Sickness and death from Indian nuclear plants

Issue 

By John R. Hallam

Opposition to nuclear power in India is growing and starting to move far beyond the circles of an educated elite.

The operating record of Indian nuclear power plants ranges from uninspiring to downright terrifying, with continual breakdowns and heavy water leakages.

Last September, Australian, British, and Indian media carried accounts of sickness and deformity in villages downwind of the RAPS nuclear plants in Rajasthan. The story was more or less the same as a report that had been run a year before by the Indian antinuclear journal Anumukti.

I was able to interview the editor of Anumukti, Surendra Gadekhar, of the Institute for Total Revolution, a Gandhian group in Gujarat.

Almost two years ago, Sanghamitra Gadekhar, a medical doctor, antinuclear activist and the spouse of Surendra, went on an exploratory foray into the villages near the RAPS reactors. What she saw appalled her. She wrote the Anumukti article after some investigation. Reports on what was called "Chernobhata" were then done by the Indian media, resulting in heated denials by the nuclear establishment that anything was wrong. A couple of cursory government health surveys were done, which predictably concluded that there were no health problems to speak of.

The villagers, in desperation, turned to Anumukti, and asked it to perform a health survey. The results have yet to be processed, but Surendra Gadekhar gave me a preview of some of its preliminary findings.

"After our report, lots of media people went and confirmed what we had said", Surendra told me. "The incidence of disease is so high that it makes an immediate impact on everybody except government doctors!

"There has been no proper survey until now. All that was done by the government surveys was to ask the midwives to make a list of illnesses. The government doctors then looked at the list and said 'There's nothing here from radiation'. The problem is that they think that some specific diseases only are radiation-related, so they don't look at what's actually there. They see, for example, polio, and say 'Well, that's got nothing to do with radiation'.

"But the immune system is affected, so there is an increase in all diseases."

Surendra said that another survey was being done at the same time by doctors from the Udaipur Medical College. "They didn't go house to house as we did, but only sat in the temple and got people to ask questions. Then they visited 15-16 houses. Neither this survey nor another government survey have published anything. You can't question their methodology, because they haven't said what it was.

"Our survey lasted 17 days, against two days for the Udaipur doctors' survey, and included control villages. Our survey covered every household, and recorded educational status, social and caste status, occupation, pesticide usage, source of water, method of cooking, house type, household size and members, animals, whether animals had given birth to deformed offspring, abortions and complete health record."

Nuclear officials put obstacles in the way of the survey. "Their major effort was to try to scare our hosts. Local people can be threatened, for example, with blacklisting, and they did all that. Then they tried to get the police to stop us, though we were doing nothing illegal.

"The villagers were strongly supportive of us. After a while we went and lived in the villages themselves, and the villagers were most hospitable. The problem was, however, that at some villages such as Jharjhani, the investigators saw so much sickness that they didn't want to stay there!"

Rawhatbhata is the company town of the nuclear plant. The survey covered downwind villages, rather than Rawhatbhata itself, but Surendra says he has "seen four cases of children with Downs syndrome there.

"In Rawhatbhata, some workers are permanent plant employees, and then there are a lot of casual workers. The attitude of most permanent workers is that they don't want to talk to us — or at least they won't be seen talking to us openly — for fear of losing their jobs.

"There seems to be lots of disease in the Rawhatbhata service people, who are drinking water from downstream of the plant.

"Many of the villagers are casual workers, and they do all the dangerous work. There are no proper records of their radiation exposures. Earlier on I thought that the cause of all the problems might be airborne tritium. Now, it seems it may be partly due to occupational exposure.

"A report sent to me from a Hindi newspaper says that RAPS violates all the safety regulations, and 'in league with local labour contractors are playing with the lives and health of young rural workers'.

"The contractors take on local youth during the cleaning and maintenance shutdown. During this time, all the international safety regulations are ignored, and they receive radiation far in excess of ICRP [International Commission for Radiation Protection] limits.

"Their dose limit is supposed to be 2000 mrem/year, but some youths get 3-5000 mrem in one day. Their records will show only 800-1000 mrem. The real dose is supposed to be estimated from the badges they are supposed to wear, but the contractor won't allow the badge to be worn inside the plant! Each time the youths get a bigger dose, they reregister in a different name in the plant records."

The survey used the Ramapura area as a "control". Surendra reported re prevalent in the Rawhatbhata area by two to three times. Tumours have a much higher incidence. There's a lot of things we need to follow up — for example, when the doctors went there they said there's a lot of eye covering here [which can be radiation-related]. There's a lot of night blindness.

"Tumours, one sees a lot. You see a lot of congenital deformities. These exist also in the control area, but much less — and some Ramapura people do in fact work in RAPS. We found a lot of sterility in women, and sexual problems in males. We found many women abandoned by their husbands for failure to bear children.

"Kids are much more affected than adults, especially with TB, polio and deformities.

"A little boy we saw named Ramesh was all skin and bone, so weak he couldn't take a banana to his mouth, and died that day. He'd been diagnosed as having TB, but it was Hodgkins disease. His parents had sold all their land and taken him to Udaipur for treatment, but they didn't diagnose the cancer.

"There's a young girl of five, who's now blind. One eye has collapsed, and the other is bulging. Another guy there is getting growths all over his bones — a precancerous condition. Then there's a guy who worked eight years at the plant. He has keloids all over his body.

"Finally, local opposition to RAPS is developing. During a recent emergency drill, the villagers refused to let RAPS buses and trucks proceed."

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