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The incredible story of living in a uranium mine area

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Women respond to the nuclear threat

(May 11, 1999) What follows is a personal story of a Romanian woman who started as a young promising geologist and how she became aware of the lies and dangers of uranium mining.

(509/10.5018) Mihaela-Codruta Nedelcu - How young we were! So young and nice ... and so naïve!
We just finished university: five young geologists. Some of us were proud: we were able to obtain a good job, due to our very good final evaluation..., so we were thinking.

I called my mother: "Sweetheart, I obtained my job position: Baitza Bihorului! It's in Apuseni Mountains, near the Bear's Cave."
"God!" she said, "are you crazy? What are you looking for in an uranium mine?"
"What uranium, mum? There are complex sulphure ores!"
"You're really nuts," she said: "don't tell me about that! There is a uranium mine, I know! They were working with prisoners when I was young. What are you doing there, babe?"
"Sweety," I said: "I don't believe that! There were lots of people, trying to obtain this job! It was a strong competition; it's one of the best places in Romania to work! And, besides... it was the only place were I can work with my husband; you know that we have different specializations."
"Just wait and see!" she said.
And... I saw.

It was the most beautiful place I ever saw. So much peace... such a blue sky... such a sweet weather!... The virgin fir-tree forests, the caves about which I dreamt such a long time ago!... And, really, a uranium mine!

How was it possible that, as students in geology, we didn't learn anything about it? "Baitza Bihorului" - that's a celebrated molybden ore in skarn, which is a specific rock for some ores, one of the most rare occurrences in the world. We knew, because we had a large number of seminaries about that... but how was it possible, we didn't learn anything about uranium?
We learned about Saskatchewan, about Ontario, Colorado, Zaire, the Central French Mountains... how was it possible that we didn't know about Baitza Bihorului? We heard something about CIudanovitza; jokes, like: men were less virile. We thought it was closed. But no, the mine was still working, just as in Baitza: the biggest ore deposit in Romania, the best.

Baitza is the place where, after the Second World War, Russians came and took over the area, exporting train after train with pitchblende. And if it were the prisoners (also the political ones) who worked in the mine. Yes, sir!
And, after they died, in came the villagers. Oh, how big their salaries were! Oh, God! Of course they accepted the work. There in the mountains, where they had no crops, where work is so hard to find! How much they could do, at last, with the money! They could, finally, buy cereals, and their children could survive... They could buy good shoes and they could pay accommodations for their children to be able to attend a good school in town! They could build real houses, brick houses, with tin roofs; and with furniture, like "the gentlemen ones". And, also, vodka appeared! Good vodka - and, yes, they learned to produce strong "tzuika", double distilled!

But, what happened? Why, within a few years, you could hear so many complaints and so many questions in the villages: "What happens with my beloved husband, why can't we, like the other villagers, go to dance on Sundays?" "What is happening with my neighbors, which are of the same age as we are? Why are they more and more sad? Why does he look so ill?"
"What happened with the baby I gave birth to. Why can't he walk? Why can't he talk?
"My God, where do all the children come from in the children's hospital with these severe problems, here, in my village! How is that possible; will my child be one of them?"

The villagers didn't know about the dangers of uranium. For hundreds and hundreds of years, they knew, the Apuseni rivers were gold-carriers and, sometimes, if the gods were kind they gave them some gold. And now, these new socialism-gods, with so much money and technology, told the villagers they were working to produce lead or complex ores. That's what they knew, all those years...

And so ignorant we were, going to Baitza...

They told us it's a strategic top secret; that's why we didn't learn about Romanian uranium ores. Of course, "the greedy capitalists" were just waiting to find out about our fortune, and tackle our development; they are our enemies, aren't they?
It was so nice to work in such an "elitist" field! Weren't we the "space" generation? Which of us didn't read about cosmic ships, about nuclear energy? Which of us didn't dream to be an explorer, a hero? In fact, that's why we were geologists: to challenge the unknown!

Moreover, radiation isn't dangerous! That's what they said: the radiation level wasn't dangerous! You don't need individual dose meters! It is important to take a shower after work; but it is more important to save water and energy (which availability is often interrupted!) Yes, it is important to have medical assistance; but it doesn't matter if the health unit is far from the mine; it isn't such a big thing, if the assistance is one day later. "Yes, it is better not to work when you have bleeding wounds..." But for a woman what does it mean to have a "bleeding wound"? Nobody spoke about it!

As women, you always have to be good! Twice as good!
"Are you tired?"
"Oh, she's a woman!"
"Did you make a mistake?"
"She's a woman!"
However, when a man made the same mistakes?
"Yes, well of course, that can happen!"
"Did a women have success?"
"Impossible--she's a woman!"
"How could a woman have a bigger salary as a man?"
"Why should we make showers for women? They can wash at home, if they need!"
But "home" in Ceausescu's era, under the rule "energy saving", which meant in practice no heating, no gas, no anything!

So, in 1985, I found out I could not have children! I was not married anymore; my husband could not cope with the overall conditions and left the area. But now, I was in love--the love of my life! And then I found out I could not have children!
"Are you nuts?" the doctor replied when I asked for an explanation. "You really go in the mine during your monthly period?"
"I cannot refuse! They don't accept it", I said.
"So, you must find a solution! I don't know if you will ever be able to have children--maybe some day, after a long treatment--but you must take care of yourself in order not to get cancer."
"Not me!" I answered. "Radiation isn't that dangerous."
He advised me not to go in the mine during my periods. But what to do, when you are alone in a sector for the final measurements and your period begins and there is no assistance who can take it over? "Hysterical women!"

My life didn't have much value for me at that time. But I realized I would not accept my fate--no, not without fighting!
And I was a fighter--and I was really good in my work. In 1989 I found the best ore in our sectors of the mine. We, geologists, made maps, worked on economic estimations, possible problems, technical problems, expected results, et cetera.

I still make projects--now, for my NGO--but I still remember this one, I will never forget it! To make good projects is not the the most important thing in life! I have learned that it is better to make good things, rather than to do things good!

Since 1990 we, the geologists, were hoping things would change. We knew how many lies there were about mining; about pollution; about workers' protections (or so we believed, but now we know better!). And things were changing! But in the wrong direction: it became worse and worse. We still didn't realize how much was kept secret about radiation. We only noticed that the former head of the safety department became one of the company directors. And investments in workers' protection are zero.

In 1992 for the first time in my life I met real ecologists: EYFA (European Youth Forest Action). We didn't know very much about NGO's and almost nothing about anti-nuclear ones. In fact, after years and years without regular electricity and heating, it was heresy to talk about "saving energy" (and still it is, in Romania). Thus "safe and clean" nuclear energy seems to be an excellent solution? How much we argued about that with anti-nuclear activists!

In July 1992, me and some of my friends organized the EYFA-Bike tour in our region. In our small town, people from all over the world halted for one night and talked to our neighbors and friends. I wasn't much more informed than others but I told them what I saw in Germany. "Let's make an NGO ourselves!" my friends said. So, A.R.I.N. was born: the Romanian Association of Nature Lovers.
"Arin" means, in our language, "alder"; a small tree near the rivers, the first one sacrificed for fire or other reasons. But also the one keeping the riverbank from being destroyed by floods and erosion. Our start was that we loved nature. Some of us were mountain people: mountaineers, speleologists, (funding) members of the rescue-team in the mountains. And some of them were people working in the uranium mine. We didn't know how dangerous radiation was (remember how they always said: "It isn't dangerous").

I was on my way to the exploration site, the last hill to dismount.... I was going to arrive in a wonderful valley (called Leuca), a valley as nice as a goddess; I was on my way, on this beautiful wild path going to the river.
Only one hill to dismount... and I heard Leuca's song: "Please, save me from all those people!" And I realized in which state the valley would be transformed: dirty, without forest, without animals; only explosions, only lorries, only roads for the transport of the uranium. And I started to realize the consequences: the fruit poisoned, the goats' milk contaminated with radioactive elements, and dear old Victor Brad, geologist who died of lung cancer...
And I cried: "I'll try. I promise!" The Earth had shown me its secrets--but only after I sold my soul in my search for uranium! And on that moment I had no passion anymore for mining; I was only loving the valley!

Two weeks later, my function was officially renamed and my job was eliminated: I became unemployed. I did not fight: I knew the company didn't like me--not at all! In fact, I was somehow glad, despite the uncertainty of my future: in Romania it was (and still is) something about life and death to be unemployed!
Anyway, that mining sector didn't survive. They weren't able to find enough uranium or to profitably explore the existing uranium ore. In 1995 the work definitively stopped.

What happened then? A.R.I.N. was legally registered as an NGO. We learned how NGO's were working. Some people left ARIN: how can one work in a NGO without payment, if the conditions are so hard that it is already difficult to survive with a paying job. The conditions for living in Romania became worse and worse. We understood more and more about the dangers of radiation, we were able to see a lot of things in a totally different light. The radioactive pollution, and the damn mine became a personnel problem! We hated it! The same incompetence and pillage mentality we knew so well from the mine were destroying Romania. The mine was the symbol of Incompetence, the Lack of Democracy, the Lie Monster!

And in 1995, the director of the SRI (the former Securitate, the Secret Intelligence Service) said: "Some agents paid by Russia try to undermine national economy by spreading the mistrust in the national nuclear industry!" A wild freezing wind touched our minds! Was that possible? In a democratic country? Was Romania in fact one?

We realized how weak we were. So, we tried to find alternatives to develop a comfortable life and a decent world. We concluded that "sustainable development" was the right concept--but how to convince others? What words could be successful for people who have been living year after year in darkness and cold?
We, who continued the work, developed ideas. For the Apuseni Mountains, we demanded a rural sustainable development (they are perhaps the most unique inhabited mountains in Europe). At the same time, we tried to find evidence about radioactive pollution; which is, for the moment, very difficult. Since 1996 there is a "Radiation Law", but with only limited regulations.

Our work was dangerous--especially because of the system of secrecy and the possibility to be treated as a "traitor". There is always the threat of people who are afraid to lose their jobs because of our environmental work. Besides, it cost a lot of money for us.
So we started to change our strategy. We tried to include respect for human rights: to be informed; to live in a clean environment; to express freely one's opinion. And we were looking for cooperation with NGO's working in these fields. We signed all the resolutions about human rights, we looked for protection and we found partners to look after us. We still know we are weak, as individuals--but our NGO changed a lot!

In another part of the country (in the city of Braila, on the Danube river), some of us started a new branch. Amazing! This group was more successful in carrying out our anti-nuclear activity. We realized that there were less people depending on the nuclear industry. Now we even have some friends who have helped us to realize our first poster about radioactive pollution around the uranium mine. With small funds, we multiplied it.

Anyway, we know we have strong enemies--and the fact that we are really unpolitical didn't help us very much. But, in 1998, we found our most funny partner: a Science Fiction Circle! They have vision, artists, public! They are young and nice. And, in fact, isn't environment protection treated as some fantasy problem in Romania? In any case, it's surely not treated as a scientific one....

Source and Contact: Mihaela-Codruta Nedelcu, A.R.I.N. (Romanian Association of Nature Lovers), Aleea Cinematografului nr. 2, BL. H3, SC. 2, AP. 27, 6100 Braila, Romania

Uranium-mining in Romania

At the end of the Second World War, Russians found German documentation about uranium ore in the Apuseni Mountains (West Carpathian mountains, near the Hungarian border). The exploitation at Baitza Plai started in 1952. A Russian-Romanian company was founded (Sovrom-cuartt). About 15,000 persons were working in the company, mainly political prisoners. After the biggest part of them died, villagers in the mountains were lured by big salaries to work in the mines. Nobody told them about the danger of radiation. In fact, they didn't even know what they mined.

In 1960, when the company realized the richest uranium ore was mined, the Russians left the area. Romania started a new mine; 7 km from Baitza. The level of openness increased a bit, but the working conditions not at all. In the last years of the Ceausescu's dictatorship, the showers, for example, functioned very rarely, because of... "water and energy savings". In December 1989, the Bihor Mining Company employed 4,600 persons; about half of them in uranium mining. All data about uranium mining (including possible pollution) were "secret". It was impossible to know the real data about uranium mining or pollution. Due to a realization that high officials of the Party did not reflect correct uranium production, it was necessary to falsify reports.