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Nuclear hazards

Published 23 Mar, 2015 05:50pm

From a distance, the place looks like a plantation. Up close, it is a rectangular plot of land, spread over rolling hillocks as far as the eye can see, dotted with low-slung acacia trees and bound by a fence of barbed wire. Beneath its clay surface are hidden hundreds of kilogrammes of what local residents say is nuclear waste. Right behind this ‘nuclear landfill’ is a sprawling compound, consisting of many abandoned military-style residential barracks, a functioning primary school for boys and a mosque. The barracks, all locked and sealed, contain hundreds of barrels of nuclear waste, claim residents of the area. Less than one kilometre to the south of these two sites are a few abandoned uranium mines, now submerged under rainwater. The barracks and the compound once served as residences for officials – and their families – who supervised uranium mining. According to claims by the locals, more nuclear waste is buried deep in the abandoned mines.

These three sites together sprawl over 1,200 acres of land now guarded by a contingent of a local tribal force called the Border Military Police. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) acquired the land in 1977 to mine uranium. With less than a kilometre from each of these sites are located about eight small settlements which together are called Baghalchur, home to more than 5,000 people. Located in the heart of Sulaiman Range about 40 kilometres north-west of Dera Ghazi Khan town, the area is quite easily one of the most backward places in Pakistan. Only a dirt track links it to Dera Ghazi Khan town and a couple of four-wheel vans that run only once a day each are the sole mode of transportation. There are no healthcare facilities in Baghalchur nor are there any educational institutions, except the primary school which operates right next to the dumped nuclear waste.

On the other hand, it is here that a part of Pakistan’s nuclear success story was created. Sources in the PAEC and media reports say that mines in the area were providing 25,000 kilogrammes of uranium ore, known as ‘yellowcake’ in nuclear language, every year to different plants and enrichment facilities working in connection with the country’s nuclear weapons programme. “Baghalchur provided large amounts of uranium to the country for its progress and safety but the only thing the local people have received in return is nuclear waste,” says Lal Muhammad Buzdar, a senior Baghalchur resident.

In November of 1999, the PAEC closed down the Baghalchur mines because they had run out of uranium deposits, media reports say. Since then, nuclear authorities have used the site as a dumping ground for nuclear waste produced elsewhere in the country, complain local residents. “Barrels containing nuclear waste brought from Dera Ghazi Khan, Mianwali and other parts of Punjab were initially dumped in the open,” says Buzdar.

In 2005, people from Baghalchur moved the district and sessions court in Dera Ghazi Khan against the dumping of the waste. The court later referred the case to the Supreme Court of Pakistan which in March 2006 ordered the then deputy attorney general Naheed Mehboob Elahi to contact the PAEC and submit a report to the court. “We do not know what happened next,” says Nazeer Chandio, one of the local people pursuing the case. “Did the deputy attorney general submit any report? And if he did, what were its contents? We do not know any of these things,” he tells the Herald.

They, however, noticed some things changing around them. The open dumping of the waste ended and instead the barrels were shifted inside the residential barracks and the abandoned mines while some waste was buried underground. “But such arrangements do not seem to stop nuclear radiation from polluting the surroundings,” says Buzdar. To prove his point, he says that health-related problems common in the area are mainly the result of radiation. Many newborns remain severely underweight; a number of children suffer from bone deformities and paralysed limbs; children, even animals, have abnormal growth on and around their faces and cases of cancer have increased manifold over the years, Buzdar says.

During a visit to the place in the middle of the last month, the Herald found many of these complaints to be genuine: Amna, a six-month-old girl, looked shriveled and drastically below the normal weight for a child of her age; Allah Bakhsh, a 10-year-old boy, had a limp arm; Nadeem, a six-year-old, had serious problems with his eyesight and was gradually losing his vision. An unusually high number of children and older people had some kind of skin growth around their necks and faces. Some cows and bulls also sported the same growth on and around their faces.

People in the area say these ailments exist only because they are living within breathing distance of what perhaps is the largest dumping ground of nuclear waste in Pakistan. They have made the same argument in their petitions to the courts. In one of these petitions, local residents claimed that more than “six people have died of cancer caused by contaminated air in recent years.” They have also stated in one of these petitions that “a large number of inhabitants [of Baghalchur] were suffering from breathing problems because of contamination caused by the [dumping] facility, while several goats, sheep and other cattle had died due to noxious air in the surroundings.” Similarly, “cows and bulls [have] also developed deformities because of eating polluted grass and shrubs and drinking [contaminated] water…” The rate of death among the local livestock has increased manifold, local residents tell the Herald. “Donkeys suddenly drop dead after consuming the leaves of trees planted on or close to the waste dumps,” they claim.

Local residents say the waste dumps endanger their lives and livelihood in many other ways too. The most worrying of these is the health and safety of the schoolchildren studying near the compound that houses the waste barrels. “About 60 children of the area go to that school and they are extremely exposed to the hazardous waste,” Chandio tells the Herald. People in the area also fear that their water resources, mostly natural springs and rainwater streams, have also become contaminated because they flow dangerously close to the dumped waste.

A doctor, who runs a private clinic in Dera Ghazi Khan town, agrees that the number of cancer patients has “seemingly increased” in the area. He also says that there is a “supposed link between rising incidences of cancer and the radioactive pollution.” But, he explains, there is neither any data to prove these suppositions nor have there been any studies or reports to verify or reject them.

Dr Muhammad Arshad Cheema, an oncologist in Lahore, who is also the head of the Surgical Oncology Society, Pakistan, explains that Pakistan does not collect data about cancer patients based on their place of residence so it is difficult to discern whether people in one area are suffering from cancer more than those in other areas. But, he adds that “people suffer from cancer wherever industrial or radioactive pollution is present.”

Nuclear authorities, on the other hand, have been saying that the Baghalchur site is not emitting any hazardous radiation. In May 2006, the PAEC issued a press statement after the then senator Jamal Leghari, who also happens to be a resident of Dera Ghazi Khan district, raised the radiation issue as a point of order in the Senate. The statement claimed that the PAEC had performed “surveillance of the area for the presence of radioactivity in water, vegetation and air, and as per the survey, no radioactivity has been found in any of these sources.” To substantiate this claim further, the statement said: “Hundreds of PAEC workers had been involved in mining uranium from Baghalchur during the 30 years of the mining operation and maintained a residential colony at this site. Thanks to foolproof safety measures, no adverse radiation effects were ever detected in any of them or their family members.” The statement also pointed out that “the areas in use are fenced and guarded, with no chances of unauthorised entry.” But no copy of the PAEC survey conducted in Baghalchur is available for public scrutiny. The PAEC officials are also unwilling to share details such as how and when the survey was conducted and by whom.

A senior military official at the Strategic Plans Division, which controls Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, goes to the extent of saying that radiation emissions in Baghalchur are figments of people’s imagination. “After the issue was raised in the Senate and Supreme Court, the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) investigated the whole issue and reported that no radioactivity was taking place at the site,” he tells the Herald in Islamabad. People are moving courts and creating a hue and cry in the media because of, according to him, “an inter-tribal rivalry in the area, not related to any radioactivity.”

In Baghalchur, people don’t agree with the contention that the problem has its origin in any tribal rivalry. None of the people belonging to different tribes that the Herald spoke to ever mentioned a tribal dispute even remotely linked to uranium mining or waste dumping. “Every tribal community will have disputes over cattle or grazing lands,” says Buzdar. “But none of these conflicts has anything to do with the problems we are facing due to the dumping of nuclear waste.” Indeed, he claims that people belonging to all the tribes in the area have been running from pillar to post to make themselves heard on the issue.

It was hectic lobbying by these local residents in the media and among local politicians that led to the revival of the hearing of their petition at the Supreme Court in the summer of 2012, after years of remaining dormant. In the final hearing at the apex court, the then chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, referred the case to the Punjab Environment Tribunal for further proceedings. “The tribunal did hold a couple of hearings in Multan, in which no one from the government appeared,” says Chandio. Beyond that, there has been no progress in the case.

In recent weeks, Baghalchur again attracted media attention after the government announced that it was planning to set up a number of nuclear power plants in different parts of the country. Residents of the area worried that this could mean more nuclear waste coming their way. The authorities, however, claim that these worries are unfounded, mainly because all the existing and proposed nuclear power plants in the country come with their own waste disposal facilities situated within them. “There is no reason why radioactive material will need to move from plants to any other site,” a senior PNRA officials tells the Herald in Islamabad. “There is a provision for the storage of radioactive waste material at the very site of each power plant,” he adds.

Umer Farooq from Islamabad contributed to this report