Meghalaya: To mine or not to mine- Uranium
The attitude of the current Meghalaya state government in 'daring' the UCIL to mine at their own risk is flabbergasting in response to the tender notice related to the expression of interest (EOI) issued by Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) on the 2nd July, this year. Isn't the state government elected by the people to look after their interests and well-being of its people? How can the state government just sit around and wait until the law and order goes out of control? How can the state not make any explicit intervention and assert its stand or at least have a stand in this regard.
An article published in the Financial Times by Arinda Sinha on 27th October, 2007 indicated that UCIL had announced that it would invest in mining units in the state even though the project had not yet received the necessary environmental clearances. This highlights the callous and insensitive attitude of UCIL not only towards the environment but also to the livelihood of the people who would be displaced due to the project. UCIL may be facing hurdles in procuring fuel material supply for its nuclear reactors but the nuclear behemoth needs to first assess and
understand the concerns and apprehensions of the people regarding the mining of this radioactive metal before coercing its diktat on the state.
The state of Meghalaya is said to possess the third largest reserves of uranium in the country after Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand. According to the announcement by the minister for mining and geology at the Meghalaya state legislative assembly held on 21st June, 2004, the state of Meghalaya had 9.22 million tonnes of ore which would yield about 9500 tonnes of uranium, given the quality of ore expected.
The uranium deposits in the state occur along the southern frontier of the plateau in Domiasiat, Tyrnai and Wahkyn regions. These deposits have an average grade of about 0.10 per cent (U3O8) which indicates that 1000 kilograms of ore will have to be processed at a uranium milling plant in order to obtain a kilogram of uranium for which a large volume will be discarded as waste material. Such wastes material which are also known as mill tailings are contaminated with toxic heavy metals, such as molybdenum,
vanadium, arsenic and with radioactive materials, principally thorium-230 and radium-226.According to the Committee on Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation under the aegis of the National Research Council of the National Academy Press at Washington, the radium-226 decays into radioactive radon gas and epidemiological studies of underground miners from around the world have conclusively shown that inhalation of radon increases the risk of lung-cancer with supporting evidence from experimental studies of animals and from molecular and cellular studies.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, tailings have contaminated the groundwater across all uranium sites in USA while leftover tailings are stored in tailing dams which are subject to the risk of dam failures due to earthquakes or strong rains. For instance, in the case of Jaduguda uranium mines in Jharkhand, one of the pipes carrying radioactive wastes from the uranium mill to a tailing pond burst on 24th December, 2006 where thousands of liters of radioactive waste spilled into a nearby creek for nine hours before the flow of the radioactive waste was shut off. The attitude of the officials of the Department of Atomic Energy
(DAE) was so indifferent and insouciant and stated that it was merely a "small leak" which was of no risk to anyone.The pipeline burst with radioactive slurry has taken place a number of times in April 2007, February 2010 and as recently as March 2015. In response to right to information (RTI) queries filed by the members of an NGO, Jharkhand Organization against Radiation (JOAR), UCIL refuted indicating that they have adopted the best technologies to save the local population. The latest
pipeline burst resulted in forced evacuation of half the village of Chattikocha of which all the rice fields and livelihoods of the residents were destroyed.
The Center for Public Integrity which is a Washington based news organization indicated in a 2015 report that radioactive and toxic waste have been leaking out of Jaduguda, Jharkhand affecting people, livestock, rivers, forests and agricultural produce in the area. A 2009 paper published by Kolkata's Jadavpur University collected hard evidence of the toxic footprint and found that some of the samples had levels of radioactive alpha particles that were 160% higher than World Health Organization (WHO) safe limits. According to an article published by Down
to Earth in 1999 titled ' A deformed existence', Jaduguda has witnessed an increase of incidents of births with congenital deformities and other undesirable outcomes of pregnancy among women living near the industry's facilities. A review of clinical reports and testimonies by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington point out to levels of radiation that in some places reach almost 60 times the safe levels.
The Jharkhand Organization against Radiation (JOAR) spearheaded a health study in nearby villages had some staggering and astounding statistics to report which stated that one in every five women reported a miscarriage or stillbirth. Almost 4.5% reported deformities at birth as compared to similar villages a little further away that reported 2.49% and there was also an increase in incidences of cancer which was a common occurrence in all the affected villages.
The UCIL and India's Atomic Energy Commission have consistently refuted and defended these claims and maintained that operations at Jaduguda in Jharkhand are safe. The corporation faces a real credibility and integrity issue. UCIL's claim that uranium mining will be safe has not been accepted by the public at large with the majority of the populations who do not perceive the project as being beneficial and are against mining. This is also evident in Meghalaya with vast opposition and protest from tribal
leaders, local institutions of governance, opposition political parties and the citizens of the state etc. The major grounds for these protests arise out of concern for ecological balance, negative externalities on the environment and the threat of health hazard anticipated from the proposed uranium mining. UCIL needs a rethink on how it proposes to mine uranium deposits in Meghalaya as strong arm tactics in a democracy is anti- people. While the country's energy concerns are indeed pressing and immediate
enough to require quick action by the state, on this particular issue the state of Meghalaya needs to reconsider its options and strategy.
By Jonathan Donald Syiemlieh
Jonathan Donald Syiemlieh is an Associate Fellow, Centre for Resource and Environmental Governance, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)