A Radioactive Silence

Kalpakkam: Madras Atomic Power Plant

“Uraniam found in 241 water samples” the headline could have screamed, but it didn’t. It made modest appearance and slid into obscurity, unheralded on the news site’s social networks. This was Times of India reporting on drinking water samples from Punjab as reported by chief engineer, department of water supply and sanitation in the High Court in response to a PIL in front of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Mahesh Grover.

It says “The petitioner, Mohali-resident Brijender Singh Loomba, had sought directions for adequate relief to affected people and kids due to discharge of uranium in water and soil of Bathinda, Faridkot and Ludhiana districts of Punjab. The petition had also sought directions for investigation to find out sources of leakage of radioactive material and uranium in drinking water and steps required to check its spread.” among other things.

It said nothing that the people of Malda district didn’t know already since investigative tests on the hair of about 88% of their higher numbers of disabled children didn’t turn up stuff like arsenic as anticipated, but URANIUM in 2009.There have been vague reports on and off in local (read non-corporate) media about Uranium contamination in Punjab since 1995, which is inexplicable since there is no source of Uranium nearby.

But understand this. If there is radioactive contamination in the soil, NOTHING except not eating food grown in it at all will prevent you ingesting it. Cleaning the drinking water will not prevent radioactive isotopes from grain, for example from entering your body. That’s right. “Granary of India” has areas with radioactive contamination in an era of increasing inflation and food insecurity.

Indian Express did cover it, but it covered it up as a story on the allegations of discrimination in the installing of the ROS – Reverse Osmosis plants that BARC recommended to clean the water. Adding as an afterthought “The affidavit states that the failed samples from the 49 villages include Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Barnala and Fatehgarh Sahib. The state has submitted that ROS plants are being installed in 118 villages, of which 74 villages fall in Barnala.”

Anyway, the whole High Court and PIL and shocking testimony at least got it to mainstream newspapers, if not to fame and glory.

In other news – I really mean – In other news…. DNA published an investigative report about increased incidences of cancer among the employees and their families at the nuclear reactor at Kalpakkam. No! Wasn’t this supposed to be crap raised by activists to prevent India’s progress? Apparently not, because the report uses data from an RTI filed for the second time (The first time, the information was not provided).

The DNA claims that it is in possession of a DAE funded study by Dr. Manjula Dutta and the report categorically confirms increased cancer risk near reactors “The report states that cancer cases in villages close to Kalpakkam are seven times higher (210 per 1 lakh people) compared to just (30 per 1 lakh people) in distant villages. Morbidity levels in areas near the nuclear reactor are 2-3 times higher than normal. The study covered 22 proximate villages (within 8km radius) and three distant villages (50km from the reactor site).”

However, let it not be said that mainstream media never reports nuclear news. It does report extensively about the NPCIL’s efforts to allay fears about radiation safety and there is warm and fuzzy reassurances by the BARC that it is all safe and nuclear power is our future. But then, both earlier stories also contain reassurances by BARC that the levels of radiation are safe and that the illnesses are no more than among the normal population.

BARC is like the Japanese government in India. No matter what the radiation levels, they will be declared safe. No problemo. But BARC is boosting its monitoring capacities on an urgent basis. To prove safety, I suppose. It was a Parliamentary committee that looked into the radiation monitoring of Punjab, West Bengal is examining and checking use of radioactive materials, and it is BARC declaring safe everything I have mentioned or linked here.

These are stories breaking in a country where more nuclear plants are planned amid massive controversy. Where the idea of a “nuclear park” is not some haunting nightmare scene from a Chernobyl film, but an unbelievable concept of a cluster of nuclear reactors made to sound like a health spa.

I have been following events unfolding at Fukushima closely. There is incredible amount of information from local media and bloggers in particular. While some of it is alarmist and unsubstantiated, there is enough carefully documented, including citizen volunteers monitoring data, photographs and footage of details of damage and work, information released from scientific studies, information on spread of radiation, environmental impact, inexplicable heart attacks (which I think are linked to what I mention in Radioactive People), status of reactors and more.

Fukushima is one big reason to re-evaluate the feasibility of having too many reactors too close – at this point, if one of them goes out of control, the area will have to be evacuated, and we will have six of them out of control. Does a thought like this have any implications to the idea of a nuclear park?

Yet there is silence in our media. Corporation owned media worldwide is largely silent, but they do report significant concerns raised, at least. Our news media doesn’t seem to see this as an ongoing crisis at all. There is little interest on either a political front or in the media. Two headlines about America’s low rating for safety of nuclear materials in India – “India scores low on nuclear security: US Study” and “India rejects nuclear safety rating by American think-tank”

It is a game of table tennis. Rather than see the security implications, we choose to fixate on the political maneuvering and preempt it – which is such a problem, that we can’t accept any feedback ever – check news. This of course is about our super-size ego and Australian Uranium we import which could be influenced. There is little introspection, evaluation or consideration of risks. NO changes will happen, because accepting them will mean that we weren’t safe and that will not do. How long will it be before we start paying an even greater price?

We don’t hear, think or question these things, because our media carefully filters triggers to such debates. From being the first country in the world to set up a Ministry for renewable energy to being one that doesn’t question harmful ways energy is procured – be it fly ash from thermal power, radioactive contamination from nuclear power, or exploitation of Kashmiris for power – it has been a long way. There is pathetic little interest in sustainable energy or the environment in our media.

We want nuclear reactors and are following the ideals of a country that has paid a monumental price for its nuclear ambitions and yet has not built a single new reactor in decades. The great fantasy of clean, safe, cheap.

We dismiss reports of workers at Fukushima dying of heart failure after handling radioactive debris. We ignore that heart failure is the most common way for those exposed to radiation to die and call it an “existing condition”. We ignore reports of milk in San Francisco having levels of cesium beyond allowed standards. We don’t question dubious “cold shutdowns” that have nothing to do with stopping reactors and everything to do with shrugging responsibility for liquidating the damage. We ignore radioactive landfulls and almost a year of daily and massive contamination of the oceans. We turn a blind eye to reports of increasing cancers in the West Coast of USA.

It isn’t so much about what we believe. We are smart people. We arrive at conclusions based on information available to us. Which is why it becomes a serious question about intent and freedom of information that the Indian masses are not informed by their media on such things. If the information available can be rigged to make certain conclusions seem reasonable, then they are “the choice of the masses”.

This has become so ridiculously extreme, that when people look at archives to find Indian reporting of the largest nuclear disaster in the history of man (hopefully it will still be the largest then), they are going to find a big, fat zero – like Pakistan’s text books on Indian history and common roots.

This is also where the usual arguments like “metro media” not having access or wanting to go to far flung areas falls flat. There is an abundance of news to be found without leaving the desk – the largest nuclear or industrial disaster in the world. This leaves me with only one explanation of this radioactive silence. They don’t want to.

It isn’t like they went to the Andaman to cover the recent shocking news of the treatment of the Jarawa women at the hands of the police. They picked it up from the Guardian and ran with it.

So what is the difference in these fleeting news that seem to catch their eyes and an almost year long crisis involving millions of people, multiple crises with four reactors, unmeasurable environmental damage and abundant news items available freely that slides through every hole in attention and invents a few too?

Why this voluntary censorship?

I suspect the answer is less about the news than the subject of the news and the influence it may have on their interests. I suspect the answer may involve things like corporate owned priorities and investment opportunities.


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About the Author

Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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