Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive element used as a fuel to produce energy in nuclear reactors. Radioactivity is a phenomenon which occurs in a highly unstable atomic nucleus (like that of Uranium) wherein the nucleus loses its energy by emitting alpha, beta and gamma rays. Consider it as a car travelling at a high speed (highly unstable) with no brakes. Now if we have brakes, we can control it and speed it or slow down according to our requirements. This is roughly what happens in a nuclear reactor. We control the unstable atomic nucleus of Uranium in order to obtain energy. But then the good thing is that Uranium or any other radioactive material, as a matter of fact, does not possess any danger until and unless it is enriched (enriched via cleaning, purifying, extraction etc). We can use any radioactive material to generate energy but Uranium is preferred as we have developed enough scientific know-how to harness it cheaply and efficiently. Fun fact: A ton of coal produces the same amount of energy as of 7 grams of Uranium.
Currently, we have 7 active nuclear power plants spread across India. We have 5 other nuclear plants under construction and have planned for another 11. India currently produces 5% of its total electricity needs via nuclear energy and envisions to generate 25% of total demand via nuclear energy by 2050. That's a lot of energy and such huge amounts of energy require huge amount of fuel and the fuel being Uranium. Much of India's Uranium is imported from Australia, Canada etc as we don't have huge deposits. Importing nuclear fuel comes with a lot of strings attached and hence India finds it difficult to have a constant steady supply. Fortunately for India, we have found large amounts of Uranium in the mountainous region of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the NallaMallas. It's good to extract minerals and use it for the benefit of the nation but there are a couple of problems.
The NallaMallas are not barren lands, unfortunately. They are huge forests housing India's second-largest Tiger reserve occupying just 2% of India's total landmass. The Department of Atomic Energy has zeroed in the region of Amrabad reserve to mine Uranium. The Amrabad Tiger Reserve lies in the NallaMalla hills and is home to the Chenchu tribe, which, in the past was primarily a hunter-forest produce gathering community who now eke out their livelihood by largely working under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) program.
The National Green Tribunal has given green signal to mine Uranium in this region which means there is no stopping. Recently Prime Minister Modi along with Bear Grylls in the special Man vs Wild episode has mentioned that it is the need of the hour to protect the environment and that it is our duty to safeguard it. I find it highly ironical that Modi's government is contradicting his very own words. Although the government claims it would use non-invasive exploration which would not require felling of trees and not entering into forests but I highly doubt such a thing would ever be possible.
Mining at NallaMalla is equal to
1. Destroying the second largest home of our national animal.
2. Displacing the forest dwellers, The Chenchu's from their homeland.
3. Polluting the soil, air and sound in a biodiversity hotspot.
4. Possible contaminating the Nagarjunasagar reservoir which is just 2kms away.
Let us suppose we achieve non-invasive mining and everything goes fine but there is another persistent problem which is managerial. The Jaduguda Uranium Mines of Jharkhand posed a similar challenge as that of NallaMalla.
As reported by thecitizen,
"People in the area suffer disproportionately from congenital deformities, sterility, spontaneous abortions, cancers and a plethora of other serious diseases known to be caused by radiation and industrial pollution.
As you enter the hamlets located around UCIL’s mines and tailing ponds, where radioactive elements are dumped, the gory sight of deformed children playing innocently with their homemade toys meets your eyes.
Uranium is a sleeping monster. An estimated 99.28% of mined uranium ore is effectively waste - referred to as tailings. These wastes are very highly radioactive with a centuries’ long half-life. In India, the process of neutralising the toxicity of tailings is still done in a rudimentary manner, with simple lime, with the wastes carried through pipes to tailing ponds. In Jaduguda, though the tailings are treated at an effluent treatment plant for the removal of radium and manganese, solid radioactive matter settles in the ponds, allowing toxic iodine to vitiate the entire atmosphere. Radioactive elements also leak out of the tailing ponds and enter the earth and water during floods, affecting people, livestock, rivers, forests and agricultural produce in and around Jaduguda. Yellowcake or urania, processed from uranium, is the lifeblood of any nuclear programme. Jaduguda uranium ore can be enriched to 0.065-grade, making it highly valuable for nuclear power generation. The yellowcake produced Jaduguda is sent to nine nuclear reactors in India. To obtain about 65 grams of usable uranium, UCIL needs to mine, grind and process 1000 tonnes of uranium ore. The waste is thrown into the tailing ponds.
Since the mining is carried out at depths as great as 880 metres, the miners also endanger their lives.
According to an official estimate by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, nearly 3 per cent of Indians suffer from physical disabilities, with congenital deformity being one of them. In Jaduguda the rate is 50 per cent higher, at 4.49 per cent. Cases of impotency, frequent abortions, infant mortality, Down’s syndrome, cancers, thalassemia and other serious diseases have made Jaduguda their home. Some 9,000 people here - almost a quarter of the population - are suffering from congenital deformities, leukaemia, and various forms of cancer. Cancer deaths are commonplace here and do not surprise locals at all now. Now uranium mining is set to resume here, despite this public health catastrophe. Jaduguda’s citizens are slowly being choked to death before our eyes. "
This very ugly fact terrorizes me. I have no doubt in the scientific temperament possessed by our scientists but I doubt the way we manage things.
Cancer, abortion and deformed children are the cost of Uranium in Jharkhand. What about Andhra Pradesh and Telangana?