Kalpakkam, Tamilnadu, India
Midway between Chennai and Pondicherry, on a drive along the scenic east coast road (ECR), a slight detour after Mahabalipuram, a UN World Heritage site, lands one at the nuclear establishment of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), Government of India, at Kalpakkam. Right behind the site where the Pallava dynasty made a mark of its might by erecting sculptures and stone structures, the Indian government is at the task of building the country's first fast breeder reactor - a matter of pride for the atomic scientists of Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR).
Before anyone constructs an image of a supremely important looking group of engineers solemnly building a reactor in the laboratory, what is under construction is, in fact, a brick and mortar structure, put together by migrant labourers from Bihar, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. They live in 'quarters' provided by the construction contractor in a sun beaten barren stretch of sand between the atomic station and the Kalpakkam Township for employees of DAE. Emerging out of asbestos huts on a hot sunday afternoon, they nod their acknowledgement. "Yes, we are working on the Bhavani (the fast breeder reactor)," nods a young labourer from AP. "We have been working here for three years now, living out of these quarters, at a daily wage of Rs.250-350."
The quarters, branded Gammom or L&T, based on the contractor who has provided for them, are in fact, dormitories for single migrant workers, set up using asbestos sheets for walls and roofs. There are separate such 'dormitories' for men and women. "We have been told that we'll be leaving the site in another 3-4 months, for work at another nuclear site, I think," the man says. There are about 8-10 such contract labour settlements on the beach near the plant, housing about 300 labourers each.
Migrant labour is a recent phenomenon at Sadras, the village that stands at a distance of 3 km from the atomic station. A ruined fort stands at the entrance to the village, beyond which is the Kalpakkam residential township. "The contractors bring other state workers now because they know that the locals are aware of the problems in doing manual work at the reactor site," says Suresh Kumar, a resident of Sadras. "There are 5000 people working on the Bhavani, of which only 3 are locals." His brother Santhosh Kumar, 25, who was involved in the capacity enhancement job at the re-processing plant in the power station, developed a colon cancer last year due to which his excretory system has stopped functioning. His metabolic waste is collected in a cup attached to directly to his large intestine through his stomach, and disposed manually everyday.
"I spend about Rs.8-9000 every month in medical expenses, just to keep my cancer in check," he says. "We tried asking the department for compensation, but now, we have given up." He is only one of the many 'sudden job' workers who have been affected by such rare but critical illnesses in the village. A sudden job is a mechanical, civil or electrical job in the reactor site done, typically in 30-45 days, for the purpose of maintenance or system overhaul. It is for these jobs that the local fisher folk have been employed over the decades. A labour contracting system has developed over the years, with wages ranging from Rs.55-65 per day for women working outside the reactor, to Rs.400-500 for men working in the reactor.
"There has been plenty of such work going on in the plant for the past few years because of the capacity enhancement that started in the re-processing plant in 2006," a former atomic scientist at the Kalpakkam station said. The re- processing plant is where the spent fuel is segregated into concentrates for storage and dilute waste for disposal into the sea. It began construction 1982 and was completed in 1996. "The difference between fuel and spent fuel is
that the former contains only Uranium 238, while the latter contains Uranium as well Plutonium, which is produced only during reaction and has the longest half life - 29000 years," he said. "In other words, deposits of Plutonium are more dangerous because it takes a very long time for their radio-activity to subside."
"The concentrates which need to be stored in secure underground repositories have not found a site in the country yet, and so, are kept in temporarily surface facilities at the site itself."
A study done by Dr. Pugazhendhi of Doctors for Safer Environment (DOSE) in 2003 revealed the incidence of Multiple Myeloma, a very rare form of cancer of the bone marrow, in three residents of the village, in a period of 18 months. In 2007, he released a study on the occurrence of auto-immune thyroid disease among women in the reproductive age group of 15-41. According to the study, there was a 24% occurrence at a radius of 5 km from the plant, which reduced to 6% at a radius of 40 km and to 0.8% at a radius of 400 km.
"For each of such statistical evidence that we present, the department's only answer is that the radiation is well within the permitted levels and that all the necessary safety precautions are given for workers," Dr.Pugazhendhi said. "But, when you consider it, there is really no safe dosage of radiation. In fact, it has been published in reputed medical journals that prolonged exposure to low radiation levels is more liable to cause cancer than high levels of radiation. This is because low radiation causes undetectable damage in body cells which mutate into cancer over a period of time, whereas higher radiation causes detectable sudden damage which sets the body's defence mechanism to work, which then destroy the affected cells."
The atomic scientist said, "All forms of waste from the plant emit alpha, beta and gamma rays. Of these, the alpha rays are most lethal as they are in the form of particles that enter the body through its pores and settle in areas like the bone marrow, giving rise to long term uncurable complications. There are filters for these rays to a certain extent, but often there is non-compliance either from the contractor or the worker." He added that there are often complex reactions during the precipitation of such waste leading to formation of other lethal elements like Tritium. "Our test fast breeder reactor, FBTR, commissioned in the late eighties, uses liquid sodium for heat transportation. If this leaks it reacts with oxygen to form all kinds of compounds, the effects of which are unpredictable."
"However, I don't think there is any scientific reason to believe that the cancers in this area are caused by the radiations from the reactor," he added. It is true that there has been no scientific establishment of cause for the cancers and thyroid occurrences, except for statistical studies.
Santhosh Kumar turns indignant at this suggestion. "Thyroid, we have learnt, is caused by iodine deficiency in women who have consumed inadequate amounts of salt. Even if women here are malnutritioned, there is no scarcity in our diet of sea-water prepared dishes, dried, salted fish and rice!" Velmurugan, a sudden job worker till marriage, de-listed from his labour supplier (agent) after his wife delivered a child with stubbed digits (malformed fingers). "I commute to Chennai daily for my job now, but my second child was hale and healthy at birth," he says. K Nagooran, a fisherman turned community health worker says, "I do not know what technical means are possible to prove our point. But, why doesn't the department take the initiative to prove the opposite?"
"When I used to go fishing, lobsters were the speciality of this area. We used to catch about 15 tonnes of lobster per day and sell them at Rs.300-400 per kg.
But, we hardly see any lobsters around anymore," he says. Velu, another fisherman at Meyyurkuppam, a fishing village at the fringes of Sadras says, "Lobsters sell at Rs.1000 per kg now, only we can't catch any. At the most, we manage 15 kg per day." He lost his mother to cancer last week. His wife Bharathi complains of aches in her limbs everyday these days.
"Of course, there will be problems with marine life," the atomic scientist acknowledges. "We discharge our diluted spent fuel into the sea, and surface water fish like tuna can't take the radiation levels." In fact, the department itself suffered what it called the 'jelly fish problem'. Jelly fish, which were not indigenous to that area, were suddenly spotted in large numbers, attracted to the heat from the discharge. "We finally had to use anodic protection mechanisms to disperse the fish so our discharge mechanisms would function properly," the scientist said.
Whether there is scientific cause and effect established or not, discontent simmers across the dusty town, as scorching as the hot sun. In some places, discontent elevates to paranoia. "Soon after you leave, there will be a patrol from the department, asking us who you were, why you were here and what we told you," says Mr.Nagooran. "All in the name of national security." A former public relations officer of the IGCAR said, "Even I have seen this phenomenon. There was a hearing held by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board regarding the fast breeder reactor's proximity to Mahabalipuram, and we agreed to shift its location to a spot 6 km from the temples, according to their norms. But it got reported as a public hearing relating to health issues." He narrated how the annual safety drill conducted at the township often gets mistaken for an evacuation order due to some leak, at the village.
But, it is not difficult to see why such fear exists. The fishing community sandwiched between the plant and the immaculately built township, is unwittingly wedded to the nuclear establishment in their lives and livelihoods. Fishing is not a viable option as long as there is waste discharge, and there are no other industries for miles. But, their alienation from the department is socially stark. "When the plant first came up, they were employed in the company's rolls for manual work," the scientist said. "But, recently, we have had to cut costs too, and our independence for discretionary spending has reduced too. Whatever can be privatised or contracted, like transportation services or labour was done so."
The result is that while white collared employees benefit from the canopied township, it’s meticulously maintained roads and lawns, central government schools, and 24-hour water and power supplies, the labourers right at its gates are left to their own means with contaminated water, and air at the village. "The canopy of trees is very important as it absorbs most of the radiation," the scientist says. But, the village is as barren as can be. Most of all, while permanent employees have free access to the best of medical care at the DAE hospital within the township and its tie-ups with Apollo hospitals and Sri Ramachandra University in Chennai, the labourers receive no medical benefits, from the contractor or the department. But, once they acquire an illness, they become unfit to work in the plant to earn their living.
"There were some protests recently seeking access for labourers to the DAE hospital in the campus," said Rakhal Gaitonde, a community health practitioner at Tirukazhunkundram near Kalpakkam. "I have also worked with Uranium workers in Jharkhand. Though primary healthcare is quite good in TN, this particular area needs advanced medical care. The nearest tertiary care hospital is at Chengelpet, and that is also severely short staffed." Sadras does have a properly staffed primary health care centre, which has its hands quite full. "I prescribe pain killers and nutrition supplements for the aches in the limbs and fatigue that people here complain of, which is presumably caused by the radiation," the doctor at the PHC says. "But, when it comes to acute illnesses like cancer, I have to refer them to Chengelpet or Chennai or as far as CMC, Vellore, even for routine check ups."
"One understands that these are sensitive issues of national security. But there is a crying need for third party evaluation of technical and other conditions here," the scientist said. "But, this is not unique to atomic energy. It applies to thermal power units, cement companies, oil refineries, you name it!" It appears radiation is to Kalpakkam what automobile exhaust is to Chennai. It is there, it is harmful, but people live with it, as long as they are within acceptable levels. It is the safety net provided for such existence that is making all the difference.