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)