India’s radiation caused deaths: complete denial by India’s authorities

“Inside UCIL, they see themselves as under siege, defending the nation, one atom at a time,” Biruli said, “and outside … we are absorbing those atoms and whatever else the corporation spews out from its broken pipes and dams. We’re drinking it all up, feeding it to our kids, and our wives, if they can conceive, are absorbing them into their blood stream.”

India’s nuclear industry pours its wastes into a river of death and disease
Scientists say nuclear workers, village residents, and children living near mines and factories are falling ill after persistent exposure to unsafe radiation Center For Public Integrity ,  By Adrian Levy December 14, 2015  Jadugoda, Jharkhand, INDIA    

……..Denying what scientists documented

India’s nuclear project is seen as the country’s most prestigious enterprise, a tangible expression of the nation’s resilience and resourcefulness. This idea was cemented when India tested nuclear devices in 1998, in twin blasts. Feeding the weapons program was UCIL’s duty, and protecting the mines became paramount.

As a result, the UCIL-funded health studies were not welcomed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, the country’s premier civil and military nuclear research facility, which has a Health Physics Laboratory in Jadugoda. It said in 1999, after a quick visual inspection of villagers living close to the mines, that its own experts “unanimously agreed that the disease pattern could not be ascribed to radiation exposure.” The complainers were “backwards people” who suffered from “alcoholism, malaria and malnutrition,” the company said. But it took no soil, water or air samples and launched no epidemiological study.

UCIL subsequently reversed its own position. “There is no radiation or any related health problems in Jadugoda and its surrounding areas,” J.L. Bhasin, the managing director of UCIL, concluded in 1999, in a press conference before local reporters in Jadugoda. A.N. Mullick, UCIL’s chief medical officer for 25 years, issued a press statement a few months later that “I have not come across any radiation-related ailments during my entire career.”

One safety practice changed: Miners were now given personal dosimeters, although they were taken away at the end of a shift and the readings were kept secret, a circumstance that prevails now, according to more than a dozen miners interviewed by the Center. Also, a few warning signs were posted beside the tailing ponds, according to several of the residents. But the signs were later removed by the corporation, which called them “alarmist” — a circumstance confirmed by three residents from Chatikocha village, who attended a public meeting called by the mining corporation.

In 1999, Birulee and his friends, who had begun to teach themselves about the impact of radiation by reaching out to nuclear blast survivor groups in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, decided to contact a husband-wife scientific team, Sanghamitra and Surendra Gadekar, who had studied the health of laborers at a nuclear reactor in the western desert state of Rajasthan. Surendra Gadekar, a nuclear physicist, began taking soil, water and air samples around Jadugoda the following year.

Their study was published in 2004 in Anumukti, a now-defunct pacifist magazine. It said radiation levels inside the villages aound the tailing ponds were almost 60 times the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission “safe level.” They wrote that a football pitch, a school close to Rakha Railway Station, a dam, and some walls built around homes in several villages had been constructed by UCIL with radioactive mining rubble. Radiation readings at a UCIL laboratory were 20 times the U.S. safe limit, they said, blaming unsafe work practices.

The report pointed to “extremely high levels of chronic lung disease in mill and mine workers,” and highlighted case studies of 52 men and 34 women with “severe deformities.” The Gadekars also documented the existence in neighboring populations of children with malformed torsos and deformed heads and the wrong number of fingers, as well as a cluster of cases where infants’ bodies grew at different rates, giving them a lopsided gait. Some had hyperkeratosis, a condition known as “toad skin” due to the striated patterns and raised lumps it causes. Dr. Sanghamitra Gadekar concluded in her report: “In my opinion radiation or heavy metals are the likely cause.”

Their study was ignored by India’s nuclear chiefs but caught the attention of Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear engineer who teaches at the Research Reactor Institute, Kyoto University. In late 2000, Koide flew to Jharkhand, discreetly carrying activated charcoal and thermoluminescent dosimeters (TLD) to study background gamma radiation. He stealthily took soil and water samples, with the help of local residents, and carried them back to Japan, where they could be tested for radon, uranium and other nuclides.

Four years later, Koide, who had access to more modern equipment than the Indian researchers and to a research reactor at Kyoto University, revealed that radiation levels in villages close to the mines and radiation levels in residential areas near the tailing ponds exceeded international safe limits by tenfold. Levels in the areas next to the ponds were 12 times higher. “These figures were exceptionally worrying,” Koide said. “No one should have been living anywhere near, but UCIL was repeatedly told to move people [and] has not done so.” Orders from the state government for villagers to be relocated, first issued in 1996, had never been implemented.

More worrying, Koide confirmed that uranium rock and finely ground mine tailings had been used as ballast for road leveling and house building, and to construct a local school and clinic. UCIL declined to make an attributed comment about these claims, but a senior UCIL official who talked to the Center on condition of anonymity confirmed these construction projects using irradiated materials had gone ahead as “part of a community outreach project.” He added: “Scientists at [Bhabha Atomic Research Centre] told us the material was of no risk, so we listened to the scientists.” BARC declined to comment.

A worrisome contaminant shows up

Koide’s also identified a radioisotope in the tailing ponds that he found especially disturbing: cesium-137. It’s created when uranium and plutonium undergo fission in a reactor or during the explosion of a nuclear weapon. Since no reactor exists in this region, “this was nuclear waste from somewhere else in India that had been transported to Jadugoda and discarded, like this heavily-populated district was simply some kind of nuclear dump,” Koide said.

There is no safe limit for cesium, since it is easily absorbed by the body, and concentrates in soft tissues. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cesium “moves easily through the air … dissolves easily in water [and] binds strongly to soil and concrete,” contaminating plants and vegetation. Exposure to minute quanitities can increase the risk of contracting cancer.

Koide also was troubled by his discovery that levels of radon gas close to the mines and the tailing ponds were 160 percent higher than the limit set by the World Health Organization. Radiation levels in villages exceeded the Japanese safety limit by thirty-fold, as did levels at the Rakha Mines railway station where drums of uranium were transported to fabrication plants across India. Four miners who worked at the Rakha Mines station until they left their job in 2008 described to the Center frequent spillages of yellowcake from leaking drums, which they cleaned up with shovels, without gloves or masks, as none of them had been been issued with protective clothing or advice on possible contamination. A local journalist secretly shot video of them at work in the station.

Many Western nations have prepared “fact sheets” on yellowcake that warn against breathing its dust or fumes and say that workers should wash thoroughly and avoid eating, drinking or smoking while in contact with it. A safety alert prepared by the Australian government for those preparing to transport it warns that ingesting or inhaling it causes “damage to the kidneys, liver and lungs through prolonged or repeated exposure” and warns against release to the environment. But a BARC doctor working at its Health, Safety and Environment unit, U.C. Mishra, when confronted with footage of leaking drums and workers with no protective clothing, downplayed the risks in a press conference in 1999, an event that was filmed. “You can handle it,” Dr. Mishra said, “and nothing will happen to you.”

India’s Supreme Court began its own inquiry into the health crisis at the mines in 1998, in response to a petition filed by a pro-nuclear lawyer from Delhi who was upset by a news magazine’s photos of children with severe birth defects from villages near tailings ponds. The lawyer argued that “right to life” was enshrined in the Indian Constitution, but even so the court on April 15, 2004, said it believed an affidavit signed by its atomic energy department’s chairman that all radiological, safety and security issues at the mines had been resolved.

“The nuclear establishment is allowed to police itself, and to investigate itself, [with] the courts endorsing them,” Birulee said. “But out in the countryside, we are still living toxic lives.”

A series of radioactive leaks

Then, on Dec. 24, 2006, a pipe transferring toxic, radioactive slurry to the tailing ponds burst close to Dungridih village, 50 miles northwest of Jadugoda, and poured into a tributary of the Subarnarekha River for nine hours, causing shoals of dead fish to float on the surface. No government investigation was undertaken downstream and no thorough cleanup, upstream. Anil Kakodkar, head of the Department of Atomic Energy, described the incident as “a small leak” of no risk to anyone, according to an Indian analyst’s report. Five villagers interviewed by the Center described how they merely piled mud over the effluent.

Four months later, on April 10, 2007, “1.5 tons of solid radioactive waste and 20,000 liters of liquid radioactive waste” spilled from a new pipe, close to Jadugoda town, according to a corporation report, seen by the Center.

In Jardine’s cable to Washington in July of that year, he confirmed the leak and relayed widespread concerns about a recent expansion of UCIL’s operations. A new uranium ore mine in Banduhurang and a uranium mine located in Jharkhand’s Saraikela-Kharswan district were projected to produce 2,400 tons and 410 tons of uranium ore per day, respectively, he noted. These would add to the 2,090 tons of ore daily processed at a mill in Jadugoda and the 3,000 tons processed at a second in Turamdih. Local media and independent groups claimed that officials in Jadugoda dumped the waste from the processing of this ore into local fields, Jardine said, although UCIL denied it.

Photos of the leak cleanup he had seen “apparently show…workers with no safety equipment and wading in the tailing sludge,” Jardine wrote. He added that his staff had visited the mines and seen “lax safety and security measures.” Uranium ore was transported “by open trucks,” with “mine workers riding on top of the ore,” which often fell over the road. He signed off with a warning: “Given the existing conditions at India’s uranium mines, increasing the exploitation of domestic reserves will likely result in increasing radiation exposure.” The cable was disclosed by Wikileaks in 2011.

The following February, another tailing pipe burst, causing thick, gray sludge to snake into homes in Dungridih village and cover part of a road there, as well as carpet many residential front yards. Five months afterwards, record rains caused one of the tailing ponds to overflow into Talsa village. P. Dubey, a UCIL spokesman, told the Hindustan Times: “The radioactive waste flowing through the village is harmless, as incessant rains have diluted the intensity of radioactivity of the waste.”

Jardine told Washington, in a new cable on June 6, 2008 — four months before the U.S.-India nuclear pact was signed — that still another epidemiological study had concluded “indigenous groups … living close to the mines reportedly suffer high-rates of cancer, physical deformities, blindness, brain damage and other ailments.” He noted that UCIL “refuses to acknowledge these issues.” Jardine wrapped up: “Post contacts, citing independent research, say that it is difficult to point out any reason other than radiation for the apparent human and environmental problems at Jadugoda.” He criticized UCIL for not alerting communities living downstream about the February pipe burst and added: “The Indian nuclear establishment will have to adopt more transparent safety policies and procedures if it seeks to expand its capacity.”

The epidemiological study that Jardine referred to was written by Dr. Shakeel ur Rahman, of Indian Doctors for Peace and Development, a not-for-profit research group in Bihar. His team interviewed 2,118 families around the mines in May and June 2007 and found that those who lived closest had the best education, the most wealth, and a significantly higher incidence of “congenital deformities, sterility and cancer.”

K.S. Parthasarathy, a former secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the industry’s safety watchdog, wrote to most of India’s national newspapers to dispute the research, claiming it had not been peer reviewed and relied on “cherry picked” data.

In August 16, 2008, yet another uranium waste pipe burst, this time inundating eight houses in Dungridih where the toxic slurry formed an ankle deep carpet, before pouring into the river. UCIL declined to comment, however a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Regulation Board, responsible for safety, and supposedly an independent body, said in a statement issued to reporters then that “uranium ore in these mines are of very low grade …. We checked the radiation level soon after the leak. It was much below the normal range.”

That same year, UCIL won an award from the Director General of Mines Safety, coming in second place among contestants throughout India. In 2013, it also received the Golden Peacock Global Award for Corporate Social Responsibility from India’s Institute of Directors, a national group of 35,000 business executives at India’s best known companies.

No government institution acted until last year, when the Jharkhand High Court in Ranchi ordered an inquiry into congenital diseases, mainly among children near the mines, after reviewing local coverage on the issue. But Chief Justice R. Banumathi said that “given the sensitivities surrounding the corporation, and the role it plays, that investigation is to be internal.”

Activist and former miner Birulee was furious. “They claim national security prevents any outside forces vetting them,” he said. “But given how long they have prevaricated, and the cost of these delays to the population, how can we trust them to inspect themselves?”

In response to detailed questions from the Center, UCIL’s spokesman and director both declined comment about its internal epidemiological and radiation studies, or about the court case. But its reputation hasn’t exactly suffered since the judicial inquiry began. Greentech, a Delhi-based, corporate-backed nonprofit that campaigns for industrial safety, last year complimented one of its mines for its “training excellence” and gave other operations commendations for safety, innovation and environmental policies, as well as its “compassionate outreach work.” Last year, UCIL’s chairman, Diwakar Acharya, was decorated, again by Greentech, as an “outstanding HR Oriented CEO.”

Last July, Acharya, who has been with the company since 1988, gave a rare interview to Bloomberg News, in which he dismissed the epidemiological and radiological studies pointing towards a link between radiation exposures and disease patterns. Radiation levels in the area are “quite low and short duration exposure has no adverse effect on health,” he said.

Commenting on reports connecting the mines to birth defects, cases of sterility and disabilities, Archaya said “I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of those [disabled children and sick adults] are imported from elsewhere.” He added: “See, what happens is, you say you are a specialist and you’ll come and treat. But all you do is, you are convinced UCIL is evil and you have come here only with the sole motive of finding reasons which would validate your preconceived notions.”

Another senior UCIL official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Center that everything happening in the mines was tied to the Bhabha Directive, an aspirational credo for the nuclear state named after Homi Bhabha, an Indian nuclear physicist considered the father of its bomb. “Radioactive material and sources of radiation should be handled … in a manner, which not only ensures that no harm can come to workers … or anyone else,” Bhabha wrote, “but also in an exemplary manner so as to set a standard which other organizations in the country may be asked to emulate.”

Around the villages of Jadugoda and out in the flood plain of the Subarnarekha River, however, residents told us repeatedly these words had lost their meaning. “Inside UCIL, they see themselves as under siege, defending the nation, one atom at a time,” Biruli said, “and outside … we are absorbing those atoms and whatever else the corporation spews out from its broken pipes and dams. We’re drinking it all up, feeding it to our kids, and our wives, if they can conceive, are absorbing them into their blood stream.”

This story was co-published with the Huffington Post.

Adrian Levy is a London-based investigative reporter and filmmaker whose work has appeared in the Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, and other publications. His most recent books are: The Meadow, about a 1995 terrorist kidnapping of Westerners in Kashmir, and The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.


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