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India’s nuclear industry pours its wastes into a river of death and disease via The Center for Public Integrity

Scientists say nuclear workers, village residents, and children living near mines and factories are falling ill after persistent exposure to unsafe radiation

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Its link to widespread misfortune is not admitted by the Indian government. But the authorities’ role in the deaths of those who live near it first became clear when professor Dipak Ghosh, a respected Indian physicist and dean of the Faculty of Science at Jadavpur University in Kolkata decided to chase down a rural “myth” among the farmers along its banks. They had long complained that the Subarnarekha was poisoned, and said their communities suffered from tortuous health problems.

When Ghosh’s team seven years ago collected samples from the river and also from adjacent wells, he was alarmed by the results. The water was adulterated with radioactive alpha particles that cannot be absorbed through the skin or clothes, but if ingested cause 1,000 times more damage than other types of radiation. In some places, the levels were 160 percent higher than safe limits set by the World Health Organization.

“It was potentially catastrophic,” Ghosh said in a recent interview. Millions of people along the waterway were potentially exposed.

What the professor’s team uncovered was hard evidence of the toxic footprint cast by the country’s secret nuclear mining and fuel fabrication program. It is now the subject of a potentially powerful legal action, shining an unusual light on India’s nuclear ambitions and placing a cloud over its future reactor operations.

A comprehensive new energy plan approved by the government in October declared that nuclear power is “a safe, environmentally benign and economically viable source to meet the increasing electricity needs of the country.” And Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while standing beside President Obama at a Paris conference on global warming Nov. 30, said “India is a very nature-loving country and we are setting out, as always, to protect nature in the world” while producing energy.

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The source of the poisonings

Charting the trail of disease and ill health back to its source, Ghosh’s team learned that the alpha radiation they had recorded came from the mines, mills and fabrication plants of East Singhbhum, a district whose name means the land of the lions, where the state-owned Uranium Corporation of India Ltd is sitting on a mountain of 174,000 tons of raw uranium. The company, based in Jadugoda, a country town 160 miles west of Kolkata, is the sole source of India’s domestically-mined nuclear reactor fuel, a monopoly that has allowed it to be both combative and secretive.

After starting work in 1967 with a single mine, the corporation now controls six underground pits and one opencast operation that stretch across 1,313 hilly acres, extracting an estimated 5,000 tons of uranium ore a day, generating an annual turnover of $123 million. It supplies nine of the reactors that help India produce plutonium for its arsenal of nuclear weapons, and is thus considered vital to India’s security.

The company crushes the ore below ground and treats it with sulfuric acid, transforming it into magnesium diuranate or “yellowcake,” which is then loaded into drums and taken to the Rakha Mines railway station. From there, it is transported to the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad, 861 miles to the southwest. Workers ultimately process it into uranium dioxide pellets that are stacked in rods, inserted into reactors all over India.

Wherever uranium is extracted, anywhere in the world, from Australia to New Mexico, it is a messy, environmentally disruptive process. However, the poor quality of ore eked out of these wooded hills means that for every kilogram of uranium extracted, 1750 kilograms of toxic slurry, known as tailings, must be discarded into three, colossal ponds. Studies by scientists from North America, Australia and Europe show that while these ponds contain only small quantities of uranium, equally hazardous isotopes connected to uranium’s decay are also present, including thorium, radium, polonium and lead, some of which have a half-life of thousands of years. Arsenic is a byproduct, as is radon, a carcinogen.

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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.

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