By Dr. Arun Mitra
The Uranium mining in the Telugu states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, has led to opposition from various sections of the society. The political parties, environmental groups, science associations, medical personnel and the local tribal people are up in arms against it. Several studies have shown that Uranium mining is coupled with hazards to human health and detrimental effect on the flora and fauna around.
Uranium has many isotopes. Uranium-238, the most prevalent isotope in uranium ore, with a half-life of about 4.5 billion years; that is, half the atoms in any sample will decay in that amount of time. Uranium-235 has a half-life of ‘only’ 700 million years. Natural uranium today consists of 99.3 per cent uranium 238 and only 0.70 per cent uranium 235. Plutonium 239, a radioisotope has a half-life of 24,000 years.
Uranium-238 emits alpha particles which are less penetrating than other forms of radiation, and weak gamma rays. As long as it remains outside the body, uranium poses little health hazard (mainly from the gamma-rays). If inhaled or ingested, however, its radioactivity poses increased risks of lung cancer and bone cancer. Uranium is also chemically toxic at high concentrations and can cause damage to internal organs, notably the kidneys.
The uranium 238 is processed to uranium 235; the process is known as uranium enrichment. The bulk of waste from the enrichment process is depleted uranium. Depleted uranium has been used by the U.S. military to fabricate armor-piercing conventional weapons and tank armor plating.
The most serious health hazard associated with uranium mining is lung cancer due to inhaling uranium decay products. Uranium mill tailings contain radioactive materials, notably radium-226, and heavy metals (e.g., manganese and molybdenum) which can leach into groundwater.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, plutonium enters the bloodstream via the lungs, then moves throughout the body and into the bones, liver, and other organs. It generally stays in those places for decades, subjecting surrounding organs and tissues to a continual bombardment of alpha radiation and greatly increasing the risk of cancer, especially lung cancer, liver cancer and bone sarcoma. There are documented cases of workers at nuclear weapons facilities dying within days of experiencing brief accidental exposure to plutonium, according to the Hazardous Substances Data Bank.
India has a major uranium mine in Jadugoda in the Jharkhand state. A study conducted by the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD), has revealed that people living around 30 Kms radius of the mine have statistically significant health problems compared to the control population beyond 30 Kms. Dr Shakeel Ur Rahman, who, with his team conducted this study points out that the population suffers from congenital deformities, primary sterility, cancer and poor life expectancy. Management of the waste produced by the mine is highly questionable. The safety standards maintained by Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) authorities can be gauged by the fact that the tailings (waste material) are lying in open in which children of the area play and are put to high risk.
It is also reported that an incident had happened on December 24, 2006, when thousands of liters of radioactive waste spilled in a creek because of a pipe burst at a Uranium Corporation of India Limited facility at Jadugoda. The waste from the leak also reached a creek that feeds into the Subarnarekha river, seriously contaminating the water resources of the communities living hundreds of kilometers along the way. This is not the first such accident. In 1986, a tailing dam had burst open and radioactive water flowed directly into the villages.
High levels of uranium concentration have been found in the groundwater around Tummalapalle in Andhra Pradesh’s Kadapa district, where uranium is mined. Similar is the situation in the proposed uranium mining in the Nallamala forest region.
The Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) has found dangerously high levels of uranium concentration in the groundwater samples across the Lambapur-Peddagattu region, known for large uranium deposits, in Telangana’s Nalgonda district.
These areas are forest reserve areas and about 4 lakh tribal people earn their livelihood from these. Uranium mining by destroying the forest will adversely affect the environment and thence their lives.
Both nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants need the same fissile materials—primarily enriched uranium—and the technologies to extract and process them. From uranium mining to the chemical processing of uranium ore, uranium enrichment, transportation, storage and safeguarding, both civil and military nuclear industries rely on the same nuclear infrastructure. The expansion of an extensive nuclear infrastructure for civil nuclear energy programmes makes it much easier and, above all, cheaper for a country to pursue military nuclear programme.
Energy too cheap to meter” was the initial sales motto of the nuclear industry. Today we know that nuclear power is, in fact, the most heavily subsidised form of energy—the costs of uranium mining, deconstruction of nuclear power plants and nuclear waste not even considered.
The German Institute for Economic Research has warned in its 2019 report that the lack of economic efficiency goes hand in hand with a high risk with regard to the proliferation of weapons-grade materials and the release of radioactivity, as shown by the accidents in Harrisburg (1977), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011). For all these reasons, nuclear energy is not a relevant option for supplying economical, climate- friendly, and sustainable energy in the future.
It is high time that the Government of India reviews the uranium mining in proper perspective. Health of the poor tribal people living around these mines cannot be ignored at any cost. (IPA Service)