Uranium mining in Gogi: Central Ambitions and State Responsibilities

January 31, 2012

by Arati Chokshi

Background:

Responding to India’s aggressive nuclear expansionist policy, and the resulting high demands on the necessary fuel supply of Uranium-235, Uranium Corporation India Limited, UCIL, in 2007, initiated a project for mining Uranium in Gogi village, of Yadgir District in Karnataka. Gogi lies in the Bhima river basin and is primarily an agricultural area with subsistence farming and food production. It is irrigated by the Shahapur Branch Canal and has availability of ground water supply – although the increasing population in the region (22% growth in the last decade) has put enormous stress, especially on the water resources of the region.

The UCIL project was based on earlier exploratory studies for Uranium which indicated that Gogi contained 4000 tonnes of relatively high grade uranium of 0.1% – richer than any ore previously mined in the nation. The UCIL proposed to mine this Uranium using a shaft mine 5 m in diameter, reaching 220m deep, over a period of 15 years. At a processing unit, proposed to be set up in nearby Diggi, the ore would be milled and further processed using alkali leaching method, most suitable for Uranium extraction in this particular ore composition; the resultant sodium diuranate or yellow cake would finally be transported 250 km to Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad for further processing.

To carry out this project, UCIL wants to acquire 238 acres of land, needs 1 million litres of water per day and 8100 KVA of power from Gulbarga electricity supply company to run its operations. It will employ about 361 people for this project (http://www.deccanherald.com/content/203318/state-gives-green-signal-uranium.html)

Dangers of Uranium Mining:

While all large mining projects are damaging to ecologies and man, Uranium mining is particularly hazardous on following counts:

* The concentration of Uranium in ores is usually around 0.1% – ie Uranium is rare. For comparison, mining iron becomes economical around 25%Fe. Thus, a vast amount of rock has to be mined for uranium extraction.

* This ore is radioactive. Even after extracting uranium, the remnant material (called tailings) retain 85% radioactivity of the original sample. Containment and managing large tailing ponds poses one of the most severe problems in Uranium mining. The radio-toxicity of the material will last tens of thousands of years and pose a severe health hazard. No solution is available globally for dealing with such hazardous waste – usually the approach is only to diminish the effects by proper containments – these too have not been tested over the lifetime of waste products. Leaching into soils and aquifers poses a real danger.

* Fine dust particles from the milling process can travel to great distances. A Greenpeace report on uranium mining in Niger indicates that although radon is short lived (3.8 days) it can still travel between 10-100km. Radioactive substance like Thorium get absorbed and find their way into the food chain, posing an increasing hazard as it bio-concentrates as it travels upwards in the food cycle.

* Ore processing involves milling and aggressive extraction techniques using highly toxic chemicals and is water, energy intensive. The processes also add to the burden of greenhouse effect.

* Uranium ore frequently occurs with pyrites which, when exposed to air and water, become sulphuric acid and penetrate into the acquifers, and is intensely toxic.

* Additional health hazards to humans occurs due to inhalation or ingestion of radio active nuclides and associated heavy metals leading to cancer, congenital deformities, disabilities and death, infertility, kidney and liver problems etc.

Current Status in Gogi:

In July 2011, the UCIL project was approved by the High Level Clearance Committee of Karnataka. Even prior to this, as early as in 2007, work had already begun on sinking a shaft mine. Based on a visit made to the area last month, and speaking to the authorities and personnel at the site, it appears that the mine has already reached its target depth and the tunneling work was in progress. Because Gogi is a part of the Bhima river basin, the shafting work required continuous pumping of water using 30hp pump (24×7) from 2007 onwards, which was pumped out of the UCIL leased mining area and fed directly into the lower, primary water tank of the Gogi village.

In a typically high handed manner, UCIL conducted all this work prior to following normal, established procedures or obtaining relevant clearances required for the project approval. Appropriate public information, consultation and redressing of concerns especially related to safety and health issues, which are relevant in any Uranium mining project, were severely by-passed. Mecon Ltd., a private operator of considerable disrepute was employed to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment report, which was then submitted by the pollution control board for obtaining a MoEF clearance for the project. This report was not made available to either the public or independent experts and was denied to the media (even under RTI act applied by Deccan Herald). In fact this report, which is required to form the basis for public consultation, did not form any part of the discussion that was held under the auspices of the District Commissioner, in November 2010, as part of the public hearing for environmental clearance.

Environmental Impact:

One of the key purposes of an EIA report, especially when mining hazardous and radioactive uranium, is to record the state of environment about to be adversely effected and to provide clear guidelines for the reversing the damage caused, on completion of the project – to be carried out by the mining company. The expected lifetime of the Gogi project is 15 years.

Even a cursory perusal of the poor EIA report of Mecon Ltd indicates a high degree of incompleteness in issues addressed, lack of rigour in data collection and analyses and a complete lack of responsibility towards a subject of such gravity – both to humans and their environment. Glaring omissions include the watershed mapping of the region, which become relevant for the ground water contamination from ore processing; longer term monitoring of wind conditions – important for determining the distances covered by the milled dust particles with radio nuclides; measuring and monitoring the water quality, especially that continuously discharged from the shaft, for important radio nuclides and heavy metals; uranium and radon measurements in air and water, etc. Biodiversity and detailed recording of the current ecology are also missing from the report.

Further, very importantly the EIA report does not address the consequence of the enormous water budget of the project. UCIL claims this water will come from Bhima river which also provides irrigation for the agricultural lands in the region. Assuming a maximum and continuous water supply rate to the Shahapur Branch canal, the UCIL Gogi plant will require more than a third of that available from Bhima river that feeds not only Gogi, but all the surrounding regions.

What will happen to the farming communities if 1 million litres of water per day is siphoned off to UCIL – and who will pay this price?

Other Necessary Studies:

An important part of any such a large project should also include socio-economic-health surveys to establish baseline indicators.

In an agrarian community like around Gogi, the change in life and livelihood mechanisms that this project will effect have to studied – especially in the context to class, caste and economic indicators which greatly influence the outcome of any development project on a particular community.
Of particular importance is the health baseline survey to monitor the harmful effects of uranium mining – especially since the long term health hazards of Uranium mining are well documented in miners globally. In the Indian context, substantial body of work exists on the sufferings of people in and around Jadugoda, Jharkhand, where UCIL runs its oldest and a criminally irresponsible operation. Of note are the substantially higher documented cases of congenital deformities and deaths, lung diseases, cancer, fertility rates compared to control sample. It is interesting that these results by independent and international teams are substantially different from the findings of medical teams appointed by UCIL which find no adverse health effects of uranium mining in Jadugoda – contradicting decades of experience, globally.

In Gogi, people claim that they are suffering a variety of problems due to the water from UCIL shaft feeding for the last 4 years into their primary water tank. These are serious and worrisome allegations that need to be urgently verified and addressed. Waters in and around Gogi have high fluoride content and a nearby village shows arsenic contamination in its water. Villagers allege that the UCIL personnel themselves do not drink water from the region, buying instead bottled water.

Wider Perspectives:

Currently, India’s electricity generation forms only about 17% of India’s primary energy basket. Of the power generation, nuclear energy contributes only 2.6% of the total electricity.

According to Dr. S. K. Jain, Chairman and Managing director of NPCIL, India will need 7000 tonnes of Uranium to run the country’s proposed nuclear program per year.

Thus the total Gogi reserve of 4000 tonnes amounts to a little more than a half year supply to NPCIL’s anticipated annual needs – causing irreversible and immeasurably long term damage up to 100 km radius, to people, communities, societies and to the environments to which their lives are closely linked.

Recommendations:

1. It is urgent that an independent and multi-disciplinary task force of scientists and experts be set up to critically study and evaluate the EIA report and recommend points of action to be taken up – by Mecon Ltd., State pollution control board, and/or other responsible players. The task force needs to examine and critically evaluate other UCIL projects to assess the project’s potential human and environmental damage. It is especially crucial to assess the degree of responsibility that UCIL has so far demonstrated towards the project effected people, and what are its non-violable commitments in and around Gogi.

2. The various socio-economic-health-environmental-and radiation baseline surveys must be carried out, by independent agencies, before any mining activity begins, and important parameters monitored, to not unduly endanger the safety of people or environment.

3. Larger, wider and more democratic public consultations along with education campaigns are imperative and the least that should be immediately done – since it is people’s lives, livelihoods, safety and health at stake.

4. In all such large development projects, it is useful to weigh the sacrifices against the benefits while remaining conscious of who pays and who gains. The State govt. is ultimately responsible to not act against the interest of its own people, and it must be true custodian and guardian of the State’s resources, and the well being of its citizens.