Villagers' fears of nuclear waste: BBC

BBC April 28, 2006
Villagers' fears of nuclear waste
By Nadeem Saeed BBC News, northern Pakistan

Residents of a remote Punjab village in northern Pakistan say their lives are in danger from nuclear waste being dumped in their area.
"We are being slow-poisoned," said Nazir Ahmed Buzdar, a resident of the tribal village of Baghalchur some 400km (248 miles) north of Karachi.

He is part of a group in a legal battle with Pakistan's nuclear authorities over the dumping of toxic waste.

Baghalchur is the site of abandoned uranium mines now being used as a dump.

"Our land played an important role in making Pakistan a nuclear power but all we have got in return is poverty and poison," said Mr Buzdar.

The relevant authorities say nuclear waste material has been stored deep down in underground caves and poses no danger to the environment.

'Child deaths'

But Mr Buzdar and his colleagues cite one of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission's (PAEC) own reports which said that the waste material being dumped at Baghalchur was "active".

Pakistan's nuclear authorities were mining the area around Baghalchur between 1978 and 2000. Locals say it was the first location in the country to produce uranium for Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme.

The mining was stopped in 2000 but the underground tunnels were earmarked for storing nuclear waste.
Former chairman of the PAEC, Pervez Butt, told the BBC that the storage was perfectly safe.

"It is being done in keeping with the international standards for storing nuclear waste," he said.

In October last year, four residents of Baghalchur petitioned the local courts on the matter. The case was referred to the Supreme Court earlier this year.

The PAEC sought time to file its reply but requested the proceedings be kept in camera given the nature of the case. The court agreed and the next date of hearing is not yet known.

'Chemical sludge'

Lal Mohammed, one of the petitioners who has worked for the PAEC for eight years, says the nuclear waste being stored in his area may contaminate the environment for "centuries".

He pointed at several large and malodorous piles of what he called the toxic effluent of "yellow cake" - a raw form of mined uranium - lying openly around the place.

"Rain washes the chemicals in this sludge into the main water channels which are used both by humans and animals," he said.

Co-petitioner Naseer Shah says there has been a dramatic increase in infant mortality since the dumping of toxic waste started.

He says it has seriously affected milk producing cattle - many of which have died after contracting previously unseen diseases.

The petitioners say that the residents of Baghalchur should be assured that the dumping is not going to do them harm.

If guarantees cannot be given, they want immediate measures to cleanse Baghalchur of any contamination already caused.


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