Meghalaya constitutes expert agency to probe uranium waste tank leakage

The tank in question goes back to the time the Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) was carrying out exploratory mining in Meghalaya in the 1970s.

The Meghalaya government Friday constituted an expert agency to probe an alleged leak from a concrete uranium effluent tank in the South West Khasi Hills district. “We have written to the Central Pollution Control Board as well as the North-Eastern Hill University and other experts — once they respond, and we identify the expert team, we will formally issue an order by next week,” said Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong.

The development comes in the wake of reports of a leakage from a concrete tank allegedly containing radioactive uranium waste located in uranium-rich Nongbah Jynrin area (135 km from Shillong) of the South West Khasi Hills district on September 21. While the district administration undertook an inquiry into the matter and reported that there was no leakage, local groups and environmentalists have kept up pressure on the government, citing it as a major public health and environment hazard.

Following the incident, Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) members had visited the site along with environmental economist Dr Bremley WB Lyngdoh. According to Forwardman Nongrem, South West Khasi Hills District’s KSU president, the geiger counter — an instrument to detect and measure ionising radiation — detected very high levels of radiation in the area.

The tank in question goes back to the time the Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) was carrying out exploratory mining in Meghalaya in the 1970s.

“Mining continued up till 1993 but after a lot of outcry because of the environment and health hazards caused, the mines were directed to be shut,” said Dr Lyngdoh, who is based in London and the co-founder and CEO of EcoFriend World. “AMD left, but without clearing up the tools, effluents etc. They were summoned back and in 1995, they built huge concrete tanks to put in all the remnants, processed uranium decay.”

KSU’s Nongrem said that appointing an expert committee was all well and good, but they wanted the government to prioritise two things. “First, the government should repair any cracks/leaks in the tanks and second, the radiation level should be reduced so that people in the surrounding areas are safe from the emissions,” he said. There are at least seven villages located up to a radius of 3km from the site.

“When we went on October 9 to visit the site, I got the shock of my life — the radiation level recorded by the geiger counter was at 1,083 Count Per Minute,” said Dr Lyngdoh, adding that he had personally apprised CM Conrad Sangma of the situation.

KSU has for long voiced their opposition to exploratory uranium mining operations in the area. After AMD, even the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) shut its offices in the state when they did not receive requisite permissions/leases for its projects.

Following Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh, Meghalaya has the third-highest deposits of uranium in the country, estimated at 9.22 million tonnes.

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