Investigative report or collection of horror stories, unfounded allegations and flawed studies

Dr K S Parthasarathy

Recently, Mr Adrian Levy, a popular journalist published four articles on India’s Nuclear Program. The fusillade was not cost effective as the Indian media largely ignored them. Serial production compromised their credibility!

He based his article titled “India’s nuclear industry pours its wastes into a river of death and disease” (Center for Public Integrity, December 14, 2015) almost entirely on media stories on the alleged health effects in Jadugoda where the first Indian uranium mine and mill are located.

Some news papers have been publishing uranium mining- related horror stories which have absolutely no scientific basis, with such boring and regular frequency that specialists ignored them. I collected a few since 1987.

They  are human interest stories, spiced with melancholy and drama to scare the public by exaggerating the perceived or imaginary risks of radiation.

A common feature of these horror stories is photographs.

Telling photos have a killing effect. I have no quarrel with photojournalists or reporters if they do not attribute, without any scientific basis, every adverse effect they see to nuclear radiation. Macabre photos from Jadugoda are on tap. Reporters use them to spice up their articles!

Earlier, an NGO made the startling and frivolous claim that many women in Chattikocha village in Jadugoda had change in their menstrual cycle and had gynaecological problems and infertility! Since photo-journalists are helpless to photograph these “phenomena”, they looked for children born with one eye, disfigured face, twisted legs etc.

The United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation which publishes authentic reports on the health effects of radiation has never said that low dose radiation can cause such effects.

Adrian Levy deftly followed the path of his less well known professional brothers/sisters to write his articles.

Levy used the photographs provided by Ashish Birulee.  The International Uranium Film Festival (IUFF), an anti nuclear NGO popularized a photo exhibition titled “Jadugoda Drowning in Nuclear Greed” by Ashish Birulee.

IUFF spreads anti nuclear messages “through motion pictures containing soulful human stories.”  NEVER MIND WHETHER THEIR OBSERVATIONS ARE SUPPORTED BY SCIENCE OR NOT.

IUFF wins the emotional game because specialists knowledgeable in the health and safety aspects of uranium mining do not challenge them.

In the comments section of the Eurasia Review (January 15, 2016) which published my article Mr Norbert G. Suchanek, the International Uranium Film Festival General Director, argued that the International Uranium Film Festival is not an “Anti-Nuclear NGO” as stated by me.

“The IUFF is a globally well known film festival showing independent movies and documentaries about nuclear power, from uranium mining to atomic bombs, nuclear waste and radioactive accidents.” he clarified

In response I told him  that he  made the same comments when I wrote on how foreign NGOs fuel anti-uranium mining projects in India.

I reminded him of  the following offer I made:

“I shall be delighted to receive the scripts/videos etc explaining the benefits of nuclear energy as presented at the International Uranium Film Festival. My perusal of the programmes of IUFF did not reveal any one presenting pronuclear aspects of nuclear energy.”  “I am still waiting to get your response”, I   added

Since  the 90s when unfounded allegations of  adverse health effects due to radiation started appearing in news papers, Government of India set up specialist committees to verify the claims.

Twenty-six specialists including specialist-physicians, scientists and academicians, many of them from outside the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) carried out three separate health surveys in Jaduguda. In one such health survey, medical teams examined over 3000 inhabitants from nearby villages. Specialists concluded that the alleged health effects are not caused by radiation. Their frequency in Jadugoda is the same as that elsewhere in the country with similar socio-economic parameters / conditions.

The Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) which operates the uranium mines in India complies with the safety standards prescribed by the Directorate General of Mine Safety, the State Pollution Control Board and the Atomic Energy Regulatory BoardERB), in all its operations.

UCIL ensures that the radiation dose to workers and the radioactive releases from the mine and mill to the environment are within the limits prescribed by AERB. Radioactive  wastes from the uranium mill are impounded in tailings pond and are not poured into any river as recklessly alleged by Mr Adrian Levy.

Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) has set up an Environmental Survey Laboratory (ESL) in Jadugoda.  in 1965. They monitor the environment and have conclusively shown that the operation of the mine and mill has not led to significant increases in radiation levels in the surrounding areas.

BARC scientists routinely publish their studies in peer reviewed journals.

In so far as the safety aspects are concerned, Levy’s claim “of absolute secrecy that surrounds the nuclear sector”, is misleading and patently wrong.

I could effortlessly locate papers from the ESL in 6 journals and dozens of presentations in national and international conferences.  Levy ignored these publicly available data as they do not fit his agenda.

He liberally quoted the studies of a Japanese Professor Koide Hiroaki, known for his opposition to nuclear power for 40 years. Koide’s “paper” which gives the radiation levels he measured, is laced with political messages. If he had any academic inclination, he should have, at least referred to, and if appropriate, contradicted the findings in at least a few, of the many papers on the environmental releases at Jadugoda published by Indian scientists.

Koide’s admirers believe that he remained an Assistant Professor all his career because of his anti nuclear views; some humorless critics may argue that it was because he was unproductive in the assessment of the University.

Levy refers to a study by Professor Dipak Ghosh to argue that millions of people along the water- way were potentially exposed. Levy talks about the “toxic footprint” due to uranium mining.Dr. Ghosh measured humongous levels of radioactivity in water samples, much higher than those obtained by BARC scientists.

He followed a special method, not used by the US Environmental Protection Agency, European Union or Bureau of Indian Standards to estimate radioactivity in water.Most likely, it is a case of wrong calibration. It is a flawed study.

In a similar  instance, a professor used his own method to estimate uranium in teeth. His values were reportedly so high that other scientists felt that such teeth could be used as a source of uranium!

Estimation of low activity requires great care and extensive domain knowledge. ESL has been collecting data over several decades. They have participated in international inter- comparison programmes. Once Dr Ghosh and BARC scientists resolve the differences, Levy’s “toxic footprint” will dissolve in the waters of Subarnarekha River!

Levy published a picture of villagers washing vegetables in an ostensibly contaminated rivulet. I shall happily consume those vegetables as there is no excess radioactivity there!

Levy highlighted a few violations such as leakage of slurry from pipe lines, poor access control at the tailings pond, sloppy practices in transporting ore etc. The ESL staff estimated the impact of each of these items.

When there was leakage of slurry from the pipeline UCIL removed them. The residuals left were too small to cause any health consequence.

A person has to stand on the surface of the tailings pond for four hrs every day for 365 days to receive the dose limit allowed for public. A few hours stay over the tailings pond has no impact

While we must have concerns over these violations we should not go overboard.  Some activists want us to wash our mouth twice with water to avoid toxicity, just because we uttered the words “plutonium” or “uranium”?

Mr. Levy referred to one of my articles; he avoided its important conclusions as they may take a bit of sheen away from his story.

The Ploughshares Fund, the anti-nuclear US charity gave $20,000 (about Rs 1.2 million) to Indian Doctors for Peace and Development(IDPD),  an Indian NGO  to ‘support public education campaign, policymaker education and media work around the proposed expansion of uranium mining in India for purposes of nuclear energy and weapons expansion and the related public health impacts.’

The flawed IDPD study avoided peer review and got published in news papers with the blessing of the US agency which did not care about ethical niceties; the agency’s aim was to plant seeds of suspicion against uranium mining in the villagers and the public at large.

This writer’s follow up of the “study”, with the US agency, opened a can of worms.

An angry scientist who preferred to remain anonymous  asked two questions:

“When  Levy  lionized  S P Udaykumar , a  protest leader in Kudankulam, as most popular, he knew that  this anti nuclear icon lost his deposit in  the last Parliamentary election on the issue of  nuclear power ;  he got only  1.53% (15,314 out of 9, 90,737) votes.  Levy deliberately ignored this fact. Does it show a level of high integrity?”

“Without batting an eyelid, Levy ignored  many peer reviewed scientific papers  which gave the levels  of  uranium and radium in mine and mill effluents in Jadugoda; he had the audacity to highlight the data (probably wrong) from an obscure journal  as it could be used to promote  his skewed perception. Does it speak of high integrity?”

Honestly, I find it hard to defend Levy. Identifying Levy’s  motivations is beyond the scope of this article.

I have some conflict of interest to declare. I worked in BARC which monitors Jadugoda environment, before joining the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). As Secretary of the Board from 1987 to 2004, I had intimate knowledge of all the developments including ESL data. I was closely involved in the enforcement actions of the AERB.I have been helping the Department of Atomic Energy and AERB in many activities. My policy is to explain matters objectively based on accurate information. I place all arguments on the table. Discerning readers will sift the corn from the chaff.

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K S Parthasarathy

Dr K S Parthasarathy is a former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. He can be reached at [email protected]

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