Uranium mining: Will India's atomic needs spare those in Meghalaya's Domiasiat?

Shillong: Domiasiat is at the centre of the Uranium mining debate in Meghalaya again. A debate that many wrongly assumed the side of environmentalists, non-governmental organisations and the local communities had won when in the later half of the last decade they’d managed to halt mining activities.

But lo and behold, an ugly head has risen. Again.

An uranium mine. Image courtesy UCIL

An uranium mine. Image courtesy UCIL

There is a sense of helplessness and angst among the thousands of Khasis who are fighting helplessly against what they perceive to be complete injustice at the hands of the government. The Uranium Corporation Of India Ltd, a public sector enterprise under the Department of Atomic Energy, has been vigorously pushing for the mining of uranium.

While the objective of the government is to procure all of the uranium for its nuclear activities, the goal of the people of Domiasiat, Wahkaji and Thyrnai in the West Khasi Hills District of Meghalaya is a much simpler one. All they are hoping for is that road and that school and that health centre and those inconsequential jobs and that minuscule amount of money. What they do not want is the radioactive gas to spread through the air, the vegetation and water to be contaminated in the process and no sooner than it begins than the whole population of the area are going to be affected. In its pure form uranium is very dense and weighs about 19 grams per cubic centimeter. A 1,000 kg of ore would have to be processed to produce 1 kg of the element.

What this means is that a huge quantity becomes waste and because of their chemical composition the reality of pollution is that much more pronounced. The mill tailings, which are the discarded wastes, are contaminated with some of the most toxic heavy metals and radioactive elements. One of these radioactive materials happens to be radium-226 and it decays into radioactive gas.

Is this a classic example of the government flexing its muscle against a community too poor to know the difference between superficial talk and harsh realistic consequences? The sheer disregard for human lives means that officials who would have otherwise been too lazy and too ignorant to lift a finger are now going out of their way to pave the way for the mining of uranium and leaving no stone unturned at that.

On 24 December, 2006 in Jaduguda, Jharkhand, an accident occurred when one of the pipes carrying radioactive wastes from the uranium mill to a tailing pond burst, and thousands of liters of radioactive waste spilled into a nearby creek for nine hours before the flow of the radioactive waste was shut off.

The proceedings of an International Workshop in Lisbon, Portugal in 2004, on a study of Environmental Contamination From Uranium Production Facilities And Their Redemption by the International Atomic Energy Agency produced rather alarming results. A study of miners who worked in poorly ventilated mines at a time when the hazards of radon were not known and thus had been exposed to high levels of radon, demonstrated that this group had an excess of lung cancers and that the risk of cancer increased with increasing exposure to radon gas.

There is also the added fear of not knowing what to actually look out for and be careful of. The fight against the mining of uranium in Meghalaya has non-governmental organisations at loggerheads with the state and opportunistic associations of people who cannot see beyond the promise of money. While the objective of the fight is to protect people and the environment, more often than not it does get clouded and eventually the focus shifts away.

Updated Date: Sep 10, 2016 20:11 PM

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