On 2 August, 1939, in a letter to the then President of the United States, FD Roosevelt, Albert Einstein wrote: “Some recent work by E Fermi and L Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future.”
In the same letter, Einstein surmised, “This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable though much less certain that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.” Tragically, in 1945, the bombs made by the US were used to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to assist in the cessation of World War II.
The American bomb was built using African uranium. Countries that employ the metal for peaceful or military purposes have often looked beyond their shores to procure it.
When India launched its nuclear energy programme, with Homi Jahangir Bhabha as the principal architect, the first of three stages of the project was to rely on nuclear reactors using natural uranium for its fuel. India declared its nuclear weapons in 1998.
India has been surveying and exploring uranium since 1949. The Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD) undertakes survey, exploration and evaluation of uranium. The Uranium Corporation of India Ltd. (UCIL) is responsible for mining and processing of uranium ore. After the AMD completes the final exploration of uranium, it hands over its findings to UCIL, in Jaduguda, Jharkhand.
The corporation is the only establishment responsible for mining and processing of uranium ore for commercial purposes. The metal it extracts is used for weapons and civil nuclear programmes. (Imported uranium is used for civil nuclear energy purposes only. Citing ‘public interest’, the government does not disclose the exact quantity of uranium produced in India.)
But information about the country’s uranium reserves is available in the public domain; in response to a question in Parliament, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) informed the house on December 23, 2015 that “as of November, 2015, AMD has established 2,29,936 tonnes in-situ U3O8 (1,94,985 tonnes of uranium) reserves.”
The Jaduguda complex houses all the seven of India’s active uranium mines (and two milling units) - Jaduguda, Bhatin, Turamdih, Bagjata, Narwapahar, Mohuldih, and Banduhurang (barring the last one, the rest are underground mines). I visited the complex four times in the last two years to gather material for my research on uranium governance – the first trip was in May 2013. The heat in Jharkhand was intolerable.
A week before Parliament was informed of India’s uranium stockpile, Adrian Levy, a reputed investigative journalist, known in India for his book, the Deception that brought to light both known and unknown facts about the murky nuclear business of the Pakistani nuclear bomb, published an article on the Jaduguda uranium complex. It alleged that nuclear scientists employed at the site, and villagers living near it were exposed to risk from exposure to water adultrated with radioactive alpha particles.
UCIL countered the Adrian Levy’s article by denying that there was any alarming radiation level in and around Jaduguda. It found that his piece was predominantly based on past reports, which were not predicated on scientific fact. Meanwhile, the Indian National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued notices to UCIL, the secretary, DAE, the government, and the chief secretary, government of Jharkhand.
I find Levy’s article to be unnecessarily alarming. During my trips to Jaduguda complex, officials of UCIL and the Health Physics Unit Laboratory of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC), which monitors radiation level in the complex, took me to all those places mentioned in the article without hesitation. One of these was the tailings pond, which has frequently figured in headlines. It is where waste from the milling stations is deposited.
There are four ponds in the Jaduguda complex: Two are filled up and the others are still in operation. These ponds have natural hills on three sides and an earthen bund covers the fourth side. The UCIL says the “design features of the earthen bund is based on nature and quantity of tailings, local geological features, sustainability under abnormal situations like heavy rain, flood etc. Fine solids of the slurry settle in the pond. The overflowing liquid, through a set of decantation wells, is led to the Effluent Treatment Plant in concrete channels. Vegetation of Typha latifolia, Saccharum spontanium, and Ipomoea carnia has covered the non-operational tailings ponds.”
I was shown the readings of radiation on the pipe that carries slur as well as the area 20-30 meters from the edge of the pond. The readings of the level of radiation were compared to the natural radiation existing in several towns. There was nothing unusual. In fact, the government has submitted readings of the levels of radiation at different places in and around the Jaduguda complex to the Jharkhand High Court when a petition was filed regarding the radiation level in the area.
As the control of atomic energy lies with the central government, its body or delegated authorities such as the DAE, its body AMD and the UCIL undertake regulatory or other atomic energy activities. Yet, a number of other central and state-level institutions Ministry of Environment and Forests, State Pollution Control Boards, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), and Directorate General of Mines Safety regulate uranium related activities with the help of laws and regulations.
There are general laws and institutions meant to regulate industrial activities in general and other related activities. Self-regulation is the dominant philosophy of the Indian atomic establishment. Yet, the nuclear establishment codifies through mechanisms other than the 1948 Act, which was later replaced by the current Atomic Energy Act in 1962. This act was amended a few more times. The Atomic Energy Act 1962 designates uranium as a “prescribed substance”, and the use of “prescribed substances” is to be carried out in provisions of the Atomic Energy Act 1962, and the Atomic Energy (working of mines, minerals and handling of prescribed substances) Rules 1984.
India also regulates uranium with several laws, rules, codes and directives. These controlling regulatory mechanisms have evolved over the years. Currently, the Indian regulatory system categorises natural uranium as a Low Specific Activity (LSA)-1 material. AERB documents reflect publications and guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other multilateral and international bodies. However, if the AERB finds that IAEA codes and guidelines are inadequate for its purposes, it adds its own provisions. Some of the codes and guidelines for uranium too have such provisions. It is also responsible for safety reviews of transportation and training programmes.
India has to produce safe and risk-free uranium for its economic growth and security. But at the same time, anti-nuclear activists and writers don’t believe in those institutions created to guarantee that safety – regulatory bodies, monitoring authorities, or even the courts. To add, democratically elected governments will find it extremely difficult to simply ignore those people who live near or work in nuclear facilities. It is just as important to consider effects on the environment. Needless to say, an informed debate is required, but false propaganda only serves to hurt the country’s long-term prospects.
This article was originally published in First Post.