Jadugoda, Jharkhand, INDIA — The Subarnarekha River roars out of the Chota Nagpur plateau in eastern India, before emptying 245 miles downstream into the Bay of Bengal, making it a vital source of life, and lately, of death.
The name means streak of gold and for centuries prospectors around Ranchi, the traffic-choked capital of Jharkhand state, have sought fortunes by panning for nuggets in its headwaters, which wash over a region flecked with minerals and ore.
Its link to widespread misfortune is not admitted by the Indian government. But the authorities’ role in the deaths of those who live near it first became clear when professor Dipak Ghosh, a respected Indian physicist and dean of the Faculty of Science at Jadavpur University in Kolkata decided to chase down a rural “myth” among the farmers along its banks. They had long complained that the Subarnarekha was poisoned, and said their communities suffered from tortuous health problems.
When Ghosh’s team seven years ago collected samples from the river and also from adjacent wells, he was alarmed by the results. The water was adulterated with radioactive alpha particles that cannot be absorbed through the skin or clothes, but if ingested cause 1,000 times more damage than other types of radiation. In some places, the levels were 160 percent higher than safe limits set by the World Health Organization.
“It was potentially catastrophic,” Ghosh said in a recent interview. Millions of people along the waterway were potentially exposed.
What the professor’s team uncovered was hard evidence of the toxic footprint cast by the country’s secret nuclear mining and fuel fabrication program. It is now the subject of a potentially powerful legal action, shining an unusual light on India’s nuclear ambitions and placing a cloud over its future reactor operations.
A comprehensive new energy plan approved by the government in October declared that nuclear power is “a safe, environmentally benign and economically viable source to meet the increasing electricity needs of the country.” And Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while standing beside President Obama at a Paris conference on global warming Nov. 30, said “India is a very nature-loving country and we are setting out, as always, to protect nature in the world” while producing energy.
On August 21, 2014, however, a justice in this state’s court ordered an official inquiry into allegations that the nuclear industry has exposed tens of thousands of workers and villagers to dangerous levels of radiation, heavy metals or other carcinogens, including arsenic, from polluted rivers and underground water supplies that have percolated through the foodchain — from fish swimming in the Subarnarekha River to vegetables washed in its tainted water.
Given the absolute secrecy that surrounds the nuclear sector in India, the case is a closed affair, and all evidence is officially presented to the judge. But the Center for Public Integrity has reviewed hundreds of pages of personal testimony and clinical reports in the case that present a disturbing scenario.
India’s nuclear chiefs have long maintained that ill health in the region is caused by endemic poverty and and the unsanitary conditions of its tribal people, known locally as Adivasi, or first people. But the testimony and reports document how nuclear installations, fabrication plants and mines have repeatedly breached international safety standards for the past 20 years. Doctors and health workers, as well as international radiation experts, say that nuclear chiefs have repeatedly suppressed or rebuffed their warnings.
The industry’s aim, according to local residents, has been to minimize evidence of cancer clusters, burying statistics that show an alarming spate of deaths. The case files include epidemiological and medical surveys warning of a high incidence of infertility, birth defects, and congenital illnesses among women living in proximity to the industry’s facilities. They also detail levels of radiation that in some places were almost 60 times the safe levels set by organizations like the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, although India’s Atomic Energy Commission, the country’s top authority, disputes these findings.
The Indian commission argues all problems at the nuclear complex have been corrected and that no cases of radiation poisoning have been proven. But the court files include compelling stories of how residents have been stonewalled and criminalized, and their communities strong-armed, to ensure that nothing gets in the way of India’s nuclear dream.
Poor conditions for those who work or live near nuclear facilities have been largely unchanged for decades. When we drove into Jadugoda, we quickly spotted laborers, barefooted, and without protective clothing, riding trucks laden with uranium ore through villages, their tarpaulins gaping and dust spewing. Ore was scattered everywhere: on the roads, over the fields and into the rivers and drains. Uranium tailing ponds that dribbled effluent into neighboring fields were readily accessible, and children played nearby as their parents gathered wood. Washed clothes hung from tailings pipes carrying irradiated slurry. Four months after we left, last March, some of these pipes burst, again sending toxic slurry into Chatikocha village, where residents were supposed to have removed, but remain.
Alarms about these activities were circulating as long ago as 2005, when India and the United States began work on a pact expanding cooperation on civil nuclear power. A joint statement that year by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the pact included a promise to safeguard the environment, but hailed reactors as a way to meet “global energy demands in a cleaner and more efficient manner.”
The pact was signed by the two governments in October 2008, despite an American diplomat’s warning from Kolkata in a confidential cable to Washington the previous year that the Indian government’s “lax safety measures … are exposing local tribal communities to radiation contamination.”
Henry V. Jardine, a career foreign service officer and former Army captain, expressed blunt dismay in the cable about India’s “notoriously weak” worker protections and substandard safety procedures around mines. If safety at civil nuclear projects like these was “an apparent failure,” Jardine wondered “what standards are being maintained in India’s nuclear facilities not visible to the public.”
The source of the poisonings
Charting the trail of disease and ill health back to its source, Ghosh’s team learned that the alpha radiation they had recorded came from the mines, mills and fabrication plants of East Singhbhum, a district whose name means the land of the lions, where the state-owned Uranium Corporation of India Ltd is sitting on a mountain of 174,000 tons of raw uranium. The company, based in Jadugoda, a country town 160 miles west of Kolkata, is the sole source of India’s domestically-mined nuclear reactor fuel, a monopoly that has allowed it to be both combative and secretive.
After starting work in 1967 with a single mine, the corporation now controls six underground pits and one opencast operation that stretch across 1,313 hilly acres, extracting an estimated 5,000 tons of uranium ore a day, generating an annual turnover of $123 million. It supplies nine of the reactors that help India produce plutonium for its arsenal of nuclear weapons, and is thus considered vital to India’s security.
The company crushes the ore below ground and treats it with sulfuric acid, transforming it into magnesium diuranate or “yellowcake,” which is then loaded into drums and taken to the Rakha Mines railway station. From there, it is transported to the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad, 861 miles to the southwest. Workers ultimately process it into uranium dioxide pellets that are stacked in rods, inserted into reactors all over India.
Wherever uranium is extracted, anywhere in the world, from Australia to New Mexico, it is a messy, environmentally disruptive process. However, the poor quality of ore eked out of these wooded hills means that for every kilogram of uranium extracted, 1750 kilograms of toxic slurry, known as tailings, must be discarded into three, colossal ponds. Studies by scientists from North America, Australia and Europe show that while these ponds contain only small quantities of uranium, equally hazardous isotopes connected to uranium’s decay are also present, including thorium, radium, polonium and lead, some of which have a half-life of thousands of years. Arsenic is a byproduct, as is radon, a carcinogen.
The tailing ponds in Jharkhand, Ghosh’s team and other scientists discovered, have never been lined with rubble, concrete or special plastics, as organizations like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have advised for domestic ponds, and as a result their contents leached in winters into the water table. Lacking a cap, the ponds evaporated in summers, leaving a toxic dust that blew over nearby villages. Thirty five thousand people live in seven villages that lie within a mile and half of the three huge ponds, most of them members of tribal communities.
Moreover, during the monsoon season, the ponds regularly overflowed onto adjacent lands, with contaminants reaching streams and groundwater that eventually tainted the Subarnarekha River, according to studies of the issue by Ghosh’s team and other scientists. Pipes carrying radioactive slurry also frequently burst, leaching into rivers and across villages, according to photographs taken by residents. Lorries hired by the mines also dumped toxic effluent in local fields when the ponds were full, actions caught in photographs and on video taken by villagers and shown to the Center.
When Ghosh published his team’s results, there was no reaction from the mine or the Indian government. A senior official in the U.S. State Department declined to discuss the contents of Jardine’s leaked cable, but said he was aware of criticisms about the uranium corporation.
The evidence begins to pile up
Uranium was first discovered in the hills above Jadugoda in 1951, by Indian geologists working alongside the Associated Drilling Company, of London. The geological makeup of the area makes the natural — or “background” — radiation in this area higher than other parts of India, but scientists say nothing besides man’s activities can explain the extraordinary levels discovered in their tests.
Long ago, the local tribes already feared the place the geologists were drawn to, according to Ghanshyam Birulee, a round-faced political activist for the Adivasi.
“My father told me of a [castor oil] tree in the forest and even back then everyone thought this tree was haunted,” he said. Village lore warned that “if a pregnant woman passed the trunk, she would suffer a miscarriage, or the child would be born with deformities. Everyone avoided it,” except those digging the hole.
The bore became a mine, and Birulee’s father, like many others, was contracted to wrest ore from the subterranean galleries and shovel the resulting yellowcake into drums. His father died of lung cancer in 1984. “Contract laborers were not issued with any respirators or dosimeters to measure radiation,” Birulee said, talking in the granular accent of his tribe, known as Ho. Sometimes they worked barefoot.
Then in 1991, Birulee’s mother also died of lung cancer. “We were stunned by her death. She had never worked in the mines. I searched for a reason,” he said. Friends and neighbors meanwhile were in mourning for their own relatives. According to the uranium corporation’s own records, 17 UCIL laborers died in 1994, 14 more in 1995, 19 in 1996 and 21 in 1997; no cause of death was revealed in the records seen by the Center, but critics claim most if not all were radiation-related.
The corporation will not discuss the causes of these deaths. But a spokesman for the Jarkhandi Organization Against Radiation (JOAR), a local group formed in 1998 out of a student lobby for indigenous rights, said it has investigated these cases and that “from what we can see all of them contracted illnesses associated with radiation or exposure to heavy metals.” The spokesman, who asked the Center to withhold his name because intelligence officials and police have arrested him in the past and accused him of “anti-national activities,” claimed the number of deaths was actually “four times higher” than UCIL admitted.
Birulee contacted doctors and public health researchers at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in Delhi, one of India’s best government-funded institutions. They came up with a hypothesis about his mother’s death, blaming the family’s laundry. “My father,” Birulee said, “would bring back his cotton uniform, caked in uranium dust, to be washed once a week, as did all the other contract laborers. There were no facilities in the mines and no warnings.”
Birulee wondered how many other families had been similarly affected and, working with the JNU doctors, helped arrange for midwives to visit nearby villages. They found that 47% of women suffered disruptions to their menstrual cycle, while 18% had had miscarriages or stillborn babies over the previous 5 years. One third were infertile. Many complained their children were born with partially formed skulls, blood disorders, missing eyes or toes, fused fingers or brittle limbs. Livestock too were suffering, with veterinarians reporting that buffaloes and cows were infertile or suffering from blood disorders.
Arjun Soren was one of those affected. Born in Bhatin village, adjacent to another uranium mine on the other side of the tailing pond, Soren became the first member of the Santhal tribe to get a medical degree, and one of his first cases was to track the deteriorating health of his family. “My aunt died of cancer of the gallbladder,” Soren recalled. “My nephew has a rare blood disorder.” Then Soren himself was diagnosed with leukemia and transferred to Mumbai for treatment. “Radiation and toxins from the mining processes has to be the reason,” Soren said. “I spent my childhood playing, breathing, drinking, eating there.”
The mining corporation dismissed the 1995 Jawaharlal Nehru University study, asserting that it failed to link these health problems conclusively to radiation exposure. When the company needed to create the third of its tailing ponds in 1996, its agents uprooted families in the Adivasi village of Chatikocha, which was in their way. Dumka Murmu, a local activist from there, recalled how on Jan. 27, at 11 a.m., armed police escorted the mining company’s diggers into town. “They tore down houses belonging to 30 families,” he said. Their fields were also dug up, groves of trees that served as a religious site were felled, and a graveyard was flattened.
Outraged, the activist group contacted local politicians and civil servants. Demonstrations at the site grew, indigenous people incensed by the destruction of their place of worship, until on Feb. 25, 1997, thousands of Adivasi from all over the district converged on the site and forced work on the new pond to stop. The mining company had to change tack. It offered the demonstrators a compensation package and promised more jobs, which divided them. “Everyone needs money,” Murmu said bitterly, “and UCIL broke the will of poor people by buying them off with jobs that might kill them in an industry that was poisoning the district.”
Birulee lodged a protest with the state’s Environment Committee, in Bihar’s capital. Its chairman, Gautam Sagar Rana, directed UCIL to finance an independent health inquiry, led by two professors from Patna Medical College, who were accompanied by the uranium conglomerate’s deputy general manager, R.P. Verma; and the head of its health unit, A.R. Khan. Analyzing a representative sample of those between 4 and 60 years old living within a mile and a half of the third tailing dam, the researchers hired by UCIL concluded that the residents were “affected by radiation.”
In a report dated Nov. 14, 1997, thirty-one persons were said to need hospitalization. Their symptoms included swollen joints, spleens and livers, and coughing up blood. The UCIL report also described “osteoporosis, defective limbs, and habitual abortion,” as well as many complaints of “missed menstrual cycle” and a cluster of cancer cases.
Two more inspections by doctors occurred later that month and a separate report that month signed by professors K.K. Singh and D.D. Gupta and printed on UCIL stationery warned that the toxic tailings ponds were unprotected and the site lacked warning signs about the dangers of radiation or other toxic substances, according to a copy seen by the Center. Cattle grazed freely around the poisonous ponds, while villagers gathered firewood beside them and children built sand castles from the toxic grit, the report said.
While mine officials said they had provided regular medical checkups for the workers, one miner told the researchers, in an interview documented by Shri Prakash, a local filmmaker, that his last examination had been 10 years before. “Some test was done, but the results were not given out,” he said.
The researchers called on the corporation to fence in the ponds immediately, and to move the tens of thousands of villagers who lived in seven communities around the three tailing ponds to new sites at least three miles away. The report noted that security at the sites was “very poor” and “totally lax”, carried out in such an uncaring way, that “any mischief on life or nation cannot be ruled out.”
Four months later, on March 23, 1998, R.K. Verma, a deputy general manager, claimed in a letter sent to the civil surgeon, a public health official, in Jamshedpur, that improvements had been made. But the Bihar Environmental Committee complained in a June statement that “no wire, fences, signs: security remains abysmal, health conditions as before.”
Denying what scientists documented
India’s nuclear project is seen as the country’s most prestigious enterprise, a tangible expression of the nation’s resilience and resourcefulness. This idea was cemented when India tested nuclear devices in 1998, in twin blasts. Feeding the weapons program was UCIL’s duty, and protecting the mines became paramount.
As a result, the UCIL-funded health studies were not welcomed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, the country’s premier civil and military nuclear research facility, which has a Health Physics Laboratory in Jadugoda. It said in 1999, after a quick visual inspection of villagers living close to the mines, that its own experts “unanimously agreed that the disease pattern could not be ascribed to radiation exposure.” The complainers were “backwards people” who suffered from “alcoholism, malaria and malnutrition,” the company said. But it took no soil, water or air samples and launched no epidemiological study.
UCIL subsequently reversed its own position. “There is no radiation or any related health problems in Jadugoda and its surrounding areas,” J.L. Bhasin, the managing director of UCIL, concluded in 1999, in a press conference before local reporters in Jadugoda. A.N. Mullick, UCIL’s chief medical officer for 25 years, issued a press statement a few months later that “I have not come across any radiation-related ailments during my entire career.”
One safety practice changed: Miners were now given personal dosimeters, although they were taken away at the end of a shift and the readings were kept secret, a circumstance that prevails now, according to more than a dozen miners interviewed by the Center. Also, a few warning signs were posted beside the tailing ponds, according to several of the residents. But the signs were later removed by the corporation, which called them “alarmist” — a circumstance confirmed by three residents from Chatikocha village, who attended a public meeting called by the mining corporation.
In 1999, Birulee and his friends, who had begun to teach themselves about the impact of radiation by reaching out to nuclear blast survivor groups in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, decided to contact a husband-wife scientific team, Sanghamitra and Surendra Gadekar, who had studied the health of laborers at a nuclear reactor in the western desert state of Rajasthan. Surendra Gadekar, a nuclear physicist, began taking soil, water and air samples around Jadugoda the following year.
Their study was published in 2004 in Anumukti, a now-defunct pacifist magazine. It said radiation levels inside the villages aound the tailing ponds were almost 60 times the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission “safe level.” They wrote that a football pitch, a school close to Rakha Railway Station, a dam, and some walls built around homes in several villages had been constructed by UCIL with radioactive mining rubble. Radiation readings at a UCIL laboratory were 20 times the U.S. safe limit, they said, blaming unsafe work practices.
The report pointed to “extremely high levels of chronic lung disease in mill and mine workers,” and highlighted case studies of 52 men and 34 women with “severe deformities.” The Gadekars also documented the existence in neighboring populations of children with malformed torsos and deformed heads and the wrong number of fingers, as well as a cluster of cases where infants’ bodies grew at different rates, giving them a lopsided gait. Some had hyperkeratosis, a condition known as “toad skin” due to the striated patterns and raised lumps it causes. Dr. Sanghamitra Gadekar concluded in her report: “In my opinion radiation or heavy metals are the likely cause.”
Their study was ignored by India’s nuclear chiefs but caught the attention of Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear engineer who teaches at the Research Reactor Institute, Kyoto University. In late 2000, Koide flew to Jharkhand, discreetly carrying activated charcoal and thermoluminescent dosimeters (TLD) to study background gamma radiation. He stealthily took soil and water samples, with the help of local residents, and carried them back to Japan, where they could be tested for radon, uranium and other nuclides.
Four years later, Koide, who had access to more modern equipment than the Indian researchers and to a research reactor at Kyoto University, revealed that radiation levels in villages close to the mines and radiation levels in residential areas near the tailing ponds exceeded international safe limits by tenfold. Levels in the areas next to the ponds were 12 times higher. “These figures were exceptionally worrying,” Koide said. “No one should have been living anywhere near, but UCIL was repeatedly told to move people [and] has not done so.” Orders from the state government for villagers to be relocated, first issued in 1996, had never been implemented.
More worrying, Koide confirmed that uranium rock and finely ground mine tailings had been used as ballast for road leveling and house building, and to construct a local school and clinic. UCIL declined to make an attributed comment about these claims, but a senior UCIL official who talked to the Center on condition of anonymity confirmed these construction projects using irradiated materials had gone ahead as “part of a community outreach project.” He added: “Scientists at [Bhabha Atomic Research Centre] told us the material was of no risk, so we listened to the scientists.” BARC declined to comment.
A worrisome contaminant shows up
Koide’s also identified a radioisotope in the tailing ponds that he found especially disturbing: cesium-137. It’s created when uranium and plutonium undergo fission in a reactor or during the explosion of a nuclear weapon. Since no reactor exists in this region, “this was nuclear waste from somewhere else in India that had been transported to Jadugoda and discarded, like this heavily-populated district was simply some kind of nuclear dump,” Koide said.
There is no safe limit for cesium, since it is easily absorbed by the body, and concentrates in soft tissues. According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cesium “moves easily through the air … dissolves easily in water [and] binds strongly to soil and concrete,” contaminating plants and vegetation. Exposure to minute quanitities can increase the risk of contracting cancer.
Koide also was troubled by his discovery that levels of radon gas close to the mines and the tailing ponds were 160 percent higher than the limit set by the World Health Organization. Radiation levels in villages exceeded the Japanese safety limit by thirty-fold, as did levels at the Rakha Mines railway station where drums of uranium were transported to fabrication plants across India. Four miners who worked at the Rakha Mines station until they left their job in 2008 described to the Center frequent spillages of yellowcake from leaking drums, which they cleaned up with shovels, without gloves or masks, as none of them had been been issued with protective clothing or advice on possible contamination. A local journalist secretly shot video of them at work in the station.
Many Western nations have prepared “fact sheets” on yellowcake that warn against breathing its dust or fumes and say that workers should wash thoroughly and avoid eating, drinking or smoking while in contact with it. A safety alert prepared by the Australian government for those preparing to transport it warns that ingesting or inhaling it causes “damage to the kidneys, liver and lungs through prolonged or repeated exposure” and warns against release to the environment. But a BARC doctor working at its Health, Safety and Environment unit, U.C. Mishra, when confronted with footage of leaking drums and workers with no protective clothing, downplayed the risks in a press conference in 1999, an event that was filmed. “You can handle it,” Dr. Mishra said, “and nothing will happen to you.”
India’s Supreme Court began its own inquiry into the health crisis at the mines in 1998, in response to a petition filed by a pro-nuclear lawyer from Delhi who was upset by a news magazine’s photos of children with severe birth defects from villages near tailings ponds. The lawyer argued that “right to life” was enshrined in the Indian Constitution, but even so the court on April 15, 2004, said it believed an affidavit signed by its atomic energy department’s chairman that all radiological, safety and security issues at the mines had been resolved.
“The nuclear establishment is allowed to police itself, and to investigate itself, [with] the courts endorsing them,” Birulee said. “But out in the countryside, we are still living toxic lives.”
A series of radioactive leaks
Then, on Dec. 24, 2006, a pipe transferring toxic, radioactive slurry to the tailing ponds burst close to Dungridih village, 50 miles northwest of Jadugoda, and poured into a tributary of the Subarnarekha River for nine hours, causing shoals of dead fish to float on the surface. No government investigation was undertaken downstream and no thorough cleanup, upstream. Anil Kakodkar, head of the Department of Atomic Energy, described the incident as “a small leak” of no risk to anyone, according to an Indian analyst’s report. Five villagers interviewed by the Center described how they merely piled mud over the effluent.
Four months later, on April 10, 2007, “1.5 tons of solid radioactive waste and 20,000 liters of liquid radioactive waste” spilled from a new pipe, close to Jadugoda town, according to a corporation report, seen by the Center.
In Jardine’s cable to Washington in July of that year, he confirmed the leak and relayed widespread concerns about a recent expansion of UCIL’s operations. A new uranium ore mine in Banduhurang and a uranium mine located in Jharkhand’s Saraikela-Kharswan district were projected to produce 2,400 tons and 410 tons of uranium ore per day, respectively, he noted. These would add to the 2,090 tons of ore daily processed at a mill in Jadugoda and the 3,000 tons processed at a second in Turamdih. Local media and independent groups claimed that officials in Jadugoda dumped the waste from the processing of this ore into local fields, Jardine said, although UCIL denied it.
Photos of the leak cleanup he had seen “apparently show…workers with no safety equipment and wading in the tailing sludge,” Jardine wrote. He added that his staff had visited the mines and seen “lax safety and security measures.” Uranium ore was transported “by open trucks,” with “mine workers riding on top of the ore,” which often fell over the road. He signed off with a warning: “Given the existing conditions at India’s uranium mines, increasing the exploitation of domestic reserves will likely result in increasing radiation exposure.” The cable was disclosed by Wikileaks in 2011.
The following February, another tailing pipe burst, causing thick, gray sludge to snake into homes in Dungridih village and cover part of a road there, as well as carpet many residential front yards. Five months afterwards, record rains caused one of the tailing ponds to overflow into Talsa village. P. Dubey, a UCIL spokesman, told the Hindustan Times: “The radioactive waste flowing through the village is harmless, as incessant rains have diluted the intensity of radioactivity of the waste.”
Jardine told Washington, in a new cable on June 6, 2008 — four months before the U.S.-India nuclear pact was signed — that still another epidemiological study had concluded “indigenous groups … living close to the mines reportedly suffer high-rates of cancer, physical deformities, blindness, brain damage and other ailments.” He noted that UCIL “refuses to acknowledge these issues.” Jardine wrapped up: “Post contacts, citing independent research, say that it is difficult to point out any reason other than radiation for the apparent human and environmental problems at Jadugoda.” He criticized UCIL for not alerting communities living downstream about the February pipe burst and added: “The Indian nuclear establishment will have to adopt more transparent safety policies and procedures if it seeks to expand its capacity.”
The epidemiological study that Jardine referred to was written by Dr. Shakeel ur Rahman, of Indian Doctors for Peace and Development, a not-for-profit research group in Bihar. His team interviewed 2,118 families around the mines in May and June 2007 and found that those who lived closest had the best education, the most wealth, and a significantly higher incidence of “congenital deformities, sterility and cancer.”
K.S. Parthasarathy, a former secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the industry’s safety watchdog, wrote to most of India’s national newspapers to dispute the research, claiming it had not been peer reviewed and relied on “cherry picked” data.
In August 16, 2008, yet another uranium waste pipe burst, this time inundating eight houses in Dungridih where the toxic slurry formed an ankle deep carpet, before pouring into the river. UCIL declined to comment, however a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Regulation Board, responsible for safety, and supposedly an independent body, said in a statement issued to reporters then that “uranium ore in these mines are of very low grade …. We checked the radiation level soon after the leak. It was much below the normal range.”
That same year, UCIL won an award from the Director General of Mines Safety, coming in second place among contestants throughout India. In 2013, it also received the Golden Peacock Global Award for Corporate Social Responsibility from India’s Institute of Directors, a national group of 35,000 business executives at India’s best known companies.
No government institution acted until last year, when the Jharkhand High Court in Ranchi ordered an inquiry into congenital diseases, mainly among children near the mines, after reviewing local coverage on the issue. But Chief Justice R. Banumathi said that “given the sensitivities surrounding the corporation, and the role it plays, that investigation is to be internal.”
Activist and former miner Birulee was furious. “They claim national security prevents any outside forces vetting them,” he said. “But given how long they have prevaricated, and the cost of these delays to the population, how can we trust them to inspect themselves?”
In response to detailed questions from the Center, UCIL’s spokesman and director both declined comment about its internal epidemiological and radiation studies, or about the court case. But its reputation hasn’t exactly suffered since the judicial inquiry began. Greentech, a Delhi-based, corporate-backed nonprofit that campaigns for industrial safety, last year complimented one of its mines for its “training excellence” and gave other operations commendations for safety, innovation and environmental policies, as well as its “compassionate outreach work.” Last year, UCIL’s chairman, Diwakar Acharya, was decorated, again by Greentech, as an “outstanding HR Oriented CEO.”
Last July, Acharya, who has been with the company since 1988, gave a rare interview to Bloomberg News, in which he dismissed the epidemiological and radiological studies pointing towards a link between radiation exposures and disease patterns. Radiation levels in the area are “quite low and short duration exposure has no adverse effect on health,” he said.
Commenting on reports connecting the mines to birth defects, cases of sterility and disabilities, Archaya said “I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of those [disabled children and sick adults] are imported from elsewhere.” He added: “See, what happens is, you say you are a specialist and you’ll come and treat. But all you do is, you are convinced UCIL is evil and you have come here only with the sole motive of finding reasons which would validate your preconceived notions.”
Another senior UCIL official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Center that everything happening in the mines was tied to the Bhabha Directive, an aspirational credo for the nuclear state named after Homi Bhabha, an Indian nuclear physicist considered the father of its bomb. “Radioactive material and sources of radiation should be handled … in a manner, which not only ensures that no harm can come to workers … or anyone else,” Bhabha wrote, “but also in an exemplary manner so as to set a standard which other organizations in the country may be asked to emulate.”
Around the villages of Jadugoda and out in the flood plain of the Subarnarekha River, however, residents told us repeatedly these words had lost their meaning. “Inside UCIL, they see themselves as under siege, defending the nation, one atom at a time,” Biruli said, “and outside … we are absorbing those atoms and whatever else the corporation spews out from its broken pipes and dams. We’re drinking it all up, feeding it to our kids, and our wives, if they can conceive, are absorbing them into their blood stream.”
This story was co-published with the Huffington Post.
Adrian Levy is a London-based investigative reporter and filmmaker whose work has appeared in the Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, and other publications. His most recent books are: The Meadow, about a 1995 terrorist kidnapping of Westerners in Kashmir, and The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.