This reported story is accompanied by photos taken by the photojournalist Chinky Shukla in 2013 for her award-winning project on uranium mining in Jadugoda.
“I had never seen something like that—there was red and black dust all around in the air,” Kartik Sardar, a 20-year-old resident of Tilaitand village in Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district, told me. He was describing a dust storm had covered the neighbourhood and its houses one week before my visit to the area, on 20 May. The storm carried particles from a nearby reservoir-like structure, called a tailings pond, containing material that is discharged after the milling of uranium ore. Surendra Das, a shopkeeper in the area, said the intensity of the storm had forced him to keep his shop closed for two hours for three consecutive days during the storm. “You wouldn’t have been visible to me if you stood next to me here,” Sardar added. “It was so suffocating.”
The Tilaitand village, where the tailings pond is situated, is adjacent to the Hata-Musabani road, around 32 kilometres south-east of Jamshedpur city, and within two kilometres from a uranium mine in the Jadugoda town. The Jadugoda town is spread over four villages—Ichra, Bhatin, Tilaitand and Mechua—and the area contains one of seven uranium mines in Jharkhand, six of which are in East Singhbhum district, and one in Saraikela Kharsawan district. Though the mining activities at the Jadugoda mine are presently suspended, uranium ore from several mines is taken to the mill, or processing plant, in the area. There are two mills in the East Singhbhum—at Jadugoda and at Turamdih, a village in the district.
At the plants, after a process of crushing, wet grinding and leaching—a process through which the ore is converted into soluble salts—a concentrated uranium compound called uranium peroxide, or yellowcake, is obtained from the ore. The yellowcake is then stashed in drums and again transported to the Nuclear Fuel Complex (NFC) in Hyderabad for enrichment. During the milling process, a huge amount of nuclear waste is left behind in liquid form—slurry—which is then expelled into the tailings ponds through long pipelines that pass through the villages. At the ponds, the heavy material that forms a part of the nuclear discharge takes a form of granular sand—this sand is what is termed tailings, and which often gets carried to the nearby villages during storms.
There are three tailings ponds in Jadugoda. The structures are surrounded on three sides by mining hills, and the fourth side contains an embankment, into which the nuclear waste is released through pipelines. The ponds are constructed and managed by the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL)—a public-sector undertaking that functions under the Department of Atomic Energy, which in turn works directly under the prime minister’s office.