South Asians Against Nukes Post | 16 September 2003

Public Hearing on the Proposed Uranium Mine in Lambapur-Peddagattu, Nalgonda district, Andhra Pradesh, August 19, 2003

Submission by Praful Bidwai

Member, National Coordination Committee, Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India), Environmental Activist, and Journalist

The proposed project does not fulfil the elementary criteria of occupational and environmental safety or of transparency. The Executive Summary of the project minimises the likely hazards from uranium mining and the adverse impact on the environment.

The project should not be permitted. This assessment is based upon scientific literature from public sources, including the National Academy of Sciences (of the United States), United Nations, reputed international journals, etc. pertaining to the generic hazards of uranium mining and its harmful environmental and occupational impact.

This submission deals primarily with such generic hazards. The consequences for forests and the broader environment, and UCILís unsafe practices, especially in Jadugudañwhere Indiaís biggest uranium mines are locatedñare taken up in other submissions. The main argument, based on facts, is summarised below. Additional information is attached in a total of 6 Appendices on the experience with uranium mining in the US, Canada and Europe, etc.

To start with, it is not established that the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) needs to raise nuclear power generation to 20,000 MW by 2020. This arbitrary plan alone explains the rush to prospect for more uranium and open new minesñin Meghalaya, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

There are cheaper, environmentally safer, occupationally benign, more manageable and decentralised alternatives to nuclear power, which do not leave wastes that will be active for tens of thousands of years and which cannot be safely disposed of. These alternatives include sources such as wind and tidal power and solar energy.

UCIL is a subsidiary of the DAE, which has a poor safety record and a history of serious accidents, including excessive radioactive exposure this year at the Kalpakkam Reprocessing Plant (see "Outlook"), a major fire at the Narora Power Station, overexposure of 350 workers at the Tarapur Power Station, etc. For a discussion of the DAEís poor safety culture and its sub-standard performance, see the sub-chapter on nuclear power in the State of Indiaís Environment: Second Citizensí Report, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 1984-85 (Appendix 5).

The DAE is not regulated for safety by an autonomous or independent authority. The Atomic Energy Regulatory Board is a part of and subsidiary to the DAE. It has no independent staff or budget and no way of ensuring that its queries are answered or its recommendations implemented. Some years ago, AERB chairman R Gopalakrishnan quit the Board in disgust because 125 safety issues raised by him were not answered for prolonged periods of time.

Uranium toxicity

Uranium mining is internationally recognised as a hazardous activity. It exposes occupational workers to a number of radioactive and chemical toxins and leaves long-active residues and wastes. Natural uranium consists of three alpha-emitting isotopes: U-238, U-235 and U-234. (These isotopes also emit some gamma radiation.) U-238 accounts for almost 99.3 percent of natural uranium. It has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years. The half-lives of U-235 (about 0.7 percent) and U-234 (which is only 0.005 percent of content but accounts for almost half of uraniumís radiation) are 704 million years and 245,000 years respectively.

Uranium-238 undergoes continuous decay. This gives rise to more than 15 radioactive products, including thorium-234 and -230, radium-226, radon-222 and polonium-218 and -214. These decay products are always found together with natural uranium in ores. All of these, as well as natural uranium, are toxic to human, animal and plant health.

Natural uranium is both a radioactive and chemical toxin. Outside the body, natural uranium poses only a minor hazard because of its relatively weak gamma-ray emissions (unless exposure is prolonged). Once inhaled or ingested, it can increase the risks of lung and bone cancer due to its alpha emissions.

The decay products of uranium-238 pose additional health hazards. Thorium-234 decays in place while thorium-230 tends to be taken up in the bone. Polonium is distributed in soft tissues as well as bone. Radium is similar to calcium and accumulates on the surface of the bones and later in the matrix of bone structure. Radium is dangerous when ingested. It is a known agent of bone cancer as was discovered in the 1920s through the unfortunate fate of radium dial-painters who ingested radium when licking the tips of their brushes.

Occupational Hazards

Uranium miners are exposed to a range of radioactive materials, including uranium isotopes and decay products. In particular, they are victims of the gas radon-222, a decay product of radium-226, with a half-life of 3.82 days. Radon and its decay products have been proved responsible for the elevated levels of lung cancer incurred by miners. Underground mining is most dangerous to workers because of higher exposure to radon decay products.

Workers breathe in the polonium-218, lead-214, bismuth-214 and polonium-214 in the air. The decay of these radionuclides in the lung has been the chief route of exposure of uranium miners and is historically responsible for the elevated levels of cancer they incur. (See Public Summary of "The Health Effects of Exposure to Indoor Radon", Committee on Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation of the US National Academy of Sciences).

A number of health studies of uranium miners have been conducted, documenting increased levels of lung cancer. In Czechoslovakia, follow-up studies on several cohorts of miners have been conducted since 1970. A study of 4,042 miners who began working underground between 1948 and 1957 found that the number of lung cancer deaths as of 1985 was five times the expected number.

In Canada, a study from 1955 to 1986 on 50,201 miners discovered an excess of 120 lung cancer deaths over the 171.8 expected in the non-exposed population.

In the United States, numerous follow-up studies have been conducted. A 1988 study suggested synergistic effects of cigarette smoking and exposure to radon decay products.

Uranium miners also face many non-radiation-related hazards. Soluble uranium affects the kidneys if ingested or inhaled because of its chemical toxicity as a heavy metal. The ore in which uranium is found also contains non-radioactive toxic heavy metals. These vary from site to site but may include arsenic, lead, molybdenum, and manganese.

Uranium mining is associated with lung damage through silicosis. Silica dust is created in the drilling process and can cause the gradual development of scarring of the lungs, which restricts lung function and can lead to cancer and an increased risk of tuberculosis, rheumatoid arthritis and kidney disease.

Some measures can be taken to reduce toxic exposure to miners, such as proper ventilation, use of protective clothing and masks, and monitoring of absorbed radioactivity doses. In many countries, such measures were taken many years after uranium mining developed.

For instance, it took the US until the mid-1960s to establish protection against known health hazards, even though studies conducted by the United States Public Health Service in the early 1950s showed that hazards to American workers were similar to those in Europe, where elevated levels of lung cancer had already been demonstrated.

Canada began mining and processing on a large scale in the 1940s. There was no regulatory upper limit to radiation exposure for Canadian miners until 1968.

The Soviet Union operated its East German mines with no radiation protection measures until 1954; they continued to be a radioactive disaster area for decades.

At Namibiaís Rossing mine, it wasnít compulsory for the first three years of operation for workers to wear film badges. A 1992 study found that "throughout [the 1980s] the Rossing industrial hygiene standard for airborne uranium was nearly 6 times the International Commission on Radiological Protection [recommended maximum] Derived Air Concentration for natural uranium, and 36 times the limit implied by current scientific evidence."

Going by the Jaduguda experience, and the actual practices followed there, there is reason to fear but India is many decades behind some of these countries in respect of uranium mining safety measures. Their lack will aggravate the heath and environmental impacts of the proposed project.

This poses a long-term danger since that the half-life of some of the isotopes forming natural uranium and of their decay products -238 is very long, running into millions of years.
Environmental Consequences

In uranium mines, the ore is milled to separate the uranium chemically from other ore components. Waste from the milling process poses significant health and environmental hazards. For a typical uranium concentration of 0.2 percent, 1,000 metric tonnes of ore are needed in order to get 2 metric tonnes of uranium, leaving behind 998 tonnes of waste.

This waste, called mill tailings, contains 85 percent of the radioactivity in the original ore along with heavy metals and chemical toxic materials from mill reagents such as sulphuric acid and ammonium chloride. When discharged from the mill, the tailings are roughly 40 percent solids and 60 percent liquid. The liquid can eventually percolate into the soil, contaminating ground water.

Wind scatters fine respirable radioactive particles from dry tailings areas, exposing workers and nearby residents. Mill tailings make up over 95 percent of the total volume of radioactive wastes coming from the nuclear fuel cycle (excluding mine waste), and are very long-lived (although account only a small fraction of the radioactivity).

There is no scientific method to prevent leaching of tailings into the environment. Some quantity is bound to seep into the soil and contaminate ground water aquifers. When there is a drought, to which Telangana is prone, the tailings pond will be dry and strong winds will blow and spread concentrated solids over long distances and directly into standing food-crops, peopleís homes, water wells, rivers and streams, and all vegetation.

Tailings ponds or dams have often ruptured, leading to the release of impounded tailings discharges and widespread contamination. In 1979, a uranium mill tailings dam broke near Church Rock, New Mexico (US), releasing 94 million gallons of liquids and 1,100 tonnes of tailings solids which spread 60 miles from the facility.

In the Elliot Lake area of Ontario, Canada, 80 kilometres of the Serpent River system including 10 local lakes have been contaminated. Elliot Lake has also experienced 30 tailings dam breaches and 125 radioactive spills in Saskatchewan have been reported.

The burden from the effects of uranium production, driven by a few countries seeking nuclear weapons and nuclear power, has been disproportionately carried by indigenous, colonised and other dominated peoples. Approximately two-thirds of the United Statesí uranium deposits and a third of mill tailings are on Native American land. This is also partly true of the site of the present proposed project, which is located right next door to sanctuaries and Adivasi forest-dwellersí habitat.

In most countries, uranium mining has been the most hazardous step of nuclear materials production, both in terms of radiation doses and the number of people affected. India must avoid this uranium mining trap. Andhra Pradesh can and must show the way by rejecting the proposed project of UCIL.

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