6. Mysterious, Painful Diseases

Chapter 4: India, Malaysia, Korea
Part 1: Living in the Shadow of Indian Nuclear Development

The Department of Atomic Energy's Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) is located right next door to a densely populated area: fifteen miles northeast of Hyderabad, a city with a population of three million. All the uranium oxide mined and refined at Jadugoda is taken here.

The NFC is the department's pride and joy; the huge plant produces all of India's nuclear fuel requirements. In the opinion of the nearby residents, however, the complex is nothing but a source of mysterious, painful diseases that add to the burden of poverty that they are already saddled with.

Saritha. A girl, five years old. Her legs are twisted so badly she cannot walk but only drag herself along with her hands.

Sumalatha. A girl, three years old. Her arms and legs are very short, and she is mentally handicapped.

Sriramulu. A boy, six years old. He has been bedridden with an unidentified illness since he was three.

"If I were to give you the names of all the sick and disabled children in this village, we'd be here all day," said P. Ramulu, whom we met in Ashok Nagar, a village home to fifteen hundred people just across the road from the boundary fence of the NFC. The houses of Ashok Nagar were squat and identical, reminding us of barracks. "It's not just children," Ramulu continued. "Two men, aged thirty-one and forty, have recently died of unknown causes. Both of them worked at NFC, like I used to. Not only that," he sighed, "we've been told not to use the well water, too."

According to Professor Purushotham Reddy of Osmania University, who is also the chairman of an environmental protection group based in Hyderabad, the contamination of the underground water supply is not limited to Ashok Nagar. Eleven other villages in the vicinity of the NFC have the same problem, and the contamination is spreading day by day.

"The only possible source of the contamination is the waste storage pond, known as the lagoon, which is located in the northern part of the complex," he said. The pond works on the principle of natural evaporation from the heat of the sun. However, evaporation is impossible as fifty thousand tons of waste water are poured into it every day.

"Whether it's radioactive material or chemical waste, they have no proper system for safely disposing of it." Reddy is particularly concerned about the possibility of the underground water supply becoming contaminated by nitrates.

Ramulu gave us two examples of the negligence of the NFC regarding safety measures. On two occasions, in 1980 and 1982, the scrap heap inside the complex burst into flames, killing children who were playing there; four in 1980 and two in 1982. "At that time there wasn't even a fence around the complex," Ramulu added. "Not even adults knew it was dangerous, let alone children." According to Professor Reddy, the waste contained highly combustible zirconium. After the first accident, all the NFC did was change the location of the dump.

"They didn't put that fence up until after the second accident--it's just criminal." The professor's amiable countenance clouded over with anger.

Although the Department of Atomic Energy has forbidden the people of Ashok Nagar to use their well—the lifeline of the village—they have not replaced it with any proper alternative. Plans for a reliable water supply are still on the drawing board, and until they are put into practice the villagers must rely on a water tanker which only delivers every other day. No matter how much care they take not to waste the precious liquid, the supply is still not sufficient and the villagers find they have no choice but to dip into the forbidden well.

"As far as the NFC is concerned, we're nothing but insects to be trodden on," muttered Ramulu.