - though why so precious and potent a substance should be thrown out has not been explained. Whatever the truth of that, a doctor attached to nearby Jamshedpur's Tata Main Hospital has no doubt about the consequences of the mine's operations. "The whole area has become unfit for habitation," he says. The doctor asked not to be named.

Miners complain that safety standards are ignored in the pits and in the processing unit. Workers are sometimes not supplied with respirators for handling and cleaning the yellow cake. JOAR alleges that in these circumstances, employees could be inhaling uranium dust and radon gas. International guidelines say staff at uranium plants should be issued with protective clothing. But miners and loaders at Jaduguda wear ordinary cotton uniforms provided by the company. They take these uniforms home for washing.

UCIL denies all the charges leveled against it. Its chairman and managing director, J.L. Bhasin, says: "There is no health hazard in and around Jaduguda caused by our uranium mines." Radiation levels are "well within the stipulations" laid down by the International Commission on Radiological Protection, he says. And the guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency are "strictly followed." However, under the terms of India's Atomic Energy Act, the company does not have to reveal its test results or employees' health records.

Bhasin cites a medical survey of more than 3,000 residents, organized by the Bombay-based Bhabha Atomic Research Center, in December last year. It found that villagers suffering from poor health and deformities showed "congenital anomalies and diseases due to genetic abnormalities, chronic malarial infection, malnutrition and alcohol consumption." Bhasin insists: "The cases examined had no relation to radiation."

The mine boss also denies allegations that the public has access to the tailing pond. "It is well engineered," he says. "No person can take a bath or wash their clothes in the pond water." Some reports have, in fact, suggested that locals cut their way through the perimeter fence. Even so, say environmentalists, the company should take its responsibilities more seriously and ensure that security guards are in place to prevent trespassing.

Local politicians do not accept the company's explanations. They want tighter monitoring of the uranium mine and its operations. If they don't get it, they say they will campaign to have the place closed down. That may be beyond their power. When India exploded five nuclear devices last year, Jaduguda's uranium ore became that much more precious. But somewhere between nuclear ambition and the wellbeing of the villagers living in the shadow of the mine, there has to be a healthy compromise.


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