By Dr Ghayur Ayub
I wrote on the religio-political situation in Kurram Agency in my previous articles titled “Is Islamabad losing Parachinar to Kabul?” and “Parachinar is burning”. Today, I am writing on another aspect of this troubled region which has been ignored by Islamabad. It pertains to the mineral deposits. According to the 'Mineral Wing' of Pakistan Mineral Development Corporation PMDC) Kurram Agency has large mineral deposits including coal, copper, zinc, soapstone etc. With exception to soapstone the other minerals have remained unexplored. In recent months, vast amount of mineral in Baluchistan and FATA region have been highlighted both in the local and foreign media but I am not going to talk about that.
Instead, I want to write on a mineral which has been concealed from media for decades and relates to thermonuclear. A research project was carried out by Dr Zahid Ayub at Peshawar University in the mid 1970s on the subject titled "The Potential Role of Nuclear Power in Pakistan and Prospects of Selecting a Suitable Site for a Nuclear Power Plant in NWFP". Chapter Five and its subsection "Uranium and Thorium Deposits” dealt with Deposits of Nuclear Materials in Kurram Agency. The reason he selected Kurram was two folds. He belonged to the area and so could move freely at will but most importantly, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) had started a project called Minnupp under which handsome deposits of uranium were discovered in the Khyber region. The Minnupp project was a success, resulting in making indigenous fuel rods for the Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) that requires natural uranium. Since Kurram is part of the same mountain range he was hopeful to find the same there too. According to him “My preliminary physical prospecting of the region revealed unusually high radioactivity all along Spin Ghar (White Mountain) and Wacha Dara area.”
He undertook a survey and although he could not cover the entire Spin Ghar range but he managed to survey the adjacent Raju Mela mountains and Wacha Dara area. In those areas he monitored high level of radioactivity which was orders of magnitude beyond what is called background activity. The results of the study were presented to the PAEC officials. No action was taken. Thus the government lost an opportunity to explore indigenous uranium and Kurram Agency remained neglected in this field as other regions of FATA. This is one aspect of nuclear ore in Kurram Agency.
There is a negative aspect too. In nature such deposits have little harmful effects since they are in balance with nature. It only emits what is called the background radiation which is safe. The story does not stop here. After 9/11 things have changed as the region has turned into a battle zone exposing these ores to foreign bombardments. A typical example is visible across the Spin Ghar in Tora Bora region in Afghanistan. Those mountains are known for having enormous amount of radioactive ore. When US carried out deep carpet bombing in that area, they disturbed the ore strata by generating temperatures in access of 1000C. At that temperature the chemical reactions take place and the ore becomes poisonous.
A Canadian group called "Uranium Medical Research Centre, http://www.umrc.net/collected data in the Nangarhar province and found higher doses of radioactivity amongst the population. This was the first study of its kind. According to Dr. Asaf Durakovic of the study group, “the purpose of the study was to determine the concentrations and precise isotopic compositions of four uranium isotopes (234U, 235U, 236U, and 238U) in urine specimens from the civilian population of Afghanistan after Allied Forces Operation Enduring Freedom. Eight male civilians from Nangarhar-Jalalabad region who presented with symptoms of fatigue, fever, musculo-skeletal and neurological alterations, headaches, and respiratory impairment after inhalation of dust during bombing raids in June 2002 had urine samples collected under controlled conditions and analysed. The mean concentration of uranium in eight samples was found to be considerably greater than what is regarded as a reference range. Our results demonstrate that contamination in Afghanistan with a source consistent with natural uranium has resulted in total uranium concentrations up to 100 times higher than normal range for various geographic and environmental areas throughout the world.”
Many scientists including Dr. Ayub believe that population in Kurram Agency is equally exposed to this radiation. The reason they give is that the Tora Bora bombing spilled nuclear dust on this side of Spin Ghar too. They call it the 'Uranium Tailing' effect. All it means is that when uranium is extracted from the ground, the rock is dug up and crushed leaving behind finely pulverized material like flour. A century ago, Marie Curie observed that 85 percent of the radioactivity in the ore remains behind in the crushed rock. According to nuclear scientists the effective half-life of such radioactivity is 80,000 years; meaning that in 80,000 years there will be half as much radioactivity in these tailings. Here comes the crunch. As the tailings are left on the ground after crushing of rocks as seen in Tora Bora bombing, they are blown by the wind and are washed away by the rain into the water systems helping in its spread. In addition these tailings continually generate radon gas which being eight times heavier than air, stays close to the ground. A light breeze can take it away for one thousand miles in any direction. During its spread, it deposits on the vegetation as the radioactive by-products including polonium. To make the situation worse, the by-products which are also called the radon daughters are deposited in animals, fish and plants. The ill effects of such a spread are immense and enumerable.
Kurram Agency is a stone-throw away from Tora Bora. When the deep penetration bombs in tens of thousands of tons came pouring down those mountains it created a burning mine-like scenario. This has been a major concern for those who know about the ill effects of turning natural uranium into radioactive dust and its fall out on this side of Spin Ghar in Kurram Agency. As opposed to the limited study carried out on the other side of the border in Nangarhar province, none has been carried out on this side. Some cynic religious leaders from Upper Kurram blame government of Pakistan for deliberately turning blind eye to this problem as it did during the brutal onslaught of Taliban. “Why should these Taliban sympathisers help us?” Asked one disgruntled religious leader. Irrespective of his cynic ignorance there is no doubt that such radioactivity is a slow killer and most of the people in Kurrram Agency do not have access to medical facilities and they will die unnoticed from radioactive poisoning. It is pity that, so far, no study has been carried out to see how many locals have been exposed to radioactive dust? This is besides the benefits the government can get by exploring the supposedly enormous reservoir of nuclear ore deposits.
Dr Ghayur Ayub