In August 16, 2008, yet another uranium waste pipe burst, this time inundating eight houses in Dungridih where the toxic slurry formed an ankle deep carpet, before pouring into the river. UCIL declined to comment, however a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Regulation Board, responsible for safety, and supposedly an independent body, said in a statement issued to reporters then that “uranium ore in these mines are of very low grade …. We checked the radiation level soon after the leak. It was much below the normal range.”
That same year, UCIL won an award from the Director General of Mines Safety, coming in second place among contestants throughout India. In 2013, it also received the Golden Peacock Global Award for Corporate Social Responsibility from India’s Institute of Directors, a national group of 35,000 business executives at India’s best known companies.
No government institution acted until last year, when the Jharkhand High Court in Ranchi ordered an inquiry into congenital diseases, mainly among children near the mines, after reviewing local coverage on the issue. But Chief Justice R. Banumathi said that “given the sensitivities surrounding the corporation, and the role it plays, that investigation is to be internal.”
Activist and former miner Birulee was furious. “They claim national security prevents any outside forces vetting them,” he said. “But given how long they have prevaricated, and the cost of these delays to the population, how can we trust them to inspect themselves?”
In response to detailed questions from the Center, UCIL’s spokesman and director both declined comment about its internal epidemiological and radiation studies, or about the court case. But its reputation hasn’t exactly suffered since the judicial inquiry began. Greentech, a Delhi-based, corporate-backed nonprofit that campaigns for industrial safety, last year complimented one of its mines for its “training excellence” and gave other operations commendations for safety, innovation and environmental policies, as well as its “compassionate outreach work.” Last year, UCIL’s chairman, Diwakar Acharya, was decorated, again by Greentech, as an “outstanding HR Oriented CEO.”
Last July, Acharya, who has been with the company since 1988, gave a rare interview to Bloomberg News, in which he dismissed the epidemiological and radiological studies pointing towards a link between radiation exposures and disease patterns. Radiation levels in the area are “quite low and short duration exposure has no adverse effect on health,” he said.
Commenting on reports connecting the mines to birth defects, cases of sterility and disabilities, Archaya said “I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of those [disabled children and sick adults] are imported from elsewhere.” He added: “See, what happens is, you say you are a specialist and you’ll come and treat. But all you do is, you are convinced UCIL is evil and you have come here only with the sole motive of finding reasons which would validate your preconceived notions.”
Another senior UCIL official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Center that everything happening in the mines was tied to the Bhabha Directive, an aspirational credo for the nuclear state named after Homi Bhabha, an Indian nuclear physicist considered the father of its bomb. “Radioactive material and sources of radiation should be handled … in a manner, which not only ensures that no harm can come to workers … or anyone else,” Bhabha wrote, “but also in an exemplary manner so as to set a standard which other organizations in the country may be asked to emulate.”
Around the villages of Jadugoda and out in the flood plain of the Subarnarekha River, however, residents told us repeatedly these words had lost their meaning. “Inside UCIL, they see themselves as under siege, defending the nation, one atom at a time,” Biruli said, “and outside … we are absorbing those atoms and whatever else the corporation spews out from its broken pipes and dams. We’re drinking it all up, feeding it to our kids, and our wives, if they can conceive, are absorbing them into their blood stream.”
This story is the first in a four-part series about india's civil and military nuclear program, co-published with the Huffington Post worldwide and Foreign Policy magazine in Washington, D.C. The other articles can be found here: https://www.publicintegrity.org/national-security/nuclear-waste.
Adrian Levy is a London-based investigative reporter and filmmaker whose work has appeared in the Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, and other publications. His most recent books are: The Meadow, about a 1995 terrorist kidnapping of Westerners in Kashmir, and The Siege: The Attack on the Taj, about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.