[To hear the full audio soundtrack version, click on the Blogger title above.]
George Bush, Tony Blair, and John Howard want to bring back nuclear power from the graves of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. They say it’s a clean, safe solution to climate change, and a replacement for dwindling oil supplies. Environment icons like George Monbiot, Stewart Brand, and James Lovelock are now endorsing nuclear power, as the Way Out.
The whole radioactive scheme is dangerous and insane – from uranium mining, through billion year lifetime reactor waste, and so-called “depleted” uranium bombs and bullets, – all the inevitable way to weapons which incinerate whole cities full of people. We call this social disease the nuclear industry. Today, we take a look at the beginning of it all: uranium mining, the pit of madness.
[Clip: Performance – Australia Made Out of Uranium]
As we will learn, in an important new audio documentary from Australia, uranium mining leaves mountains of radioactive waste that will, over time, be distributed across continents, and the globe. With no planning, foresight, or guilt, the current generation passively permits a new eon of radiation, instead of cutting the glut of energy waste in our homes, and cities. Rather than turn off a few lights, or open a garage door by hand, we risk it all, forever.
Let’s get to the important details, from the passionate research of one Peter Pedals, first broadcast on Nim FM (at nimfm.org), a community radio station in Northern Australia, deep in the heart of uranium mining country. This four part, four hour documentary is a school house – for all those who live within a few hundred miles of uranium mines, for those down wind, or down river, and for everyone who breathes air from an atmosphere increasingly saturated with radioactive particles. Throughout, I’ll be quoting and paraphrasing from the documentary called “Uranium Mining in Australia.”
When they sell you on clean, safe nuclear plants, remember this.
Peter Pedal: “Uranium is a finite resource that will have deadly and disastrous consequences for all life forms, if dispersed into the environment, either by way of mining, of the waste products, after the fuel is spent. It is neither ethical, nor possible, to combat our greenhouse problems with a nuclear solution, the legacy of which will be born by our future generations with disease, genetic damage, and death, from radiation cancer.”
OK, that’s a fine sermon. But does he have the facts? Yes, indeed. He has glowing mountains of them, in Australia, the same facts sadly found in Canada, and other uranium mining countries.
Nuclear advocates, the ones who get billions in subsidies from taxpayers, but can’t raise anything from stock investors, without taxpayer guarantees, tell us that uranium is perfectly natural.
Uranium is called a “heavy metal,” because the nucleus is built out of many particles. While the nucleus of a hydrogen atom contains just one particle, the most sought after type of uranium has 238 particles. This combination is unstable, tending to throw off atomic parts, breaking down into a chain of substances with different names. As it breaks down, uranium releases a form of energy deadly to human and all life forms, called radiation.
There has always been a low level of radiation coming out of the ground, in the sea, and in the air. For example, we learn there are about 3 milligrams of natural radioactivity per ton of sea water. Granite may contain radioactive materials as much as 4 grams per ton. Coal is much more radioactive, holding as much as 400 grams per ton. Coal burning power stations are a major source of new radioactivity – for more on that you can read, or listen, to the Radio Ecoshock feature “Coal Plant Radiation” further down in this blog.
Over billions of years of evolution, living things have adapted to this “background” radiation. But living cells are finely tuned, sensitive to this kind of energy. A tiny increase causes cells to break down, or reproduce with gross imperfections in the next generation. When humans add large doses to background radiation, living things have no time to adapt, even if they could.
Whether by divine plan, or biological necessity, most uranium, and all plutonium, was buried deep into the earth’s crust. That is what protects us. Who could believe that humans would dig it up, drag it to the surface, and mill it down into fine particles, perfect for transport by wind and water?
The rock mined from Australia contain about three KILOGRAMS of uranium per ton. As each kilogram of uranium deteriorates, called “fission,” it releases as much energy as 20 tons of coal, without releasing carbon. According to Peter Pedals’ research, “every ton of mined uranium used for fuel, in place of coal, saves the emission of 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide.”
We already produce about 17 percent of the world’s electricity with nuclear energy. Sounds like the magic solution for all our electricity needs, doesn’t it?
It’s time to go down under with Peter Pedals, to learn the names of the places where cancer and bombs are born.
[from “Uranium Mining in Australia, Hour One]
“Even though Australia does not have any nuclear power stations, it does mine and export uranium. Australian mines provide about 22 percent of the world’s uranium, second only to Canada. There are 3 operating uranium mines in Australia: ‘Ranger,’ in the Northern Territory, ‘Olympic Dam’, and ‘Beverley’ in South Australia.
A fourth, is cleared to start construction soon, ‘Honeymoon’ in South Australia. The South Australian government voted against the opening of this mine, but the Federal government forced it upon them.
In 2001 and 2002, Australia produced more than 7,000 tons of uranium oxide, generating over 350 million Australian dollars of export revenue. Australian uranium export was just over 5,000 tons in ’95-96. And it’s climbed to over 11,000 tons in 2005. About 50% of this comes from the Ranger mine, 40% from the Olympic Dam mine, and 10% from the Beverley mine.
We are consoled with the undertaking that Australian uranium is only exported to countries that will use it solely for peaceful purposes – like France, who carried out atomic bomb tests in the Pacific, close to Australia, from which we got the radioactive fallout. And the United States, which uses the radioactive waste, called “depleted uranium,” to bombard any country that the U.S. chooses to go to war with.”
America, the only nation to use the atomic bomb to incinerate cities, is using Canadian and Australian uranium to develop new types of nuclear weapons, from bunker busters, to secret space-based terror weapons.
[Clip: Mine Protest 1, Chanting of anti-nuclear protesters]
Australians with a conscience have protested the ever expanding trade in radioactive materials, and opening of yet another uranium mine.
[Clip Mine Protest 2: Song: “Let’s Stop Uranium Mining.”]
But now, with world-wide fears of climate change, the nuclear power lobby is looking for big money. Uranium prices and stocks are going up. For the first time in decades, there is talk about building a so-called “new generation” of nuclear reactors, all with the final possibility of Chernobyl multiplied.
Back to the mine waste, known as “tailings.”
[from the documentary:] “The radiation from the mining waste, known as uranium tailings, is many million times more dangerous to humans, than the radiation from the ore, in its original state. These tailings are being produced in vast quantities in Australia – 14,000 tons each day – and they will cost human lives for millions of years.
By law, the tailings are required to be safely contains for one thousand years. Erosion may start even within 100 years. Even after a thousand years, the tailings retain 99 percent of their original radioactivity. A scientific fact.
The uranium tailings issue presents an unprecedented challenge to our ethical framework, paralleled only by the potential for a large-scale nuclear war. But while such a war is hypothetical, the future tragedy from our uranium tailings is a certainty.”
The most common disease from uranium tailings is lung cancer, caused by inhaling radioactive isotopes, as a gas, or in fine particles created by milling. Later, as the tailings begin to spread through water erosion, and wind, people ingest trace amounts of radioactivity. This causes birth defects, still births, leukemia, and many types of cancer, including intestinal cancer. Other impacts include Down’s Syndrome, premature aging, and a general weakening of the immune system, leading to other diseases.
Anywhere uranium is mined, there is always pressure to take back the spent fuel from reactors, and other radioactive waste from diverse sources, including industrial and medical use. In the 1980’s, against fierce local opposition, the Government of Ontario, Canada, tried to ship radioactive soil to a uranium mine near the village of Bancroft.
In Australia, the Federal government has proposed several sites, some near military bases, to receive the hot waste of a nuclear world. Local citizens are outraged. But before any environmental impact studies, the government has announced that one of three sites in the Northern Territories will become the nuclear dumping ground, the American Yucca Mountain, without the bother of deep underground storage.
Australia has already agreed to accept nuclear waste back from Britain and France, starting in 2011. In the bad old days, Britain dumped its poor and its criminals in Australia. Now they dump their deadly waste there.
The miners themselves trade their lives for mortgage payments and drinks at the pub. Alcoholism and spousal abuse among miners is very high. They die young from lung and other cancers, leaving uranium widows, and fatherless children. We burn up their lives in a lightbulb. And it doesn’t end with dead miners:
[Clip: Health of Namibian Uranium Miners from Hour 4]
“A new study, “Chromosomal Aberrations With Namibian Uranium Mine Workers,” in Zaire in 1995, indicates the extent of the damage caused by radiation exposure. The highest dose of those workers was only 5 milliseverts, which compares with 20 milliseverts, and 50 milliserverts permitted in Australia – far beyond the known increase in birth defects and still births. Much of this genetic damage will be passed on from generation to generation, to leave a permanent mark on humanity.”
All the government studies try to forecast what will happen to uranium mine waste for the next 1000 years. Even during that first thousand years, conservative scientific studies presume that the tailings from just one Australian uranium mine will eventually cause 10,000 deaths around the world. Even 150,000 years from now, if humans still survive, hundreds of them will die from radioactive particles coming from Australian uranium mine tailings. They will wonder: What gave them the right, that short-sighted generation, to make death piles that last forever?
[Clip: Future Victims]
“These large scales of time and space perfectly hide the death toll, and disassociate today’s perpetrators from their future victims.”
After the uranium for reactors, or bombs, or bullets, is extracted, “80 percent of the radioactivity in the original ore remains in the tailings.” Due to their sheer volume, and shoddy storage, uranium tailings are a greater threat than spent reactor fuel. A completely unreported story.
The main force of these tailings is “alpha” radiation, about 20 times more dangerous that “beta,” and “gamma” radiation. Alpha radiation needs to get inside the human body to kill us, but in nature this rarely happens. The particles are in large chunks of ore, too big to get inside of us. But here is the critical point about uranium mining, and tailings. In order to get concentrated uranium out of rock, the ore is ground up into fine particles – perfect for entry into our bodies. We create a millions of little radioactive vehicles to infect ourselves, by milling ore. Instead of chunks of massive rock, the tailings are finely ground uranium, a new danger never seen before on this planet.
These milled particles are easily carried by erosion, by storm waters, by underground aquifers, and by the wind, up into the atmosphere of earth. The mining companies cover the tailings with a thin layer of dirt, but really, nothing is contained for long.
In just a single uranium mine operation, at Olympic Dam, Pedal tells us:
[Clip: from Hour 2]
“This tailings deposit will be 12 square kilometers in size and some thirty meters high, the height of a ten story building. To prevent tailings erosions, the tailings deposit will eventually be covered with one a half meters of clay and rocks. This is supposed to fulfill the regulator requirement of a life expectancy of 1,000 years for tailings repositories. However, this cover will be breached within a hundred years of the mine closure…A single breach in the cover is enough to get the tailings erosions started.”
Government figures assume the climate and rainfall will remain the same at uranium mine sites – but climate change may bring a whole new system of rainfall, not to mention severe storms with new record heavy rains and flooding. How long will a couple of meters of dirt keep these new mountains of radioactive dust covered?
Here is the new long-term future of Australia, that magic continent which held nature’s treasures for so long:
[Clip: Tailings Blow Forever from Hour 2]
“Each year, some 8,000 to 40,000 meters of tailings will be blown off the Olympic dam deposit. Each cubic meter of tailings contains some 1.75 million grams of tailings particles. And each of these particles can cause illness, or death, to any person who inhales or swallows it.
This erosion continues year after year, and would only slowly decrease as the radioactivity diminishes. After 80,000 years, it would reduce to 50%. After 200,00 years, to 35%.”
Some of these particles, each of them deadly, will blow up into the upper atmosphere, to circulate around the world. If we stop pushing carbon into the atmosphere, it will dissipate in one or two hundred years. But our radioactive burden, from tailings, depleted uranium, and reactor waste, will live on, almost forever.
[Clip: Performance – Aboriginal Lament from Hour 2]
Peter Pedals looks long into the future, thinking how humans will inevitably move back into the area of mine tailings. Perhaps they will not know anything about us, and our activities. Their crops, their water, and their lives will be saturated with an unseen killer. More awful than war crimes, these are crimes against the future.
But we don’t have to wait a thousand years to know how humans are. Even with our supposedly advanced science, thousands of Canadians have already used uranium mine tailings as backfill around their houses. A short-lived but deadly radioactive gas, a bi-product of uranium called “radon,” leaks into their basements. Governments advise homeowners to plug up cracks and holes in the concrete. Some people keep fans running constantly, hoping to blow out the radiation. Some don’t know about it, and die hard, and early.
While the tragedy unfolds, corrupt politicians and intellectuals lurch back toward nuclear power. But those who live near the source of this evil stream know better. As Peter Pedals concludes:
[Clip from Hour 4]
“Uranium should be left in the ground. Maintaining our affluent life styles is not that important, that we must sacrifice our future descendents, in order to satisfy our greed today.”
To subscribe to the enriched audio podcasts from Radio Ecoshock, copy this address to your podcast receiver: