Back in June 2009 I got a first-hand opportunity to face the nuclear demon that I had been fighting against all along. Deep in a hell-hole in a remote corner of a distant country!
I did not realize the seriousness of this trip until I saw my name in big bold letters on the door of a bathroom in the visitor’s building of Salt Mine Asse II. I was asked to strip naked and change the clothing starting with the underwear that they had kept ready there. The shirt and pants measurements and shoe size I had provided were helpful. As I dressed up, I was beginning to look more like an astronaut who was going into the depth of the Earth rather than flying into the space.
With a heavy hard helmet donning my head, a dosimeter was hung around my neck. With the hefty battery kit pulling my neck on the right side, a sturdy headlight was attached to the helmet. And then a very weighty oxygen kit was hung on my left shoulder. With all these safety accessories bogging me down, I could feel mild pain on my shoulders. The instructions given to deal with a possible fire or accident inside the mine was turning my stomach and caused palpitations.
When my friends from Argentina, Brazil and Germany and I were going down a rickety lift (do they still call it that when it is taking you down?) with a strong draft with so much noise and shake, I thought of the dangerous African safari I had undertaken a few years ago in the Kenyan jungles. But this nuclear safari was a lot more dangerous and deadly. If I was forced to pick one of the two safaris, I would certainly choose the African animals.
At 590 meters depth, we were at the mouth of the salt mine. And there was a small hand-carved St. Barbara grotto on one of the walls. Saint Barbara is the patron saint of artillerymen. She is also traditionally the patron of armored men, military engineers, gunsmiths, miners and anyone else who works with cannons and explosives. She is invoked against thunder and lightning and all accidents arising from explosions of gunpowder. She is venerated by every Catholic who faces the danger of sudden and violent death at work.
We all got onto an open jeep driven by a woman mine officer and her colleague. I could not completely understand the architecture as there were narrow passages going in all directions. But one thing was clear. That I was deep in the long and convoluted nuclear waste intestine of the German nuclear industry.
Our first stop was a hidden corner of the nuclear waste burial site. Beneath our feet lay hundreds of deadly and treacherous waste-containing barrels. The woman mine officer explained to us in German-tasting English that the barrels were mechanically downed through a narrow metallic hole and buried. We were standing some 6 feet above this deadly treasure on a heavy metal plate. The possibility of radiation was so alarming. The waste, plutonium, the clothing of the workers, metallic parts of the equipment, and everything else had been crushed and thrust into those barrels.
We were driven deeper into the mines. At one point, our guide stopped and showed us the crevices of the mines where salt water was dripping and forming into icicles. One could easily guess that not everything was right in the salt caves. At another place, more water was collecting with a steady and heavy flow. One liter of water was collecting every minute and this water was being taken out of the caves manually.
We went to another side of the caves at 625 meter depth. Some 8,000 low-grade waste barrels had been dumped there and were covered with 2 feet of salt blown mechanically. If you scratched with your bare hands, you could dig out the hazmat.
Most of the nuclear waste from the German nuclear power plants had been stored in the Salt Mine Asse II since 1967. Although the local people had objected to the project, the German government and scientists supported the project; went ahead and buried the wastes until 1978. The water flow inside the caves became much stronger in 1988 but the government still stubbornly rejected all opposition.
In June 2008, it was found out that the water in the mine was contaminated with Cesium 137. There was a suggestion to fill up the mines with water so that it would take the waste even deeper and make the whole depository safer.
As I heard all these disturbing stories, I was naturally worried about the nuclear waste management in India. With scary and sordid thoughts and feelings crisscrossing my mind and heart and soul, I stood there stunned. The nuclear safari was over.
At 650 meter depth, the mine authorities checked our radiation exposure level at the Hand Fuss Kleider monitor before exiting the mines. The lift ride back to the face of the Earth was quite uplifting in every sense of the word, and I had never been happier to see the light at the end of the (vertical) tunnel. We were asked to take another shower and change to our original clothing.
We all know shit happens. But we cannot understand the concept of making nuclear shit in order for it to happen in the future, to our own children and grandchildren and the umpteen numbers of unborn generations. One thing is for sure, though! Those who make nuclear shit will suffer the shame and stigma. Or, will they?
-S. P. Udayakumar
Nagercoil, July 2009