INDIA: Villagers reject uranium mine



BANGALORE — A major controversy is brewing in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh over the proposed mining of uranium deposits near a remote village in Nalgonda district. Environmental groups and the local community have rejected claims by the government-managed Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) that mining poses no danger to the health of the region's inhabitants.

Concerns include the ghastly consequences that uranium mining may have on public health, the threat to water sources and its location near a national tiger reserve. The huge project will cover 322 hectares of land and take 20 years to fully extract the uranium deposits.

Environmentalists, human rights activists, political parties and left organisations, and even animal rights activists, have banded together under the banner of the Movement Against Uranium Project to fight UCIL's planned mine. MAUP has urged UCIL to abandon its proposal to mine the radioactive ore and called on the state government to cancel the company's mining licence. "The government can and must reject this project proposal", said Praful Bidwai of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament, which is part of MAUP.

The trouble began when UCIL reported the discovery of a significant uranium deposit, estimated at 11 million tonnes, in the Lambapur-Peddagutta plateau region, above the Nagarjuna Sagar water reservoir. UCIL also announced that it would set up a plant in the area to process raw uranium ore.

Residents and environmentalists fear that contaminated storm-water runoff from the open-cut uranium mine could enter the reservoir, as well as negatively impacting on the Krishna River basin, one of the region's largest sources of water for drinking and farming purposes.

Another worrying feature of the project is that the proposed "uranium processing zone" in Mallapuram is within 4kms of the Akkampally Reservoir, a dam that supplies drinking water to 600 villages in the area and to the state capital of Hyderabad, 140kms away.

These are not the only reasons why locals are vehemently opposed to the project, even though it would provide the region with better roads, more employment and increased economic activity. Villagers are aware of the impact that another UCIL mine has had in Jaduguda, in the eastern state of Jharkhand.

Jaduguda villagers suffer from high rates of skin diseases, cancers, brain damage, kidney disease, hypertension, disorders of the central nervous system, congenital deformities, insomnia, nausea, dizziness and sore joints.

According to independent surveys, in the seven villages within 1km of the Jaduguda mine's tailings dam, which is used to dump liquid and solid by-products of uranium processing, 47% of the women have reported disrupted menstrual cycles and 18% have suffered miscarriages or stillbirths in the past five years. A third of the women cannot conceive, according to studies conducted by the Jharkhand Organisation Against Radiation. The organisation estimates that 30,000 people in 15 villages are exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

These facts worried the villagers of Nalgonda, causing them to think twice before accepting the operation of a similar mine near their homes.

Abiding by Indian government regulations, UCIL did prepare an environmental impact analysis (EIA). However, villagers and environmentalists point out that many issues went unanswered in the document. Activists and villagers also report that the company held EIA hearings in an inaccessible area, in order to limit the participation of locals and to avoid media attention.

Greenpeace India has expressed doubts over the EIA's figures on the amount of waste that the mine will generate. The EIA states that 300 million tonnes of waste will be produced over 20 years of mining, a considerable underestimate, according to Greenpeace.

If other uranium mines run by UCIL are any guide, workers at the proposed Nalgonda mine, and nearby villagers, will not know how much radiation they will be exposed to. Though each employee at UCIL mines wears a radiation-measuring device, readings are seldom revealed and employees are only treated at company hospitals. Under India's Atomic Energy Act, UCIL does not have to divulge its employees' health records.

UCIL, which began mining nine years before India first tested an atom bomb in 1974, doubled its daily production of uranium ore to 2000 tonnes in 2001. Its three uranium mines — at Jaduguda, Bhatin and Narwapahar (with a processing and by-products recovery plant at Jaduguda) are the source of uranium for India's 10 nuclear power stations.

India's nuclear sites are not open to international inspections. The Atomic Energy Act forbids Indian scientists and politicians from speaking out openly against the country's highly secretive nuclear program or the conditions at Indian uranium mines.

The Indian government exploded three more nuclear bombs in May 1998, triggering a nuclear arms race with archrival Pakistan, which responded by detonating an equal number of bombs within a few months. As the flexing of nuclear muscles continues on the Indian subcontinent, Indian nuclear planners have been prompted to explore for more deposits to meet the increasing demand for uranium.

[Ameer Shahul is campaign coordinator for Greenpeace India.]

From Green Left Weekly, September 10, 2003.
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