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Herald Exclusive: Nuclear hazards

Updated Mar 11, 2014 08:00pm

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Abandoned uranium sites lie beaneath a lake in Baghalchur, home to over 5,000 residents 40 kilometres north-west of Dera Ghazi Khan town. — Photo by Moosa Kaleem
Abandoned uranium sites lie beaneath a lake in Baghalchur, home to over 5,000 residents 40 kilometres north-west of Dera Ghazi Khan town. — Photo by Moosa Kaleem

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


Comments (28) Closed



Sher Mar 10, 2014 05:41pm

Who asked you to write this piece on this subject?

Why you missed Thar, where hundreds of kids and humans have died and are still dying?

Can someone check about these gentlemen?

Muhammad Usman Mar 10, 2014 07:01pm

The author should have taken some radiation readings from a simple device like Geiger Counter before publishing the article. An old mine can be a perfect disposal site. There is nothing like some or more nuclear leakage once the barrier is breached it is a problem.

pakiboy Mar 10, 2014 07:26pm

this guys must be drunk .. when he can not believe what PAEC, PNRA and is saying .. but believed the residents who didnt have any idea what a nuclear fuel looks like ..

Saad Mar 10, 2014 07:45pm

Good article, stuff like this gets buried or overlooked due to matters not in our hands. You guys should team up with some university or relevant personnel and do a survey on your own, and present findings and facts to the public. This will definitely add the punch to the case and addressing the plight of the people.

Samad Mar 10, 2014 07:56pm

Nuclear waste can be classified into three categories: low, medium and high active waste. In Pakistan, most of the radioactive waste lies in low activity which is safely managed in decay pits which are designed according to IAEA standard and regularly inspected by IAEA inspectors and health experts made regular checks on environmental radioactivity measurement for various areas in air and ground; food and soil sample of these areas are regularly monitored.

Nasir Mar 10, 2014 08:03pm

The PAEC has responsibility for radioactive waste management. A Radioactive Waste Management Fund is proposed in a new policy. Used fuel is currently stored at each reactor in pools. Longer-term dry storage at each site is proposed.

GS@Y Mar 10, 2014 08:06pm

What is needed is a more systematic inquiry of whether a) the site is indeed a dumping ground for the country's civilian and/or military nuclear waste, and b) if the ailments among the local population do derive from radiation-related causes. I am not certain if that necessarily has to be a government inquiry. While I feel concerned about the population in Baghalchur, the speculative, credulous, and almost lazy nature of this article makes me hesitant to believe its claims. The population concerned, after all, is extremely poor; malnutrition, bad hygiene, and lack of healthcare shouldn't be surprising.

Muhammad Iqbal Mar 10, 2014 09:46pm

This is total propaganda article, PAEC has a comprehensive radioactive waste treatment and storage systems. Mining sites do not emit radioactivity, natural uranium has only 0.07% U235 which can emit radiation but probability of spontaneous fission is very very low. In layman language until you eat that mine dirt it will not harm you even you are living there for years.

Raima Mar 10, 2014 10:05pm

Autbors seem to belong to some anti nuclear lobby which has recently got weightage by the illeterate community of the country where people dont have awareness about the operation of power plants. PNRA and PAEC has taken the responsibility of nuclear dump what else they can do to maje people believe them. There is nothing to get impressed by the above account. There is a dire need to make people aware of the operation of power plants but not to make them fear as fear is more dangerous than the radiation itself.

Abdul Hameed Mar 10, 2014 10:38pm

@Muhammad Usman: Some time ago, on seeing press reports of a similar agitation by villagers as well as low level employees in uranium mines, a few university professors asked the top brass of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission in a meeting if they could take Geiger counters to the areas surrounding the mines to verify such claims. They were sternly told to keep away from anything to do with the word uranium, or else ..... The threat was loud and clear.

Ayub Buzdar Mar 10, 2014 11:13pm

We know (1) something is happening there in Baghulchor (mining or dumping), and (2) people, animals and cattle are suffering from sickness and unusual diseases. Why Govt. is not ready to medically examine the only 5000 residents of Baghulchor and animals in the area. After all people in the area have strong reservations on the issue. I never understand why the Govt. is reluctant to resolve the people's concerns.

Waqas Hasan Mar 10, 2014 11:22pm

I don't believe it's true. You can't decide by seeing bunch of people in certain conditions, to fall under certain category. This is just like declaring the whole city 'a place of sick', just by visiting a nearby hospital. I don't see any credibility in Herald's very article. I know a lot of people from DG Khan, never heard of this. Despite, the majority is so poor, illiterate and obviously part-of-my-beloved-country - enough reasons of having malnutrition effects. Absence of clean water, is also a major cause of so many life threatening diseases - this is another big problem of Pakistan - bigger than the so-called change. In big cities, we don't have any nuclear site nearby, but we have planted enough industrial estates, surrounding us, and we have much worse diseases around us - we can't say, we are eating nuclear waste. Sorry no offence, but I see such articles in opposition of Pakistan's Nuclear Program, which is obviously never been appreciated by our neighbours and farther.

Saleem Mar 11, 2014 01:09am

1- This is a very serious matter as radiation effects may contribute the adverse for generations. Therefore worldwide radioactive waste management entities plan about 100's to 1000 of years.

2- I second the proposal from one of commentators (GS@Y) and add that the systematic investigation should be made and shared with public at the earliest possible.

3- some of the commentators seem to be hard on the author. my opinion is that it is a brave and good effort from Mr Kaleem, though if he had consulted a faculty or expert (e.g. PIEAS or QAU) then this article would had better technical coverage along with the social domain.

Tariq, Lahore Mar 11, 2014 02:22am

The grievousness' of the locals of Baghalchur should be investigated thoroughly by way of conducting tests over a period of time, on the water, air, soil, plants and other unusual phenomena, deformities in humans and animals that the locals complain about! This is in the interest of Pakistan and not just to the locals residence of the area.

Khurram Awan Mar 11, 2014 02:44am

It seems that Dawn is obsessed with only one thing for a few days and that is Punjab, Punjab and Punjab. Somehow Conspiracies are being thrown in every nook and corner and then the blame lies on Central and North Punjab for every problem in Pakistan. We should remember that Pakistan's first Atomic research reactor started working in North Punjab and Kahota is in Northern Punjab as well and no cases of Radiation leaks were ever found. Pakistan's atomic research centers are spread across many regions and so do Nuclear Dump sites. Also do you know it took less than a Kanal plot to save Nuclear waste of more than 50 years so 1200 Acres land spread and claim of locals that waste is spread on the land is bizzare. I am sure PAEC adhere to strong SOPs to maintain all the required standards.

PAEC has one of the best track records of maintenance and no incidence of radiation leak has ever been proved.

constructivist Thinker Mar 11, 2014 03:30am

As this is not a scientific report, so claims made in this journalistic writing are difficult to believe in as they are conjectural. Along the same line, the health issues in the area could be a result of cousin marriages. To reach any conclusion, scientific study is required. I hope concerned authorities will take action to address the concerns.

Rabia Mar 11, 2014 10:37am

Please stop spreading the hate among nation. Is there any scientific report published for this location that can prove that there exist radiations which is harming the human lives near this area which is 40 kilometres. If you have something to do a propaganda then you must find out some different stories.

Sameer Mar 11, 2014 11:58am

Poor research. The illiterate people there do not know what radiation is. However, your learned reporter should have tried to study the phenomenon. Please do not tell people that as if the radiations are some poisonous stuff which the donkeys ate and died right on spot. Do you know radiation doesn't need air to propagate? Do you know it doesn't "infect" living beings through respiration?

Hassan Hakeem Mar 11, 2014 02:00pm

Not an iota of evidence has been presented by the writer to suggest that there is any radioactive contamination or its effects on local residents.

wijdan Mar 11, 2014 02:35pm

Nuclear Waste is of great concern if dumped in open spaces without proper measures. But PAEC has been successful in creating special tanks to store nuclear waste. These tanks can be used to store nuclear waste for longer period of time and in future it can be reprocessed. PAEC has adopted preemptive measures to fix the issue of great concern and IAEA has recently shown confidence on Pakistan's safety measures on nuclear waste.

Moazzam Mar 11, 2014 06:42pm

We are a nuclear weapon state and we have to dump it somewhere but the point is why now? As Head of International Atomic Energy is visiting Pakistan This type of article is surely concerns me. Some Pre-paid People do have a malicious agenda behind this. Think

Shahpur Mar 11, 2014 08:47pm

@Sher:

Just plain arrogance, ignorance and disregard to the human lives. Pakistan is a neuclear state, so where it dumps its neuclear waste. Thanks GOD this is reported, that what is going on. Why attack on reporting the nightmare.

IMM Mar 12, 2014 11:19am

If this would happen in Japan or somewhere else in developed country, really the civilized nations, the reaction of civilian would be quite different and would ask the government for proper handling waste and compensation to the affected ones. But here in Pakistan the readers of this report perceive the other way round, the conspiracy of the enemy forces, etc which indicates how much intellectually we are mature!

Uzair Qaisrani Mar 12, 2014 11:55am

@Sameer: Please be careful in choosing words and you,yourself,need some knowledge before doing this.....First of all,Radiations does not need any medium to propagate and of course they have nothing to do with respiration but still there are chances that they can cause mutation at genetic level and they increase the risk of cancer and congenital abnormalities.......Also they can effect by other sources like water and vegetation because people in Baghalchur don't use mineral water and they get it from rain water and springs which may have direct contact with nuclear waste..........

Ahyousha Mar 12, 2014 12:45pm

No country is so unwise to make its own territory in danger. Before going to nuclear, nuclear waste management has seriously been considered in comprehensive manner because it has a long run to go. There is a survey in cancer patients especially with this view to check the radiation effects and the no patient been found to be a victim of these nuclear radiations. The country is not so much obsessed to make its own people suffer. In Pakistan with nuclear, we are more following the stereotyped prejudice thinking and very easily follow the blind path without objectivity.

EMK Mar 12, 2014 01:04pm

There is always a news behind the (ostensible) news. Whereas the concerned authorities must take notice of the matter and issue a detailed report, it may be noted that someone (from within or abroad: India?) must have prompted this news report. I fear more such report would surface. The anti-nuclear and anti-Pakistan lobby is (restlessly and religiously) working round the clock.

Martian Mar 12, 2014 03:33pm

@IMM:

Yes, we know that when Fukushema (sp) power plant was hit three years ago, IAEA, US and Japanese government tried hard to conceal true facts from general public. It was necessary to stop panic around the globe. Have you read about Japanese contaminated sea water reaching American coast?

baacha Mar 12, 2014 05:33pm

I think it