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India: Radioactive Minerals and Private Sector Mining (V T Padmanabhan)

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  • Harsh Kapoor
    Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay, India) October 26, 2002 Commentary Radioactive Minerals and Private Sector Mining The proposals of three state
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 31, 2002
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      Economic and Political Weekly (Bombay, India)
      October 26, 2002

      Radioactive Minerals and Private Sector Mining

      The proposals of three state governments to lease the mining rights
      for monazite-ilmenite to private parties need a thorough debate on
      all aspects with regard to the release of radioactive elements,
      storage and safety of wastes, and impact on the environment and food
      chain, before the plans are pushed through.

      V T Padmanabhan

      The governments of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Orissa are planning to
      lease the right for mining monazite-ilmenite found in abundance in
      the beach sands of their states. The candidate for the lease in
      Kerala is Cochin Minerals and Rutiles (CMRL), incorporated two years
      ago. CMRL plans to process the monazite at its own facility, Kerala
      Rare Earths, to be set up at Kayamkulam, 20 km north of the mineral
      belt. Monazite contains thorium and uranium, which are strategically
      important minerals. Their transport and processing cause
      environmental hazards and the radioactive elements generated will
      have to be contained for millions of years. Since 1948, the right to
      mine and to process monazite has been vested with Indian Rare Earths
      (IRE), a public sector undertaking of the Department of Atomic Energy
      (DAE). This note deals with some related questions that need to be
      addressed before any change in the status quo.

      The beach sands of Karunagappalli taluk in Kollam district in Kerala,
      Colachel taluk of Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu and Gopalpur in
      Ganjam district of Orissa have among the richest monazite deposits in
      the world. Besides monazite, the sands also contain ilmenite, rutile
      and zirconium. The Indian monazite deposit was identified by
      Schoneberg, a German chemist, in 1909. In earlier times, monazite
      used to be added as an adulterant with coir fibre to increase the
      weight of coir. Schoneberg chanced to see the shining sand in a ship,
      that had transported coir from the west coast of India. The
      enterprising chemist sailed to the ports of origin and set up his own
      export venture.

      Monazite is an orthophosphate of thorium, uranium and rare earth
      elements like cerium and lanthanum. Thorium, the main ingredient in
      the gas mantle, was then supplied by Brazil. After Schoneberg¹s
      discovery, Brazil lost its monopoly of monazite. Since then private
      companies started exporting monazite from Travancore. With the growth
      of the electricity sector, gas mantle industry stagnated and for a
      while monazite lost its economic significance.

      Thorium derives its name from Thor, the Scandinavian war god. Thorium
      (Th232) and uranium (U235 and U238) are radioactive (or unstable)
      elements; they emit energy in the form of alpha/beta particles or
      gamma rays. This process is known as radioactive decay. As a result
      of the decay, these heavy, unstable elements lose their mass and
      become lighter elements. This process continues till they decay to
      lead (Pb214), which is a stable element and is not radioactive.

      With the advancements in nuclear physics made during the 1940s,
      thorium and uranium assumed strategic importance. There are three
      isotopes of uranium found in nature, namely, U234 U235 and U238. Of
      these, U235 is fissile, a neutron can split its nucleus. Such
      splitting, known as nuclear fission, generates heat, more neutrons
      and fission products which are radioactive and of lower atomic
      weight. Carbon14, strontium90 and cesium 137 are well known fission
      products. The devastating effects of an atomic bomb and the heat
      generated in a nuclear power plant are the results of nuclear
      fission; the latter occurs continuously in a controlled environment,
      while the former is instantaneous and uncontrolled. Uranium235 is the
      only fissile element found in nature

      . Other radioactive elements such as thorium232 and uranium238 are
      known as fertile elements. A fertile element can be turned into
      fissile material by neutron bombardment. For this, they are kept as a
      blanket in the core of a nuclear reactor. These elements capture a
      neutron when uranium235 in the reactor core undergoes fission.
      Thorium232 and uranium238 kept in the Œblanket¹ is transmuted into
      uranium233 and plutonium239 respectively. Uranium233 and plutonium239
      are fissile elements, which can be used to generate nuclear
      electricity or to produce an atom bomb.

      Even before independence, Indian nuclear physicists visualised the
      possibility of setting up nuclear power stations for the
      modernisation of the country. India¹s uranium deposits are limited
      and of poor quality. At the same time, thorium is found in abundance
      in the country. The sand also contains zirconium, which is used in
      the fabrication of uranium fuel pellets. Considering their nuclear
      potential, the government of India in 1948 excluded all private
      mining companies and took over the monopoly right for mining of
      uranium and thorium-bearing minerals. Uranium Corporation of India
      (UCIL) and IRE were incorporated in the same year.

      Thorium-fuelled reactors are known as fast-breeder reactors (FBR).
      There are two stages in the thorium fuel cycle. In the first stage,
      thorium is kept as a blanket in the core of the reactor fuelled by
      uranium. During the fission, thorium absorbs a neutron and transmutes
      itself into uranium233. In the second stage, U233 is used as the
      fuel, again with a blanket of thorium232. Here again, U233 undergoes
      fission, while the blanket absorbs a neutron and turns itself into
      U233. They are known as breeder reactors, because while generating
      electricity, they also Œbreed¹ fuel for future use.

      Research in breeder technology is conducted at the research reactors
      ŒPoornima¹ and ŒKamini¹, at the Indira Gandhi Reactor Research
      Centre, Kalpakam, near Chennai. Plans are afoot to set up a 500 Mw
      (E) Prototype fast breeder reactor at Kalpakam. Environmental impact
      assessment for this has already been started in August 2001. After
      assessing the functioning of the prototype reactor, the government
      intends to set up several such units in the country. According to the
      DAE, the breeder reactors will be the mainstay of India¹s nuclear
      programme and commercial energy production.

      Biological hazards of radiation can be of two types ­ external and
      internal. Gamma rays, X-rays and beta particles can penetrate the
      dead outer layer of the skin and damage the cells inside. Such
      exposure may lead to cell death or damage to the DNA of the cell. The
      damaged cells may divide like normal cells, but they grow without any
      logic (or with a logic of their own). Such growth ultimately ends up
      as tumour. If the damage occurs to the germ cells like the ova or
      sperm, the children to be born will suffer from genetic disorders.
      Internal radiation occurs when a radioactive element is inhaled or
      ingested. Radioactive elements discharged into the land or water are
      concentrated by the plants and fish growing there. They travel up in
      the food chain. Each higher organism accumulates greater quantity of
      radionuclide than those below it do. Once lodged inside the body, the
      element is not eliminated easily. It becomes a source of continuous
      irradiation. There are strict guidelines for discharging radioactive

      Present Mining Scenairo

      Under the provisions of the Atomic Energy Act 1962, IRE owns mineral
      sites in all the three locations. The deposit in Kollam district is
      also exploited by a state government enterprise, the Kerala Metals
      and Minerals (KMML), which manufactures ilmenite and synthetic
      rutile. By an order in 1970, the state government divided the entire
      stretch of mineral deposits into eight blocks and had allotted
      alternate blocks to IRE and KMML. This does not violate the 1962 Act
      because the strategic minerals, i e, monazite and zirconium, are
      handed over to IRE and KMML. Ilmenite and other non-strategic
      minerals extracted from the blocks allocated to IRE are exported.
      Monazite from Colachel and Kollam is sent to the rare earth division
      (RED) of IRE, located at Eloor near Kochi in Ernakulam.

      The products of the chemical division are thorium hydroxide, rare
      earths (RE) chloride and trisodium phosphate (TSP). TSP is sold to
      soap manufacturers within the country, RE chloride is exported
      (mainly to Europe and Japan) and thorium hydroxide is kept at the
      factory compound itself. RE chloride is a compound consisting of 14
      elements (also known as lanthanides), starting from cerium to
      lutetium. Since the 1990s, IRE has been producing individual salts
      such as samarium oxide and neodymium oxide.

      As of now, no other nation has a breeder reactor programme. The only
      breeder reactor, Super Phoenix, located in France was closed down two
      years ago for safety reasons. In the international market, thorium is
      not a highly prized commodity. Its use is limited to the manufacture
      of gas mantle, which is not a growing industry. As it is not fissile,
      thorium cannot be used in an atomic bomb, until it is converted into
      uranium233 in a breeder reactor. The fissile materials for bombs
      (uranium235, plutonium239 and uranium233) can only be amassed by the
      states, and not by any terrorist group with no fixed address.

      At the same time, military scientists have found novel uses of
      radioactive elements in warfare. For instance, the armour and
      ammunition of the US Army¹s Abrahms II and the British Army¹s M1A1
      tanks, which devastated Iraq and Bosnia, were coated with uranium238,
      also known as depleted uranium (DU). This increases the penetrating
      power of the missiles, while contaminating the land with
      radioactivity. The contamination of land and water bodies in Iraq is
      killing several hundred thousand children and adults. Some military
      personnel of the US army who were also exposed are now fighting a
      losing battle against their government for compensation and

      Yet another military use has been projected for radioactive elements.
      This is the radiological bomb, which uses RDX or TNT for explosion.
      If the bomb is also laced with radioactive waste, it is possible to
      contaminate enemy territory. Though the explosive yield and killing
      potential and immediate casualty figures will not be different from
      those of conventional bombs, a radiological bomb can cause long-term
      public health problems, which are comparable to that of the atomic
      bomb. The high-level wastes generated during the chemical processing
      of monazite are candidates for radiological bombs. Besides the
      states, people with no fixed address can also manufacture these
      bombs. Since September 11, 2001, the US government has been
      anticipating a radiological attack. IRE produces about 90 tonnes of
      highly radioactive waste a year, good enough to make all the aquifers
      in the country unusable for a couple of thousand years.

      Environmental Impact

      The mineral belt is almost an island, with the Arabian Sea to its
      west and the Ashtamudi-Kayamkulam backwaters to its east. This is a
      low-lying area. During the monsoon, sea erosion is rampant,
      destruction of houses and properties in places close to the sea has
      almost become a routine affair. According to studies conducted by the
      Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS), Thiruvananthapuram, mining
      has contributed to the intense sea erosion in the taluk. Setting up
      another mining company will intensify the erosion.

      There are about 40,000 people, the majority of them artisanal
      fisherpeople, living in the mineral belt. In order to ply their
      trade, they have to live closer to the sea. If the land is submerged
      or remains inaccessible due to sea erosion, they will lose their
      livelihood. Neendakara is an important fishing port in the state
      accounting for more than half of the marine products exported from
      Kerala. The impact of intensified mining and the resultant sea
      erosion on the fisheries has not been studied.

      It is often argued that the mineral itself is radioactive, the mining
      and processing do not cause any addition to it. This is true. At the
      same time, mining and chemical processing introduces physical and
      chemical changes. For instance, on the beach the concentration of
      monazite, the radioactive mineral, is less than 1 per cent. After
      mining, the sand passes through mechanical and magnetic separation
      units. The monazite pile will have monazite alone and the
      radioactivity there will be a hundred times more than that at the
      beach. At the chemical division, the sand is powdered in a ball mill.
      Then it passes though sodium hydroxide, hydrochloric acid and barium
      sulfide. The waste products are either in liquid, viscous or fine
      powder form and their chemistry has been altered. Fish cannot ingest
      monazite in the water, whereas all the products at IRE are
      water-soluble and can travel up in the marine and human food chain.

      As per international regulations, a radioactive substance has to be
      kept isolated from the environment for at least 10 half-lives. Among
      the main radioactive elements generated at IRE are thorium, uranium,
      radium and mesothorium. The half-life of thorium is 4.5 billion
      years, that of uranium is 1.38 billion years. The half-lives of
      radium (Ra226) and mesothorium (Ra228) are 1600 years and 6.7 years
      respectively. The latter is considered to be deadlier than plutonium,
      if ingested. According to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
      classification, these are ŒClass I Highly Toxic¹ substances.

      Monitoring Issues

      Currently, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) is looking after
      the health and safety of nuclear installations in the country. AERB
      is not an independent, statutory body. Its chairman is appointed by
      DAE and the regulatory staff are on deputation from BARC. The
      pollution control boards or inspectorate of factories have neither
      the expertise nor the equipment for monitoring of radioactivity. A
      private company is unlikely to have even matching resources to keep
      the sophisticated equipment and highly skilled scientific staff to
      monitor its own toxic load. With no agency to monitor and control, it
      is very likely that highly toxic radioactive waste will be discharged
      into the backwaters and the sea.

      This is the first instance of an industry of strategic importance
      going to the private sector, that too in the hands of a newly set-up
      company with no experience or expertise in dealing with radioactive
      materials. Thorium and uranium have strategic importance; they can be
      used as nuclear fuel. Uranium233 and plutonium239, which are the
      byproducts of the nuclear fuel chain, can be used in the manufacture
      of atomic bombs. Other radioactive wastes like radium and mesothorium
      can be loaded in conventional bombs to turn them into radiological
      bombs. These wastes have to be immobilised and stored for
      thousands of years. Can a company with limited resources and no
      history of dealing with such toxic materials be expected to spend
      huge resources for an unlimited time? Or will they not opt for the
      easier path of throwing their waste into the commons? Or hand it over
      to the merchants of death for a price?

      Currently, RE chloride is the main product of IRE. It has a steady
      export market, the workers are being paid properly and the company is
      running on a profit. Globalisation and mergers of big corporations
      have had a negative impact on the health of IRE. According to its
      management, the future of the industry is not all that bright. CMRL
      is an Indian company. As per its published accounts, it does not have
      the capital required for setting up the mechanical and chemical
      separation plants, which are technology-cum-capital intensive. Five
      years ago, two foreign companies Westralian Sands and Rennison
      Goldfield Sands ­ had unsuccessfully attempted to get mining rights
      in Kerala. Will the same or other foreign firms step in, once CMRL
      attains the lease? Rare earths do not cater to the consumer market.
      As such, demand for the products cannot be manipulated. Competition
      from the new entity (which is very likely to be eaten up by a
      multinational) will automatically ruin IRE. If IRE were defeated,
      there is going to be an environmental catastrophe in Ernakulam and
      the Periyar-Vembanad lake-Arabian Sea ecosystem. IRE has an estimated
      6,000 tonnes of thorium hydroxide and other high-level, long
      half-life wastes, all stored up in three silos and a series of
      concrete trenches. The entire complex is so intensely radioactive
      that the radiation levels on the road outside the factory wall, right
      up to the neighbouring factory (FACT) measured above 500 mR/year,
      which is more than four times the background levels. Once IRE is
      closed, who will be responsible for the wastes? As of today, the
      government of India, through the Department of Atomic Energy is
      responsible for the safe-keeping of radioactive waste generated by
      the nuclear facilities and production centres. Which means there is
      democratic control, at least in theory. Corporations are not
      accountable to the parliament.

      Thorium and uranium are strategic minerals. They can be used in the
      nuclear fuel chain (breeder type), which is projected to be the
      mainstay of commercial electricity generation in the country. Their
      neutron-irradiated products can also be used as bomb material. Their
      transportation and chemical separation have a colossal impact on
      workers and the environment. The wastes generated during the chemical
      processing of monazite need to be kept under safe custody for
      thousands of years. If they escape into the marine environment, they
      will travel up the food chain, causing death and disabilities among
      millions. If they land up with a terrorist network, they can be used
      for making radiological bombs, whose long-term public health
      consequences will be comparable to the ones in Hiroshima-Nagasaki.
      Monitoring, control and containment of radioactive sources is a
      capital and science-intensive venture. CMRL does not have the capital
      or experience or human power required for this. Intensification of
      mining at low-lying lands in the coastal belt will lead to sea
      erosion, loss of habitat and livelihood of the traditional
      fisherpeople, who have been settled there for well over 20
      generations. Well before leasing the mining right, the actual
      location of the proposed chemical processing plant also will have to
      be announced and its environmental impact assessment completed.
      Leasing of mining right should not be considered without a full-scale
      debate on all these issues.

       © Copyright 2001 The Economic and Political Weekly. All rights reserved.
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