18 mins read

Uranium Mining – Where the debate begins

Uranium Mining – Where the debate begins.

The Case of Jadugoda.

Xavier Dias

Article written for Ecologist Asia

In his village they call him ‘Tublu’, a football-loving boy. Last September he completed his home surgery with great aspiration. He is the first doctor from his Santal Adivasi[1] Community here in Jadugora. All through his studies he kept visiting his village assuring his community that he would soon return to work with them. Today (May 2000) Dr. Arjun Soren is a patient in a Cancer Hospital in Bombay undergoing treatment for ‘acute myeloid leukaemia’ his family cannot afford a possible life saving bone-marrow transplant.

There is no radiation in Jadugora -Asst. G.M. U.C.I.L.[2]. –to the villagers of Jadugora.

“The people are mixing up Jadugora with the radiation at Nuclear Plants!” -Mr. K.K. Beri Acting GM UCIL in an interview on Star TV News 13th April 2000.

“The permissible limits of radiation are now so low, that it could make sleeping with your spouse dangerous” -Mr. U. C. Mishra Chairman Health Physics Dept B.A.R.C.[3]

“Low-dose radiation may be good for health” A former Chairman of the DAE[4] (India) at an International Conference in London.

“You are considered good (scientist) if you can defend the Department (DAE)”. Dr. Gopalkrishna. Former Chairperson AERB[5].

Before we decide what is science, what is speculation, and what is defending the Department or the Industry, it is necessary to understand what actually happens at a uranium mine site.

Sealed within the earth’s crust are a number of radioactive elements, the moment this crust is removed e.g. mining, they come into contact with air or water (oxygen) and then they enter into the complexity of biological pathways and spread contamination far and wide[6].

Not just uranium alone

Uranium238 decays 14 times before it becomes non-radioactive lead. In addition to these 14 there, are 22 other naturally occurring radioactive materials from separate decay series[7]. Thus at any given time there are (14+22) 36 different radioactive materials at the mine site and not just uranium alone. When uranium ore is mined the uranium is extracted and the other radioactive material are left behind in the tailings at the mine site. Commercial they may be of little use, but from a health perspective they are dangerous. The time it takes for one radioactive material to turn into another is measured by the concept of “half-life”. It is the time taken for half an amount of a radioactive material to decay into the next material, e.g. thoriuim-230 has a half-life of 80,000 years. The full decay process takes over 250,000 years.

During radioactive decay two types of tiny electrically charged particles are fired off travelling very fast. They are Alpha and Beta. In addition to Alpha and Beta, highly energetic rays called Gamma rays are also emitted.

Radiation is dangerous because it can do great harm to a living cell by breaking its chemical bonds at random and disrupting the cell’s genetic instructions (DNA). This is one of the main ways of developing cancers. Radioactivity is released every time a radioactive material changes to the next material in its decay series.

Internal Radiation:

In uranium mining you have external radiation and internal radiation. Internal radiation is of particular concern, because most of the chemical emissions in uranium mining are from Alpha particles. In internal radiation Alpha particles like canon balls have less penetrating powers (unlike Gamma), but more impact.[8]. i.e. when they enter our body they settle in our lungs, kidneys, and other delicate parts and continue to bombard the cells. Radioactive particles pose the greatest threat to human health when they are inhaled or ingested. They are so microscopic that they can enter into the skin via the many sweat pores and hair follicles or through the food, water and air we take.

Radium-226 and Radon-222:

Noble laureate Marie Curie and her chemist daughter died from their exposure to radiation. Her husband Pierre died early in life, in an accident. Radium is one isotope in uranium mill waste that is especially dangerous. This is because it is harmful to life forms at low concentrations and it decays into the even more dangerous Radon222 gas. Besides this, as a chemical, radium is similar to calcium so when ingested it migrates to the bones teeth and breast milk and replaces the calcium. It is a bone seeker and is also readily taken up by vegetation. In aquatic plants it can be concentrated by factors of hundred or even thousands[9].


Radon and its progenies are known powerful carcinogenic agent; even small doses over a long time can cause lung cancer. Radon also dissolves easily in water and can thus be carried into the wells and ponds of surrounding habitations. Since mining discharges a lot of underground waters this is one of the chief ways in which radioactive waste enters the food chain and affects human health. Radon has a comparatively short half-life 3.8 days, but in this short time it can travel thousands of miles, and do immense damage.

The other question is their quantity. For the production of uranium massive tonnage’s of wastes in solid, liquid and gases are created, they contain radioactive isotopes –radiation-emitting elements, and as said earlier their decay process will take thousands of years.

What is happening in Jadugora?

80% of the world’s uranium is mined from the lands of the Indigenous People[10]. In India 100% of our uranium comes from Indigenous lands i.e. Jharkhand and Meghalaya. U.C.I.L. has three productive uranium mines: Jadugora, Batin and Narwapahar. All within a 5 k.m. radius. The ore is mined from underground (1600 ft). It is brought to the surface and through a process of leaching, ‘yellow-cake’ or uranium concentrate is manufactured at an on-site mill. The yellow-cake is transported to the NFC[11] in Hyderabad to be purified into fuel rods. The uranium is extracted leaving behind 85% of the other radioactive products, which are made into a slurry and pumped to the tailing dam.

The tailing dams:

Two tailing dams constructed on the rice fields of Telaitand and Dumridih village are now saturated, and a third tailing dam is being filled in adjacent Chatijkocha. While the rice-fields of these villages were acquired for the dams their homesteads school, vegetable gardens and water sources continue to be adjacent to the dams. To ‘save cost’ the dams are constructed with the radioactive tailings. Each constructed on 400 acres of land and are about 100ft deep. The innocent villagers continue to use them as thoroughfares, it being their traditional routes to the market etc. Children play there and graze their cattle. No standards have been met to construct them or control the radon emissions and hence they continually pose a constant threat to all the surrounding area including the city of Jamshedpur, which is just about 10 k.m. the way the crow flies. It was on these tailing fields that Dr. Arjun played football as a child, and became easy game.

In total disregard of International practice and norms, the dams have been constructed with no protective lining to prevent seepage of water into the underground. We do not know how much of the underground water is already contaminated and how far this water has traveled. A former USSR expert who worked in Jadugora and presently is in Kazakistan told me that the geology of this area is such (porous) that water would have reached very far. The Radon gas is continuously being exhaled from the dam site. Being an inert gas and heavier than air it keeps floating around the habitat carried with the winds up to 200-500 k.m.

Radiation spreading beyond Jadugora:

Overflow from the dam runs into the streams that feed the river Subarnarekha, which winds itself around the city of Jamshedpur before flowing through Bengal and Orissa into the Bay of Bengal, delivering radioactive laced water to a large human and animal population. According to Prof. N.K.Upadhyaya[12], this river was at one time the spooning ground for marine fish.

The mine and mill worker:

U.C.I.L. employ over a 4000 workforce (permanent). A majority of them work underground in heavily exposed areas with no protection. A few that are given protection i.e. gas masks, say that it is suffocating to use them. It must be noted that most of this ‘protective gear’ is designed for cold countries and not for the tropics. The Company does not do any mandatory health checks on the workers. When sick workers are tested, they are never shown the results. Very often workers with lung problems are diagnosed as having TB and sent to the TB Sanatorium. From there they are sent back with test results that they do not carry TB. They return home to a slow death. TB, Silicosis and lung cancers are unethically and deliberately being confused. UCIL has done no base line study, thus enabling the Company to make any bizarre claims[13], i.e. tribals are unhygienic, or have drinking habits etc.

Here is what Prof. N.K.Upadhyaya has to say At Jadugura, by careless dumping radioactive waste, and then having the concept of ‘safe level’ or ‘below permissible limit’, the whole of the surrounding environment, with an exposure time of 33 years has been effected, It can be observed in the following: –

a) About 30% of the families in the surrounding villages have the disorder/disease related with the ionised radiation.

b) Radiation has entered into the food chain.

c) Wild animals and birds have been effected.

d) Mutant varieties of fruits and paddy have been observed.

e) The radiation has magnified at least to the factor of 15 in hard tissue of aquatic organism.“

Contract workers:

There is a large segment of contract[14], casual and temporary workers. Most of them are displaced Adivasis. They are employed in the most dangerous places: the haulage and transportation loading and unloading and cleaning of the radioactive containers. The employment of this ‘floating’ workforce is monetarily advantageous; they do not maintain any records of these workers shielding them from criminal responsibility. Article 1to17 of the ILO C115 Radiation Protection Convention, 1960, are all violated here

At Batin Mines, the air vents of the underground mines, that pump out the air (and radon) are open and have become the recreation ‘resting sites’ where the workers go to cool themselves. It is not just a coincidence that 90% of the miners who are deputed underground are Adivasis.

India’s radioactive dump yard:

Waste from NFC Hyderabad and other Nuclear Centres in the country including radio medical waste is brought to Jadugora to be dumped. When J.O.A.R questioned this, the management responded by claiming that it is being brought for ‘further extraction’. A blind lie since Jadugora has no advanced facilities for ‘further extraction’. When J.O.A.R questioned the fact that radio-medicines were being dumped here, the management changed their tactic. The radio medical waste is now sent first to the mill where it is ground to pulp and then mixed with the slurry into the tailing dams.

Social problems:

J.O.A.R that surveyed over 2700 women from 14 villages, for a reproductive health study found out that the problem of deformities, miscarriages, abortions, still births is abnormally high[15]. Sterility is becoming common. As a result of which the position of women in Santal community is today being altered. More women are being deserted, polygamy is increasing. Apart from this the whole population is getting physically weaker by the generation. Fatigue and depression is common leading to mental illnesses.

Jharkhand’s Organisation Against Radiation:

For more than ten years the people have been organising and agitating. It first started when their lands were being taken for the construction of the third tailing dam. Unmindful of a Supreme Court order that no displacement could take place before rehabilitation, U.C.I.L. together with the Government Administration and its para military force bulldozed Chatijkocha village on 27th January 1997, for the construction of the third tailing dam. This was done with out warning, destroying their homes, desecrating the ‘holy of holy’ (Bithorova) within the homes and their ‘sacred groves’ (Jaherstan) of the village.

Realizing that jobs in the mines and cash are not at all compensations for the holistic lives they live they are demanding that UCIL comply with implementing the best known International Safety Standards.

Demands to the P.M.

Frustrated by the attitude of U.C.I.L. and the local administration, J.O.A.R on 5th April appealed to the Prime Minister and the Chairman of the Department of Atomic Energy to enter into a dialogue with them over five legitimate demands they have made. They include[16]:

Þ Stopping the import of radioactive waste into Jadugora.

Þ Rescue & relocating of people from the affected areas.

Þ Have some autonomous agency conduct a multi- discipline study on the impact of radiation on the community.

To date there is no response from the Prime Minister’s Office.

In a case filed by Advocate Dr. B L Wadhera in the Supreme Court of India the Company has denied all the facts, leaving J.O.A.R to now prove cause and effect, a difficult task for a community organisation[17]. Despite the fact that the Environmental Committee of the State Assembly has brought out a Report[18] that indicts UCIL


The method of storage and the improbability of a safe storage, for those thousand of years have an implication for our future generations and therefore we must not leave this to the politicians and the ‘managers’ of uranium companies. Radioactivity is especially dangerous since it can be created, but not eliminated. It attacks the living cells –the building blocks of all forms of life. More than 25 years ago, we have had this IAEA[19] warning that says ‘Here we have an industry, in which the number of deaths attributable to radiation, far exceeds that in all other parts of the nuclear industry put together[20]. Thus any debate on the nuclear issue should begin here at the mine site.

Uranium mining produces low level radiation, the effects of which don’t often manifest themselves until many years after exposure. Here is what Dr John Gofman[21] has to say: There can not be a safe dose of radiation. There is no safe threshold. If this truth is known, then any permitted radiation is a permit to commit murder[22]“.

When asked at a press conference “How do you think you can fight such a strong Industry?” Ghanshyam Birulee the President of J.O.A.R replied “In Jadugoda when people sick and dying, are ready to stand up and fight, we do not lack courage, but what we do lack are the skills and support of scientists, doctors, committed to a radiation free world.

[1] Adivasis are the Indigenous People of India

[2] Uranium Corporation of India Ltd. –A State monopoly uranium Company

[3] Baba Atomic Research Centre. At an International Conference on ‘Health & Environment’ CSE Delhi July 98.

[4] Depart of Atomic Energy. Government of India.

[5] Atomic Energy Regulatory Board

[6] Goldstick Miles. ‘Voices from Wallaston Lake’ Pg. 102.

[7] Uranium –235 and thorium-232 both change 11 times before becoming non-radioactive lead, and both are always found together.

[8] Xavier Dias. Radiological Pollution from uranium Mines – Jadugora. – 1998.

[9] Uranium a discussion guide. National Film Board of Canada 1991.

[10] World Uranium Hearing –Salzburg 1992

[11] Nuclear Fuel Complex..

[12] Environmental Biologist doing an env. impact assessment stydy in Jadugora . rajjan@satyam.net.in

[13] In the affidavit filed by Acting G.M. K K Beri, in the SC.

[14] In complete violation of the Contract Labour Abolition Act.1972

[15] This is well documented in the award winning film by KRITIKA & BIRSA and directed by Shriprakash “Buddha Weeps in Jadugora”

[16] The full demands can be had from J.O.A.R

[17] September 13th is the next date in court for J.O.A.R to reply to the denials of UCIL.

[18] A copy can be had from mm&P Regional office mmc@birsa,org

[19] International Atomic Energy Agency.

[20] Uranium Ore Processing. Proceedings of an Advisory Group meeting Washington DC Nov 24-25 75-IAEA P188.

[21] A luminary in the world of nuclear/physical chemistry &biology. In 60 he founded the Biomedical Div for AEC –US , when their conclusions did not please the AEC, they de-funded his research into Chromosomes & cancer.

[22] Gofman John. Radiation-Induced Cancer from low-Dose Exposure An Independent Analysis.