Radioactive hazards are not confined to our nuclear plants. They are everywhere, including Sterlite’s copper smelter, due to lax regulators, says Nityanand Jayaraman
LAST JANUARY, Australia declined India’s request for uranium supply citing non-proliferation concerns. But in the 20 months ending September 2010, Australia had supplied at least 2.2 tonnes of uranium to India as part of copper concentrates it exported to Sterlite Industries’ controversial copper smelter in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu. Tainted with up to 60 parts per million of uranium, these concentrates came with a contamination discount for the buyer. Sterlite saved more than $1.15 million by opting to import radioactive ore. The company has been importing concentrate since 1995.
These imports and handling of uranium- tainted concentrates, and the subsequent emissions from the copper smelter to air, water and land are not on the radar of Indian regulatory agencies. The exports don’t seem to have Australia’s authorisation either. In 2007, Australian miner BHP Billiton sought the government’s permission to export uranium-tainted copper concentrates to China. No such permission seems to have been sought for exports to India.
At a time when the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan is focussing our fly-like attention spans to the dangers of the nuclear cycle, the above anecdote suggests that more than just the dangers of radiation, we should be fearful of the lax enforcement of regulation in this country.
Uranium is a prescribed substance under the Atomic Energy Rules, 1984. Any person or company that handles minerals and other substances from which uranium can be extracted has to get a licence from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Handling of uranium-tainted substances should be in line with DAE’s licence conditions.
Sterlite has no such licence, and has not even intimated the DAE. Neither has the DAE proactively monitored the concentrate despite common knowledge that Australian concentrate is contaminated with uranium. This lapse has meant that workers handling the concentrates at the harbour and smelter are unaware of the hazards. The concentrates are transported through the streets of Tuticorin. So, it is not just the workers but also people along the thoroughfare that may be exposed. Waste disposal is not informed by the fact that emissions may contain uranium or other radioactive material.
NATURALLY OCCURRING uranium has low radiation activity. However, if ingested or inhaled, it is a chemical hazard to reckon with. In the body, uranium accumulates in the bones and kidney and can cause harm over time. Experts suggest that operations handling uranium-tainted material must be monitored suitably.
The Pollution Control Board, which has a mandate to regulate air and water pollution, does not have jurisdiction over the handling and emissions of radioactive substances. So its monitoring of air, water and soil is not geared to detect the presence of uranium or radon, the radioactive gas commonly associated with uranium.
Flouting laws, even being caught, is not only economically viable but cheaper than complying
Compounding our fears arising from the absence of robust regulators is the fact that Sterlite’s smelter does not even have a valid licence under Air and Water Acts to run its factory. Its licence lapsed in December 2009. The factory has not just been running since then, but has even declared to the Supreme Court that it is operating with up-to-date licences.
The regulators — namely, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) and the environment ministry — have said nothing to correct the record.
Sterlite is not the only large hazardous facility that is operating without valid licences. In early March, a major bromine gas leak in Cuddalore-based pharmaceuticals manufacturer Shasun Chemicals sent more than 100 people to the hospital. The factory does not have a valid licence from the TNPCB, and had at no point declared that it was storing bromine in the facility.
Violations of environmental laws are prosecutable offences. But regulators lack the will and the capacity to prosecute violators. As a result, flouting environmental and safety laws, even being caught occasionally, is not only economically viable, but is cheaper than complying with them.
If our system to check routine pollution is abysmal, our ability to prevent or react to disasters is non-existent. Emergency response is not merely a function of technology. It has to do with siting, planning, the setting up and maintenance of escape routes, an informed citizenry that is trained to react appropriately, an open and transparent administration that is capable of acknowledging and correcting mistakes, engineers that respect nature’s power, and builders and contractors that are honest.
The prime minister’s declarations that all is well do little to inspire confidence when regulators set up to enforce the law lack the independence, capacity, integrity and powers to ensure our safety.
Nuclear installations and other such ventures that set out to subjugate nature may never be made safe. But with India’s primitive regulatory regime and serious integrity deficit, even the most innocuous technologies can turn lethal.
Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based journalist and activist