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Latin American update: Argentina's parlous uranium history

Published by MAC on 2006-08-04

Latin American update: Argentina's parlous uranium history

4th August 2006

Residents Face Uranium Threat in Water Supply Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 4 (Tierramérica) - Argentine judicial authorities are investigating cases of uranium contamination around the Ezeiza Atomic Centre, in Buenos Aires province. A married couple who have been diagnosed with cancer have been accepted as plaintiffs in a related lawsuit.

The first complaint reached the judicial branch in 2000, when residents of the area sounded the alert about possible "poisoning" of the water supply with uranium, and blamed the nuclear facility for the potential health consequences for the nearby population.

"All of the reports recognise that there is contamination, and all are valid. The judge will have to combine the results and reach a conclusion," biologist Raúl Montenegro, president of the independent Foundation for Defence of the Environment (FUNAM), told Tierramérica.

On its web site, the organisation says it obtained a report by the government of Buenos Aires province -- signed by nine officials and filed in late 2005 -- "in which uranium contamination of underground water in Ezeiza is acknowledged."

The group also says the document, marked "confidential", admits that 10 of the 57 Argentine water samples analysed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency surpass the maximum allowable limit of "20 microgrammes of uranium per litre, with a maximum value of 34.5 microgrammes per litre."

"Uranium is radioactive and toxic," and can lead to cancer and genetic malformations, Montenegro said.

"The oncologist told me that there is a direct relation with the uranium," Antonio Rota said in a Tierramérica interview. The 65-year-old suffers from lung cancer that has metastasised in the ganglia. His wife, Beatriz Rodríguez, 62, has breast cancer.

The Ezeiza Atomic Centre includes a radioactive waste management area, with a central deposit for "special irradiated fissionable material" (can undergo nuclear fission), and a fuel production plant for two nuclear power plants, where uranium is handled and stored. The centre admitted to uranium contamination in two areas -- Campo 5 and Trincheras -- but assured that steps were taken to remedy the situation in one case, and that it is in the process of resolving the other.

The area alleged to be affected involves three districts of Buenos Aires province: Ezeiza, Esteban Echeverría and La Matanza -- with a combined population of 1.6 million people.

Federal judge Alberto Santamarina entrusted an investigation to geologist Máximo Díaz, who found that there exists "important contamination arising from the activities at the Ezeiza Atomic Centre (present and/or past) that affected subterranean waters at a level that impedes their use for human consumption."

The Argentine government's Nuclear Regulatory Authority questioned Díaz's conclusions and expertise. The judge asked for a new investigation, this time by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a United Nations body. The IAEA organised a study for which it brought in experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other independent entities.

The new assessment defended the monitoring capabilities of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority, but did not find a direct connection between the uranium in the water and the activities of the Ezeiza Atomic Centre. It stated that cancer mortality rates in the area were no higher than the national average, and that it had not detected radioactive contamination, but had found toxins -- from naturally occurring uranium.

The maximum level of uranium that the WHO allows in water intended for drinking is 15 microgrammes per litre. The IAEA admits that the levels found in the area in question reach 36 microgramme, but justifies them in Argentina's mining law, which allows up to 100 microgrammes per litre.

Residents and environmentalists reject that argument. The law establishes that maximum level for untreated water. But the rules for dangerous waste sets a maximum 10 microgrammes of uranium per litre of water intended for irrigation.

The Regulatory Authority says that with the 100 microgrammes established under Argentine legislation, there is no radioactive or chemical contamination: "It is the law now in force."

Montenegro believes "it is unacceptable that the residents drink water with uranium levels exceeding the WHO standards and higher than that of irrigation water."

"We are confident that the judge will not give in to pressure," said paediatrician Valentín Stiglitz, president of the Esteban Echeverría Association Against Contamination, a neighbourhood organisation that was formed around this contentious issue.

Now the judge will have to issue a decision -- and he will have in hand the studies, and the testimonies of Antonio Rota and Beatriz Rodríguez.

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