Price Of Uranium Mining

Uranium, Cancer and Jadugora

Pradip Dutt

When Uranium ore is mined, the miners risk exposure to radon and radon daughter products resulting in the danger of developing lung cancer. In the 30's researchers strongly pointed to the possibility that airborne substances containing radioactivity in uranium mines were the reason for the excess lung cancer mortality among uranium miners.

As early as in 1546, in the Hartz Mountains of Central Europe miners of uranium ore showed an unusually high frequency of fatal lung cancer. Two researchers, Marling and Hesse demonstrated both clinically and anatomically that the real nature of the pulmonary disorder among uranium miners of Schneeberg, Germany was malignancy of the lung. This happened in 1879. Subsequent reports confirmed that 50% of the uranium miners of this area and of Joachimsthal, Chechoslovakia died of lung cancer.

Lung cancer development among the US miners on the Colorado Plateau and miners in Czechoslovakia were investigated separately by researchers in a number of papers four decades ago. At the Wismut mine and mill in the Hartz Mountains, workers and their families suffered high levels of lung cancer and silicosis. There is evidence that 6,000 to 9,000 people may have died of lungs cancer due to radiation exposure. On the other hand, 15,000 workers may have died of silicosis as a result of exposure to high levels of dust.

Radon is gaseous. It is a natural member on the group of elements known as noble gases due to its extreme non-reactivity with other chemical elements. Uranium ore contains radium. As soon as a radium atom decays by alpha particle emission, it becomes a radon atom that behaves as a noble gas. In turn this gas becomes a radon atom that behaves as a noble gas. Finally this gas decays into radioactive solid products. When radon and its daughter products are breathed in, much of the daughter products are retained in the lung and finally decay in the lung. The radiation dose is primarily form the daughter products of radon rather than from the radon itself. The alpha particle emitting daughter products are short lived—Polonium-218 and Polonium-214. The extent to which the daughter product alpha panicles gel to the sensitive cells of the intermediary bronchi is the main concern.

Knowing fully well the causal relationship between exposure to radon and its daughter products and lung cancer mortality, the US nuclear establishment intentionally exposed workers to it during the 1950s. Some of these miners were even made the subjects of a study for understanding effects of such exposure without their consent. This exposure led to the higher rates of lung cancer. In 1990 a law came into effect in the US to compensate the affected miners. About $140 million (in constant 19 dollars) have been paid to the victims.

According to a report prepared by US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, studies of underground uranium miners have raised the concern that an increased risk of cancer mortality may persist even if miners are exposed to radiation within the "safe Limits" (the then safe limit 5 rem). Current estimates of lung cancer risks are four times greater than that of almost forty years ago, when the limits were adopted.

So long as uranium decay products decay deep in the earth, without access to surface water, they cause no harm. Bu as they move to the surface of the earth and are converted into a form which is much more accessible to water and thus enter into the water supply system they adversely affect health of the people.

When uranium ore is brought to the surface and is treated to remove the uranium (85 to 90 percent)  the remains in the process include all those members of the decay that are also present in the ore. When the residue from the milling of uranium is dumped into the tailing pond two radioactive elements with very high half lives—thorium-230 (80,000 years) and radium-226 (1602 years) still remain active.

In the early seventies, people of the United States learned about the total mismanagement of the tailings (sand like residue remaining after removal of approximately 85% of uranium ore) from uranium mining and milling. During 1940s and 1950s tailings were assumed harmless for using as a construction material to build homes and as a variety of other buildings in Grand Junction, Colorado and in other places. Tailings were used as fill for building foundations and sometimes as an ingredient in concrete. In the late 1970s Axelson and Ending demonstrated association between lung cancer risk and living in homes having high levels of radon and its daughter products. There was an increased incident of congenital deformities among the new born in those houses. Acute leukemia rate increased more than double at Grand Junction than that of the state. A programme of decontamination of 600 such buildings started in 1983. The bill for cleaning up of more than 600 buildings in the city was above 17 million dollars.

Nearby community suffers two additional hazards from the tailings piles. First, the pile material may be used as construction material. Secondly, the wind blows dust from such tailings piles in the locality. These increase health risk for the individuals living in the locality. On the other hand, at the surface of tailings piles there is little opportunity for radon to become diluted by admixture with outside air. So radon levels are quite high at the surface and as a result children are most susceptible to cancer induction. If one kilogram of uranium is dumped into tailing ponds, 3.3/10000 of radium 226 (half life 1602 yrs) will be present there. Metals like lead, zinc, manganese, cadmium, arsenic, molybdenum etc can also be found in the tailings. The heavy metals present in the tailings of course, vary from site to site.

Since 10-15% of the uranium still remains in the tailings 10-15% of all daughter products will also remain in the continuing decay of the uranium. 85 to 90%of daughter products have lost their uranium present which is being transformed into yellow cake (uranium oxide-U308). But radium is not lost, because it is replenished from thorium-230, which has a half life of 80000 years. Also it produces radon gas. The radioactive and toxic exposure from mill tailings contaminates water severely.

On November 6, 1989 Chief Ed Bonanie of Lac La Hache Indian tribe was flying over Collins Bay uranium mine, Canada. When he looked down, what he saw horrified him. Two million litres of dirty runoff water containing ten times of allowable limits of radium were escaping from a pipeline into the nearby lake from which a small Settlement including members of his own tribe drew their water. According to Bonanie, if he hadn't been flying over the site, the spill could have gone on indefinitely. Earlier the mine management had claimed that such spills were impossible due to having alarm system. It was then found that the system had been disconnected in 1985, and although the site had been inspected by the inspectors of the Canadian atomic energy authority, the disconnection of the alarm system was never detected. Later information showed that there had been more than one spills every month in the Canadian uranium mines.

In India in 2011 a trailer carrying a container loaded with uranium ore concentrate was partially damaged after it collided with a vehicle on NH 16 near Kambakaya junction of Narasannapet village in Andhra Pradcsh. Traffic on the highway was stopped for about three hours. The police cordoned off the area as a precautionary measure. The container was later moved from the spot. The ore was being shipped from the Jadugora mines in Jharkhand to the Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad. Incidentally, this place had witnessed a similar accident about four years ago, on July 25, 2007, when a container carrying radioactive yellow cake from Jadugora overturned while trying to avoid collision wiith an on-coming vehicle.

Jadugora is the first uranium mine of India which started operations in 1967. Processing plant is located close to the mine. Two other mines have been opened later—Bhatin, Narwa-pahar. The ore from Bhatin and Narwapahar mines is also processed here. Thereafter more mines were opened—Turamdih, Bagjata, Banduha-rang and Mohuldih mines. Uranium ores from these plants are processed in later established Turamdih Processing Plant. Besides these mines uranium reserves have been found in Andhra Pradesh at Cuddapah district and construction of an underground mine has started. All these are run by Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL). But the mining activities of UCIL in the Khasi Hills were fiercely opposed by the local tribals protesting against potential health effects.

In Jadugora uranium mill, uranium ore is crushed, grounded down to a fine sand mixed with large amounts of water and chemicals. The chemicals include concentrated sulfuric acid and lime. These processes remove about 85 to 90% of the uranium but very little of the other radionuclides. For each ton of ore mined, less than half a kilogram of yellow cake is recovered. Thus 999.5 kilogram of ore bearing rock ends up as waste. These tailings look like liquid mud. After being treated with lime to reduce the solubility of other heavy metals present, liquid tailings are pumped into the tailings ponds nearby.

Health effects of uranium mining have been reported in the Indian press repeatedly. Children of the locality were seen to play on the abandoned dry tailings pond. There have been reports of congenital deformities among the children around Jadugora. Contaminated waste from tailings ponds escape through nearby Gurba River to the Subarnarekha river. Hundreds of prima facie cases of adverse impact on health in the Jadugora uranium mining and milling have been reported. But atomic energy authorities are yet to conduct a proper health survey.

On Aug 30, 1999, the Indian Supreme Court issued notice to the Union Government and three others on a public interest petition seeking a direction to take immediate steps to insulate people living in the vicinity of the Jadugora uranium mine in Bihar from the hazards of untreated effluents and pollution of uranium mining.

The other respondents to whom notices were issued were the UCIL, Atomic Energy Commission and Deputy Commissioner of Singhbum district. But ultimately the plight of miners and local people have not yet changed.

In 2001 and 2002, Hiroaki Koide from the Research Reactor Institute at Kyoto University performed field trips to monitor environmental impacts of the Jadugora uranium mine. He monitored external gamma dose rate, radionuclide concentrations in soil, and radon concentration in air. His main conclusions are as follows—the soil surrounding the tailings ponds is contaminated by uranium. Particularly high contamination levels were found in the village of Dungridih that borders tailings pond No 1, Radon emanated from tailings ponds etc spreads contamination. Waste rock from the mine used for construction material spreads contamination. Uranium concentrate is dealt with carelessly and was found dispersed at Rakha Mine railway station.

A survey by the Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD). affiliated to Germany-based International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) in association with JOAR has come out with some bare truth, regarding health hazards faced by the miners. The survey was conducted between May and August 2007, in two different phases. While one survey concentrates on villages within the radius of 2.5 km from the mines, a similar one was undertaken in villages about 30 km from the mining areas. A total of 2,118 households were there in the first category, while another 1,956 households were studied in the second category. According to the survey, children—about 9.5 percent of the newborns—are dying each year due to extreme physical deformity, primary sterility is becoming common with 9.6 per cent of women not being able to conceive even three years after marriage. Cancer deaths in nearby villages are about 2.87 percent which is far above normal and 68.33 percent people are dying before the age of 62. A couple of other studies including that of Anumukti study had similar findings.

In August, 2014, Jharkhand High Court directed the Centre to constitute a technical committee of scientists and experts to examine the quantum of radiation due to uranium mining in Jadugora and sought a report within three months. UCIL told a division bench that there was no radiation in the area as mining was done within set parameters. However, the bench, which was hearing a PIL initiated by the court suo moto based on a news report published in an English daily, was not convinced.

Chief Minister Hemant Soren said, "Children in many villages close to the uranium-bearing Jadugora region are born with congenital disability, which is a matter of grave concern for the state." He also highlighted other adverse effects of mining—displacement, damage to the environment, long-term effect on livelihood of the locals in absence of a proper compensation policy and contamination of underground water sources.

On December 25, 2006, the tailings pipeline of the tailings dam No. 3 broke, spreading tailings into a tributary of river Subarnarekha. Jharkhandi Organization Against Radiation (JOAR) along with villagers held a road blockade to protest against the spill. UCIL then started cleaning up the tailings spill. According to UCIL, the spill was caused from damage of the rubber lining and metal of the tailings pipeline due to prolonged use, and comprised 6-8 tons of solids and 60 cubic metres of liquid. On April 10, 2007, the spill was caused from damage to the rubber lining of the tailings pipeline by a wooden log left inside the pipe during replacement, and comprised 1.5 tons of solids and 20 cubic metres of liquid. On February 21, 2008, a new tailings pipeline burst near Jadugora, caused uranium mill tailings spill that reached nearby homes. According to UCIL, the spill comprised about 40 cubic metres of liquid.

During flash floods in June 2008, radioactive uranium waste dumped into a tailing pond reportedly spilled over into nearby village ponds, wells and fields, and destroyed crops as well. UCIL authorities admit that radioactive waste is flowing into villages. Residents of nearby villages have stopped using water from their ponds and wells, fearing health problems. Villagers have complained that the nuclear waste had destroyed a large amount of crops. The radioactive waste would also have a harmful impact on the soil. On August 16, 2008, a new tailings pipeline burst near Jadugora, caused a uranium mill tailings spill that reached nearby homes. UCIL has agreed to rehabilitate the 26 families affected by the radioactive waste that spewed in Dungridih. The UCIL has also proposed a modern village in its leasehold area, besides along with other facilities.

In March 2015 again tailings pipeline which carries uranium mill tailings to tailings pond burst in Chalikocha. UCIL started cleaning process only after protests from JOAR.

Vol. 48, No. 9, Sep 6 - 12, 2015