India plans to source a quarter of its energy from nuclear power by 2050. But this ambitious goal could come at a cost. Radioactive waste from uranium mines in the country’s east is contaminating nearby communities.
It’s a hot summer afternoon in Jadugoda, a small town in eastern India. Four women wearing saris sit in a circle in front of a mud house, with smooth white walls and pink borders decorated with small shards of mirror.
Nearby, a woman pumps up water from a tube well. She then beats a miner’s uniform that belongs to her brother. He works nearby, in the uranium mines.
Suddenly a gust of wind blows black dust from the mines into the courtyard. The women cover their faces and rush to cover the pots of water so they don’t get contaminated.
Local activist Kavita Birulee says the villagers here are terrified of the radioactive waste. In Jadugoda, rates of cancer, miscarriages and birth defects are climbing. Birulee says she herself was thrown out of her home after suffering two miscarriages.
“My husband abandoned me. I was called a baanjh, which means sterile or infertile. I was dragged out of my in-laws’ house,” she said. “Uranium waste has ruined my life. This has made us social outcasts. Now, people are hesitant to marry their boys to Jadugoda girls.”
Just 40 years ago, Jadugoda was a quiet and lush green locality with no dust or radiation pollution. The people here lived a quiet rural life. But things changed when the Indian government started mining operations here in 1967.
Radioactive waste generated by three nearby government-owned mines has caused serious health-related problems in Jadugoda. The mines belong to Uranium Corporation of India Limited – or UCIL. They employ 5,000 people and are an important source of income for villagers in this relatively remote area. But the waste has put 50,000 people, mostly from tribal communities, at risk.
A recent study of about 9,000 people in villages near the mines has documented cases of congenital deformities, infertility, cancer, respiratory problems and miscarriages.
Nuclear scientist Sanghmitra Gadekar, who was responsible for conducting the survey on radioactive pollution in villages near the mines, says there was a higher incidence of miscarriages and still births.
“Also, laborers were given only one uniform a week. They had to keep on wearing it and then take it home. There, the wives or daughters wash it in a contaminated pond, exposing them to radiation. It’s a vicious circle of radioactive pollution in Jadugoda,” he said.
Social tensions on the rise
Besides health problems, the unsafe disposal of radioactive waste has given rise to new social divisions in the tribal heartland. Women from the Ho, Santhal, Munda and Mahali tribes, for example, are both sick and socially excluded. Jadugoda girls, who were married in far off places, are being abandoned by their husbands.
UCIL, for its part, has never admitted that there is any radiation pollution in Jadugoda. Instead, the company says they have raised the standard of living in this area. UCIL corporate communications head, Pinaki Roy, said that uranium ore found in Jadugoda is of low grade.
According to the Department of Atomic Energy, the plant needs to process 1,000 kilograms (2,205 pounds) of ore to extract 65 grams (2.3 ounces) of usable uranium. This produces large amounts of radioactive waste when it is mined.
‘What other option do we have?’
Worker safety is also a serious challenge. UCIL does provide safety gear, but not enough information about exposure, critics say. So, when workers return home, their families are exposed to radiation.
“There have been several problems. Everybody suffers from gastro-enteritis here,” a worker told DW on the condition of anonymity.
“We know about the hazards of working in uranium mines,” he said. But people here are still willing to risk their lives to make a living, he explains.
“Which one is more dangerous, death by starvation or death due to illness?” he asked. “Disease will kill us slowly, but how many days can you survive without food? If we don’t work in these mines, what option do we have?”
The mines are on the doorstep of the area’s largest city, Jamshedpur. If radiation pollution isn’t controlled, more people will be affected in the future. Local officials, however, are proud of their role in India’s nuclear defense industry.
Anti-nuclear pollution activist Xavier Dias has been trying to alert locals about the dangers presented by the mines.
“When you are talking about Jamshedpur, you are talking about a thousand ancillary industries, a huge population,” he said. “These are dust particles that fly around. They enter the water, the fauna, flora, the food system. And they are killers, but they are slow killers. They kill over generations.”