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Research conducted by Greenpeace has found high levels of uranium in drinking water in the area around the Caetité uranium mine in Brazil. Some of the drinking water samples, that were analysed by an independent accredited laboratory in the UK, show uranium levels as much as seven times higher than World Health Organisation’s recommendations. Though the study does not answer the question of whether the uranium mining operations caused the contamination, they point at a significant potential for local populations to be exposed to elevated levels of uranium and other radionuclides.

The water samples were collected within 20 kilometres of the mine in the zone called the ‘direct influence area’ in site’s the official Environmental Impacts Assessment. The people living around the mine who use the contaminated water say that, while Industrias Nucleares Brasileiras (INB – Brazilian Nuclear Industries) take regular samples of the water, the company has yet to inform them about the water’s quality.

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Alarmingly, research into the licensing of the mine also shows that INB, Ibama (Brazilian Federal Environmental Agency, in charge of environmental licensing and monitoring) and CNEN (National Commission on Nuclear Energy, in charge of nuclear licensing and monitoring) were all aware from the outset that there was a risk of the mine contaminating local water supplies. To add further doubts, INB is yet to fulfil its obligation to provide adequate health monitoring of mine workers and local residents.

The uranium can enter the food chain not just by the drinking of contaminated water. Potentially, contaminated water is also used to irrigate vegetables and given to animals which then provide milk and meat. Continuous consumption of uranium can cause serious health problems including kidney diseases and cancers.

Aside from the health risks involved, Greenpeace’s report ‘Cycle of Danger: impacts of nuclear fuel production in Brazil’ also shows a disturbing trail of pollution, health and environmental risks, and a distinct lack of openness and control at the heart of the Brazilian nuclear industry.

Despite these many problems, INB is looking to open another uranium mine in north-east Brazil. While Brazil’s push for nuclear energy is putting the health of its citizens at risk and its political processes into question, opportunities for energy efficiencies and renewable energy sources have been almost entirely ignored. Figures produced by Procel (Electricity Conservation Program, run by the federal government) show that energy efficiencies alone in Brazil could save the equivalent amount of electricity as five of the country’s Angra 3 reactors.

In the light of its independently verified findings Greenpeace now demands:

- that supplies of drinking water be sent immediately to the people living within 20 kilometres of the Caetité mine;

- the implementation of systems to guarantee safe drinking water in the area;

- that the Caetité city hospital be accredited to diagnose and treat cancer and other diseases caused by radiation, and that INB pays for the implementation and maintenance of medical care facilities;

- an urgent independent investigation, under the mandate of the Federal Prosecution Office, of INB’s environmental and social performance in Caetité;

- that INB be refused permission to double production at the Caetité mine;

- that INB’s water-use licenses be suspended until new examinations of levels and sources of environmental contamination have been conducted and the results published;

It has been shown here that for an industry supposed to be serving the public good, the Brazilian nuclear industry has betrayed the public trust and put public health at risk. The industry’s inspection and control functions now need to be clearly separated and strictly enforced. Brazil should now end uranium mining and cancel the construction of the Angra 3 nuclear reactor. Public confidence and trust must be earned not expected. The people of Caetité deserve nothing less.

(More details are available in this PDF document.)