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What’s It Like to Live Near a Nuclear Facility in India?

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It ain’t great.

India’s nuclear chiefs have long maintained that ill health in the region is caused by endemic poverty and and the unsanitary conditions of its tribal people, known locally as Adivasi, or first people. But the testimony and reports document how nuclear installations, fabrication plants and mines have repeatedly breached international safety standards for the past 20 years. Doctors and health workers, as well as international radiation experts, say that nuclear chiefs have repeatedly suppressed or rebuffed their warnings.

The industry’s aim, according to local residents, has been to minimize evidence of cancer clusters, burying statistics that show an alarming spate of deaths. The case files include epidemiological and medical surveys warning of a high incidence of infertility, birth defects, and congenital illnesses among women living in proximity to the industry’s facilities. They also detail levels of radiation that in some places were almost 60 times the safe levels set by organizations like the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, although India’s Atomic Energy Commission, the country’s top authority, disputes these findings.

The Indian commission argues all problems at the nuclear complex have been corrected and that no cases of radiation poisoning have been proven. But the court files include compelling stories of how residents have been stonewalled and criminalized, and their communities strong-armed, to ensure that nothing gets in the way of India’s nuclear dream.

Poor conditions for those who work or live near nuclear facilities have been largely unchanged for decades. When we drove into Jadugoda, we quickly spotted laborers, barefooted, and without protective clothing, riding trucks laden with uranium ore through villages, their tarpaulins gaping and dust spewing. Ore was scattered everywhere: on the roads, over the fields and into the rivers and drains. Uranium tailing ponds that dribbled effluent into neighboring fields were readily accessible, and children played nearby as their parents gathered wood. Washed clothes hung from tailings pipes carrying irradiated slurry. Four months after we left, last March, some of these pipes burst, again sending toxic slurry into Chatikocha village, where residents were supposed to have removed, but remain.

This last paragraph is the real punch in the gut:

Two more inspections by doctors occurred later that month and a separate report that month signed by professors K.K. Singh and D.D. Gupta and printed on UCIL stationery warned that the toxic tailings ponds were unprotected and the site lacked warning signs about the dangers of radiation or other toxic substances, according to a copy seen by the Center. Cattle grazed freely around the poisonous ponds, while villagers gathered firewood beside them and children built sand castles from the toxic grit, the report said.

Toxic sand castles. Dang.

This is a pretty outstanding report by the Center for Public Integrity and the whole thing is well worth your time. American scholars discuss “sacrifice zones” for places where the government or corporations decide the people simply need to sacrifice for national gain (the downwinders in Nevada and Utah during atmospheric nuclear testing) or profit (Louisiana’s Cancer Corridor). This is the Indian version. The Indian government has prioritized its nuclear industry for years and operates it with high levels of secrecy. It simply doesn’t care about the people working in the plants or living nearby. Those deaths, while largely avoidable were the Indian government to do something about it, are a rounding number to government priorities.

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