Saturday, Jan 14, 2012, By Gangadhar S Patil | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

After being in denial for years, the department of atomic energy (DAE) has for the first time admitted that the deaths of its employees at the Kalpakkam nuclear site and their dependents were because of multiple myeloma, a rare form of bone marrow cancer linked to nuclear radiation.

In response to a Right to Information (RTI) query in October last year, the DAE said nine people, including three employees working at the Kalpakkam atomic reactor, about 70km from Chennai, died of multiple myeloma and bone cancer between 1995 and 2011. The department had earlier refused to divulge information despite an RTI query in 2010.

The risk to the lives of people working at the nuclear facilities at Kalpakkam came to the fore in 2003 when two of its employees — Mohandas and Ponniah — working at the reactor died of multiple myeloma after being exposed to nuclear radiation. DAE officials then denied that the deaths were because of overexposure to radiation.

While two people were detected with multiple myeloma when they were working at the reactor, another was found to have the rare form of bone marrow cancer after retirement. The RTI query revealed that 14 people, including 11 family members of employees at Kalpakkam nuclear facilities, have been detected with multiple myeloma and bone cancer between 1995 and 2011.

Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) officials, however, claim that there have been no deaths due to exposure to radiation at Kalpakkam. They even said the figure of people affected by radiation at the nuclear facilities was lesser than the national average of 1-4 per 1 lakh people.

“The figure of three employees at Kalpakkam having multiple myeloma during 16-17 years is not higher than the normal prevalence of such form of cancer among others, in India or abroad,” BARC said in its response.

Experts, however, said it was a faulty comparison and that it was not possible to compare such sensitive data to the national average. As per international standards, cancer cases because of radiation are computed by comparing people living in proximate villages to those living in villages far away from the nuclear facilities, said Dr V Pugazhenthi, a physician who has been practising in Kalpakkam for 20 years.

Going by international standards, a DAE-funded study by Dr Manjula Datta shows that the number of people in proximity to Kalpakkam nuclear facilities suffering from cancer is a cause of concern. DNA is in possession of the report that was never made public.

The report states that cancer cases in villages close to Kalpakkam are seven times higher (210 per 1 lakh people) compared to just (30 per 1 lakh people) in distant villages. Morbidity levels in areas near the nuclear reactor are 2-3 times higher than normal. The study covered 22 proximate villages (within 8km radius) and three distant villages (50km from the reactor site).

“Several cases of cancer due to nuclear radiation have come up in the vicinity of the Kalpakkam nuclear reactor, but they were never reported. Even when they were reported, the government refused to acknowledge them,” said VT Padmanabhan a researcher in health effects of radiation and member of the European Commission on Radiation Risk.

“Dr Datta’s report is one of the best independent surveys carried out to date. Going by its data, it is clear that radiation causes cancer.”

Data sought from the DAE under a separate RTI reveals as many as 244 Kalpakkam employees and their dependents were detected with various types of cancer between 1999 and 2009. Most people affected were in the 41-60 age group and included men as well as women. During 2000-2010, 19 cases of thyroid diseases were detected. Experts said thyroid diseases are common among people living in and around nuclear reactor sites.

BARC officials, however, said the 244 cancer cases and mortality rates among Kalpakkam employees were not different from those seen among the general population.

Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd officials did not respond to questions mailed by DNA to their official ids despite several reminders.