Gordon Edwards: This is a great question. The answer hinges on the remarkable properties of uranium, and the unprecedented nature of the health dangers that it poses. In order to answer the question properly, a good deal of explanation is required.
Tens of thousands of doctors and health professionals in 64 countries belong to IPPNW (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War), a Nobel-Prize winning organization that has called for the abolition of uranium mining worldwide. All doctors swear an oath that features an admonition to “do no harm.” The medical hazards posed by uranium are extremely long-lived and potentially devastating to the health and safety of humans and the environment now and in the distant future, whereas the benefits of uranium are short-term and obtainable in alternative ways. Thus IPPNW regards the abolition of uranium mining as a medical priority. It is a case of preventative medicine on a global scale.
I am the scientific advisor to PGS, Physicians for Global Survival (the Canadian branch of IPPNW) whose Board of Directors sent me to Greenland to share information about uranium mining. The primary reasons why IPPNW and PGS oppose uranium mining are threefold:
1. uranium is the key ingredient in nuclear weaponry that threatens the health and the very survival of all humanity;
2. nuclear reactors fuelled with uranium create the most biologically damaging industrial waste ever produced;
3. uranium mining leaves behind radioactive residues that will pose a health danger for hundreds of thousands of years.
Uranium had no use prior to the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938-39, at the outset of World War II. The first practical use of uranium was to build atomic bombs that were used to destroy two cities filled with men, women and children. About 200,000 people were killed promptly by the bombs, and many thousands of innocent people died lingering deaths from radiation-induced illnesses many decades later. Canada supplied uranium for the WWII Atomic Bomb Project, and for 20 years afterwards Canada sold large quantities of uranium to help build tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. There were no non-military markets for uranium at the time, and the entire industry was shrouded in Cold War secrecy.
In 1965, Canada declared that its uranium would no longer be sold for bombs, but only as fuel for nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors can be used for scientific research, to produce electricity, and to produce isotopes for use in medicine and industry. But in 1974, India exploded its first atomic bomb using plutonium from a Canadian nuclear reactor, fuelled by uranium, given to India as a gift. Plutonium is a uranium derivative not found in nature, and all reactors fuelled with uranium produce plutonium as a byproduct. Plutonium is a nuclear explosive material that can be used to build nuclear weapons even thousands of years in the future.
IPPNW was formed in 1980 by a group of Soviet and American doctors to alert political leaders and the general population to the unprecedented threat to human survival posed by nuclear arms. A nuclear war would be a medical disaster of unimaginable proportions – there would be no hospitals, few doctors, and no cure. Medical procedures would be ineffective. By documenting the case for abolishing nuclear arms in stark medical terms, IPPNW won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.
By that time the health dangers of nuclear reactors had also become well-known. When uranium is used to fuel a nuclear reactor, hundreds of new radioactive materials are created that are, collectively, millions of times more radioactive than uranium itself. Radioactivity cannot be shut off, so it keeps adding more and more heat even after the reactor is completely shut down. Unless that heat is removed as fast as it is produced, the temperature of the fuel soars higher and higher until it reaches the melting point of 2800 degrees Celsius, leading to the total destruction of the reactor core and massive releases of radioactive poisons from the molten uranium fuel. Such a catastrophic event is called a meltdown.
The first partial meltdown in a power reactor occurred in 1979 at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Complete nuclear meltdowns occurred in 1986 at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, and in 2011 at Fukushima-Daiichi, in Japan. Radioactive materials released from such accidents threaten the health of millions, including the health of future generations. In 1976 a British Royal Commission Report noted that, if nuclear power had been common in Europe before WWII, large parts of Europe would be uninhabitable today because of conventional bombing and wartime sabotage of reactors resulting in multiple uncontained meltdowns.
Even without meltdowns, the potential health hazard from irradiated uranium fuel is unparalleled and extremely long-lived. A single irradiated fuel assembly freshly withdrawn from a reactor will deliver a lethal dose of gamma radiation to a person one metre away in less than a minute. Although the radioactivity diminishes as the years go by, irradiated uranium fuel remains incredibly radiotoxic for tens of millions of years, with a potential to cause billions of cancers and other ailments.
Physicians know that chronic exposure to radioactivity, even at low levels, will cause an increase in the incidence of cancer and inherited diseases. Such exposure also weakens the immune system that the human body needs to fight infectious diseases. There is as yet no proven safe method for keeping nuclear reactor wastes out of the environment of living things for a period of time exceeding the span of recorded human history. Several attempts in the USA and Germany to bury radioactive waste permanently in underground repositories have failed. Some are questioning the wisdom of abandoning this dangerous material under any circumstances. On medical grounds, IPPNW and PGS oppose the continued mass-production of indestructible man-made radioactive poisons in nuclear reactors.
The dangers of uranium mining became apparent in Canada in the mid 1970s, after some of the military secrecy surrounding this 30-year old industry was lifted. In 1975 an Ontario inquiry into the health and safety of workers in mines revealed that uranium miners were dying at an alarming rate from radiation-induced lung cancers twenty years or more after their radiation exposures first occurred. In 1978 it was reported that a 55-mile stretch of the Serpent River System, involving 18 lakes, had become a “biological desert” as a result of contamination from uranium mining operations. A hundred million tonnes of sand-like radioactive wastes called “uranium tailings” had accumulated in the Elliot Lake region of Ontario. Over 30 tailings dam failures in that region had dispersed long-lived radioactive poisons and dangerous chemicals into the surface waters.
Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive heavy metal. It spontaneously produces two dozen other radioactive byproducts, called “uranium progeny”, through the process of radioactive disintegration. Among these are some of the most biologically damaging materials known to science, such as radium, radon gas, and polonium – all discovered less than 120 years ago. Radon gas is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Radium exposure has caused bone cancers, head cancers, and fatal blood diseases. Polonium is millions of times more toxic than cyanide, and has been implicated in provoking the vast majority of heart attacks and strokes as well as lung cancers in smokers.
These are all naturally-occurring materials, but uranium mining makes them much more available to the environment of living things, instead of being locked up in hard rock formations. Milling the ore leaves uranium progeny behind in millions of tonnes of finely ground radioactive sand that can be easily blown by the wind, washed by the rain, sifted into the food chain, or employed by ignorant people as construction materials – a practice that has occurred in numerous communities in North America. Port Hope Ontario is the home of the world’s largest uranium conversion facility. In 1975, St. Mary’s elementary school in Port Hope had to be evacuated because of a medical emergency: the radon levels in the school cafeteria were greater than the maximum levels allowed in uranium mines. In addition, hundreds of radioactively contaminated homes in Port Hope had to be destroyed or decontaminated. Today, a two-billion-dollar environmental cleanup is underway in Port Hope involving the recovery of over a million cubic metres of dangerous radioactive material that was dumped in ravines and in the harbor, or used as construction material in homes, schools and roadways. These problems are the direct result of carelessness in managing uranium wastes.
In Canada, there are no uranium mines in agricultural areas. Most are sited in remote areas, often adjacent to traditional lands of indigenous people. When a uranium mine was proposed in 1979 for the prosperous little town of Clearwater, British Columbia, reaction was swift and overwhelming. Fruitgrowers and local merchants joined environmentalists and scientists in opposing the proposed mine, and the town’s physicians highlighted the medical hazards. The BC government launched a public inquiry into uranium mining. The BC Medical Association assigned two physicians to attend the hearings in order to report on the health aspects of all testimony. The result was a 400-page report entitled The Health Dangers of Uranium Mining, written by Drs. Woollard and Young, published by the BCMA. The report, filled with scientific data, was alarming and hard-hitting, charging that national and international regulatory agencies had systematically disregarded or misrepresented clear scientific evidence of harm. The medical testimony was so shocking that the government abruptly cancelled the Inquiry and declared a seven-year moratorium on uranium mining. Decades later, in 2008, a permanent ban on uranium mining was declared in BC.
In 1982, thousands of kilometres away from BC, medical doctors played a role in bringing abut a moratorium on uranium mining in Nova Scotia. Ultimately, Nova Scotia passed a 2009 law banning uranium mining altogether and forbidding exploratory mining activities for any mineral if it would disturb a radioactive ore body. The province recognized the logic of leaving all the uranium progeny in the ground rather than bringing them to the surface to plague future generations. Such a policy makes particular sense in a small province like Nova Scotia, where any mine would have to be located close to population centers.
Serious uranium exploration began in Quebec when the 2007 “price bubble” drove uranium prices unrealistically high. Before that bubble burst and prices plummeted once again, a huge amount of exploration activity took place all over the province, from Cree and Inuit territories in the North, to the Cote Nord and Mont Laurier regions in the South. In December 2008, 31 physicians from the City of Sept-Iles wrote an open letter to the government, saying they would resign their positions at the hospital and leave the community, perhaps even leave the province, unless Quebec declared a moratorium on uranium mining. As doctors, they did not want to have to deal with radiation-induced illnesses that were entirely preventable simply by leaving the radioactive material in the ground. In 2012 a moratorium was declared and the government launched a one-year public hearing into generic issues related to uranium mining. The final report from the hearing was filed in June 2015. It was not supportive of uranium mining. Quebec has now set up an interdepartmental committee to decide on what to do next – to ban uranium completely, or to extend the moratorium.
Saskatchewan is the only Canadian province currently involved in uranium mining. While improvements have been made in the handling and storing of uranium tailings during the operational phase, such results depend on having a strong, competent, and independent regulatory authority that has the power to implement tough regulations. It must be politically accountable to a vigilant government and a well-informed public. But even under the best circumstances, there comes a time when these voluminous long-lived radioactive wastes will be abandoned. Who then will have the authority, the knowledge, and the resources to safeguard the environment for countless millennia after the mining operations have been terminated and the mining company has moved on or disappeared? The medical hazards will last for hundreds of thousands of years, and will long outlive any government or regulatory agency. Who knows how to keep hundreds of millions of tonnes of radioactive sand out of the environment forever? Eighty-five percent of the radioactivity in the ore body will remain in the uranium wastes, producing vast amounts of radon gas for hundreds of millennia.
There are many ways to generate electricity that do not involve the production of nuclear explosive materials like plutonium, or long-lived nuclear wastes like irradiated uranium fuel. There are alternative ways of producing isotopes for medical and industrial use that do not require the use of nuclear reactors or uranium. Indeed, the only technology that absolutely requires uranium is the construction of nuclear weapons. Many physicians are opposed to jeopardizing the long-term health of human populations for no essentially good reason.