Reflections on the Indian Nuclear Project

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This article has been provided by the author for publishing with the NukeNews and on this website. The original source is Integral Reflections: Expendable Lives, Disposable Earth. Reflections on the Indian Nuclear Project, published January 31, 2016.

I had considered myself to be reasonably conversant with what is going down in matters nuclear. The language is no problem as physics, chemistry and mathematics were all part of my schooling. And together with many of my generation, I was drawn into political activity during the deadly '80s when over 50,000 nuclear warheads bristled in nuclear silos, on mobile launchers and in nuclear submarines silently plying the dark oceans of the world.

Like many during that time, I attended anti-nuclear conferences and rallies, participated in study groups, worked with community radio stations, and wrote papers. Sellafield, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were all part of our common lexicon, as were Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Cuban Missile Crisis. More recently, we watched as shadowy forces on both sides of Australian politics manipulated policies so as to expand uranium mining in this country. We witnessed cold pragmatism and moral treachery as a former anti-nuclear rock singer turned environment minister signed off on a deal to double the uranium output of the BHP Billiton Olympic Dam Mine in South Australia. The triple meltdowns at Fukushima in March 2011 put the brakes on that one however, and the global nuclear industry pulled back on a widely-heralded nuclear renaissance that aimed to fill the world with a new generation of nuclear reactors. At the present time, closed room discussions focus on ways to soften the people of Australia for the eventual construction of nuclear power stations and the creation of nuclear waste dumps in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

I had some small knowledge of the Indian nuclear project: That it was a relative latecomer, starting in the late 1960s by which time the US, the Soviet Union, Canada, and several European countries were all in possession of nuclear reactors. That it had refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 1968. That it had detonated its first nuclear bomb, quaintly named Smiling Buddha, in 1974 and conducted further nuclear tests during the 1990's. That it had highly ambitious but largely unrealised goals for fuelling its economy by a massive expansion of nuclear power plants. That not everyone in India was particularly happy about the prospect, as was shown in the protests against the Kudankulam nuclear reactor complex in southern India in 2012.

I still recall my disgust at the degree of brutality exercised by Indian police against villagers who were protesting peacefully at the time. They showed their fidelity to the cause of serving as protectors of the people by shooting into crowds of unarmed civilians, killing one 44 year old fisherman and injuring many others, destroying property, and then proceeding to spit and urinate inside the Mother of Lourdes Church in Kudankulam which had served as a base around which 8,000 to 10,000 local villagers had gathered for the protest.

I have more recently been made aware of how little, in fact, I know about the nuclearisation of India and its consequences. A recently-published article by London-based journalist Adrian Levy reveals how deeply hidden the ugly side of the Indian nuclear project has been from the very outset and how callously many communities that are out of sight of the rest of the world have been crushed and ignored in order to satisfy the Promethean aspirations of their governments.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The village of Jaduguda is situated in the newly created state of Jharkhand in north-east India. Low-grade uranium ore was discovered there in the early 1950s and mining started in 1967. In the intervening decades, approximately 1,000 tons of uranium ore has been brought to the surface daily and processed at a mill situated adjacent to the mine. Milled uranium concentrate is then transported some 1,400 kilometres to Hyderabad where it is further processed into uranium oxide pellets that charge the fuel rods powering ten of India's nuclear reactors. Approximately 25% of the uranium used by the nuclear industry in India comes from the Jaduguda mines.

History has shown that mining is a destructive and dirty business. Over 500 years ago, the great physician Paracelsus wrote a treatise on diseases that were peculiar to miners. In the intervening centuries, we have come to know that it is not only those who spend their time in underground mines who suffer the consequences of inhaling the toxic dust produced in mining operations, but that the surrounding environment is often contaminated with the by-products of such activities. And over the past 70 years, we have come to understand the particularly noxious effects of unearthing radioactive elements on the surrounding air, land, waterways and eventually, the communities that happen to live nearby.

Jaduguda is no exception. In fact, it has become a tragic example of the prevarication, deceit and disregard that are endemic to the whole nuclear enterprise.

The Indian government was determined to pursue a nuclear future in the immediate post-war period. The Indian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was established in 1948, and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in 1954. Geological surveys established early that Indian uranium ores were scarce and of poor quality, but that vast amounts of thorium were available. The decision was made to exploit uranium deposits in and around Jaduguda, at that time part of Bihar state. The area was home to numerous tribal communities that had lived as autonomous and thriving cultures for many centuries until the time of British colonial rule during the middle to late nineteenth century. The cultural stability of these local indigenous communities, the Adivasis, was insidiously undermined by the entrepreneurial drive of industrialists who were eager to exploit such resources as coal, minerals, forests and water which were abundant throughout the area, a story that has been replicated many times and in many places throughout history.

Without even the semblance of a consultation process, local land was acquired by the Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL), a subsidiary of of the Department of Atomic Energy in 1962, and work commenced on the establishment of three underground mines near the villages of Jaduguda, Batin and Narwarpahar, all situated within a few kilometres of each other. Tailings dams were constructed near the Jaduguda mine in order to provide repositories for the huge quantities of liquid waste produced by the mining and milling operations.

Some 20,000,000 tons of uranium ore has been brought to the surface and processed since the Jaduguda mining and milling complex commenced operations in 1967. The extraction of uranium from its ore requires immense amounts of water, corrosive acids and toxic solvents.The wastes or mill-tailings produced in this process are then converted into a liquid slurry that is carried through a series of crude pipelines (that have on a number of occasions burst and discharged their contents into the countryside) to eventually discharge into the tailings dams. All of these activities have taken place on the very margins of local villages, with some houses being situated only 30 metres from the tailings dams. Around 50,000 people live in and around 15 villages within a 5 kilometre radius of these operations.

Because of the poor quality of the uranium ore, which contains only 0.065% uranium, huge amounts of both solid and liquid wastes are generated in milling operations. It is estimated that the extraction of one kilogram of uranium concentrate from the Jaduguda mines results in the production nearly two tons of solid waste and uses up nearly three times that amount of water. Since the Jaduguda operation commenced, immense quantities of solid waste have been generated. This material carries both radioactive elements and highly toxic minerals. UCIL, the government agency in charge of the mining operations at Jaduguda and throughout India, has devised a number of novel methods for disposing some of this waste. It has been used in the building of local roads and as construction material for the walls of local houses, and more recently, as rock linings to be used in the construction of 80,000 new water wells throughout Jharkhand.

Massive amounts of liquid waste have been pumped into the poorly constructed tailings dams over the past five decades. Water from these tailings dams, together with its burden of radioactive elements and toxic chemicals, has slowly and inexorably wept into the groundwater of the region. And as if that were not enough, there is strong evidence that UCIL has used the Jaduguda mill and tailings ponds as disposal sites for nuclear wastes from other parts of India.

Dark Waters, Thickened Airs

The consequences were starkly predictable. By the 1980s, local communities began to notice an increase in general malaise, skin conditions, stillbirths, deformities in newborn babies, deformities in newborn calves, skin diseases in fish caught in local streams and rivers, and a widespread disappearance of small mammals such as monkeys, mice and rabbits from the area.

All requests for assistance and assessments made by the local communities were effectively ignored until 1993 when a series of radiological and health investigations were initiated. By that time, the Adivasis of the Jaduguda area had endured 26 years of continuous exposure to tainted air, polluted water and contaminated grazing and agricultural lands.

The survey took two years to complete and confirmed the fears of local communities. Ajitha George, who co-ordinated the study offers the following account of the findings:

"The report revealed that 47% of women suffered disruptions in their menstrual cycle, 18% said that they had suffered miscarriages or given birth to stillborn babies in the last 5 years. 30% suffered fertility problems. Nearly all women complained of fatigue, weakness and depression. Further, the survey found a high incidence of chronic skin diseases, cancer, tuberculosis, bone, brain and kidney damage, nervous system disorders, congenital deformities, nausea, blood disorders and other chronic diseases. Children were the most affected. Many were born with skeletal distortions, partially formed skulls, blood disorders and a broad range of physical deformities. Most common were missing eyes or toes, fused fingers, or limbs incapable of supporting them. Brain damage often compounded these physical disabilities."

The study also confirmed that tens of thousands of people who lived within five kilometres of the mining operations were exposed to abnormally high levels of radiation. UCIL simply refused to acknowledge these findings and continued business as usual.

A few years later, Dr Sanghamitra Gadekar, a specialist in radiation hazards conducted further medical studies. Her findings confirmed those of the the earlier survey but did little to prompt action by UCIL. On the contrary, UCIL continued to expand its mining operations around Jaduguda. Early in 1996 while under the protective cover of local police and paramilitary units, UCIL contractors and their heavy machinery moved onto lands it had "acquired"11 years earlier and summarily demolished 30 houses. They then began to overturn and uproot agricultural fields, local graveyards and sacred groves of trees in order to create a third tailings dam.

Word travelled fast and within three days, massive protests were mobilised and many women lay down in front of bulldozers to prevent further destruction. Legal action was taken by politically active local Adivasi groups. The local courts appeared to be in collusion with UCIL and did nothing to restrain the demolitions and dam construction.

Before long, a mass protest by Adivasi communities throughout the region gathered at the dam site but they were met with organised police violence. Many were arrested and incarcerated. Two weeks later, Adivasi groups throughout Jharkhand began to mobilise and assembled in Jaduguda in great numbers. The police then backed off.

The indigenous people of Jaduguda have endured effective dispossession by their governments. Medical studies, radiological surveys, mass protests, political action and media mobilisation have done little to curb the determination of the Indian government to pursue its nuclear agenda at any cost.

The central Jaduguda mine was closed in 2014 as its reserves are close to exhausted, though the processing mill continues its operations. In the meantime however, three further uranium mines and another processing mill have commenced operations at Turamdih, Mohuldih, and Banduhurang, all situated nearby. Since these new mines were opened, extraction of uranium ore has increased to 5,000 tons daily.

Similar tactics were used by UCIL in the acquisition of land for the mines as occurred in Jaduguda 60 years ago. Hundred of acres of tribal lands have been summarily seized, and the mines have been built in total disregard of the wishes of the local community. Concerns continue to be expressed about the effects of these operations by many within the medical profession.

And What will be left to Inherit?

The story of uranium mining in Jharkand mirrors that experienced by indigenous communities throughout the world: In North America, in the former Soviet Union, in Africa, in Australia and most recently, in Tibet. The lives that have already been destroyed and irrevocably afflicted are a foretaste of what confronts future generations as long-lived radionuclides progressively spread through ecosystems everywhere. One can only hope and pray that a world-wide awakening will recognise the folly of the blind and dangerous pursuit of nuclearisation that has been driven by those within the military, by mining corporations, and by governments willing to tear the earth apart and poison the future of coming generations in order to maintain their power and a way of life that is ultimately destructive and unsustainable.

Telling it from the Inside

The story of Jaduguda was first documented visually by Indian film-maker Shri Prakash in his 1999 production, Buddha Weeps At Jaduguda. This sensitively produced low-budget film examines the activities of UCIL - the Uranium Corporation of India - on the lives of the Adivasi people of Singhbum district of Jharkhand. It offers a gentle entry into Adivasi culture through images of village life, music, dance and interviews with community members and representative elders. The film documents the gross negligence of UCIL towards the safety of both workers and of members of local communities.

Buddha Weeps at Jaduguda is an artfully understated presentation whose message is carried as much through images and music as through the thoughts and words of those who are interviewed. It is a superb example of what can be achieved by frugal means and dedicated commitment. It was written and directed by Shri Prakash and produced by a single cameraman and a single editor.

And Fifteen Years Later

The clip below was recorded at the World Uranium Symposium held in Canada in 2015. In the first section, Dr Shakeel Ur Rahman describes the findings of a study of 2,000 households living around Jaduguda that was undertaken in 2007. The study confirmed that there was an increased incidence of infertility, infant mortality, congenital deformities among children, and cancers of many types. The study also found decreased life expectancy among those who lived in the area.

The second section carries a substantive presentation by Shri Prakash, director of Buddha Weeps in Jaduguda reflecting on his visit to Jaduguda fifteen years earlier. He notes how little has changed for the local Adivasis in the time since. It is gratifying to see that Shri Prakash has maintained his advocacy for and commitment to the cause of the Jaduguda communities even into the present time.