The Ten Deceptions, Part VIII
Mining and Tailings
Nuclear Tailings Another illusion presented by the activists around the idea that no level of increase of radiation should be tolerated is the idea that the disturbed earth through uranium mining causes an increase in radioactivity.
When they talk of nuclear waste they will often lump in the what is called nuclear “tailings” which is the left over ore after the rich uranium has been extracted and brought to the surface. The mining companies have had to deal with over 400 million tons of these tailings in the United States and Canada. These tailings contain uranium 238 which disintegrates into thorium 230 and radon gas, both of which have some radioactivity.
If you read the activists web pages you would think that a person would have to be insane to be a uranium miner. They make it sound like minorities are forced to work there by the point of a sword and nervously go to work every day out of desperation to feed their families.
In reality most uranium miners are happy with their work and make as much as some doctors and lawyers.
The statistics the activists cite are from a past era when the nuclear industry was young, none of them I have seen are less than 20 years old. It is true that uranium mining as well, as coal, silver, gold diamonds etc posed a greater heath threats in years past than they do today. The miners in both coal and uranium mines breathed too much dust and had some ill health effects from it. Asbestos miners were particularly affected.
But since the 1980’s there have been great improvements in filtration so uranium miners work today in a much healthier atmosphere than in past decades.
Mining of any kind is a fairly high risk business and one of the highest sources of risk comes from accidents rather than radiation. That is one reason the pay is good.
If the activists were really concerned about the uranium miners and the effects of the tailings then you would think they would support the building of breeder reactors which could operate another thousand years with no additional mining necessary.
So what about these tailings? Are they really a threat to humanity?
Bernard Cohen, a real nuclear scientist, tells us this. The statistical deaths from exposure to the radon from the tailings of one large nuclear power plant would cause .003 deaths per year. That would mean we would have to mine for 333 years to cause one death from these dreaded tailings.
BUT – This statistic is based on just leaving the tailings exposed on the ground. Most mines cover these tailings with a layer of earth which also covers up this low level radioactivity. This reduces the death rate to the point it would take over 66,000 years to cause one death by radiation for the supplying of one plant, or about 166 years for all the mining on the planet.
Again, here we’re talking about danger much less than the risk of getting struck by lightening, or getting eaten by a tiger that escapes from the zoo. We have enough real concerns to worry about without drumming up haunting apparitions about the nuclear industry.
The interesting thing is that coal also has uranium in it and that the waste from coal is not buried in the earth as are uranium tailings. Consequently the radiation given off from coal mining is much greater than that which the public fears so much from uranium mines. The health risk in current coal mines is also greater than from uranium mines.
What may be startling to some is that the health risk due to radon in energy efficient homes may be 35 times as great as exposure to a waste area of a uranium mine.
Why is this? Radon gas circulates to some extent in every home. It comes from the earth below, bricks, stones and insulation in our homes. If you live in a very energy efficient home that traps in the heat, you will also be trapping in the radon gas producing a much greater danger for yourself than the uranium waste from a mine.
It is quite ironical that conservation is more dangerous than exposure to nuclear mining waste.
It is also interesting that switching from a large to an smaller gas efficient car greatly increases the risk of death from a car accident. In fact Cohen says it is 2000 times more dangerous than getting 100% of our electricity from a nuclear power plant.
Copyright by J J Dewey
Nov 10, 2001
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