Uranium seminar Narsaq 2016: Bill Williams, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

My name is Gordon Edwards. I am the President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility. Our CCNR web site has a lot of information on uranium mining and nuclear power. I am a retired professor of mathematics and science.  I have served as an expert consultant for governmental and non-governmental organizations on issues related to nuclear power and uranium mining for 40 years.

I am not a medical doctor, but I am the senior scientific advisor to an association of Canadian medical doctors called Physicians for Global Survival (PGS). PGS is opposed to nuclear power and uranium mining for medical reasons, and they have sent me here as their representative to explain the dangers of uranium mining.

Since 1975, doctors have played a leading role in stopping uranium exploration and mining activities in large parts of Canada. In 1980 the BC Medical Association published a 400-page volume entitled “The Health Dangers of Uranium”, filled with scientific evidence. The BC government acted by cancelling a public inquiry into uranium mining that was already underway, and declaring a 7-year moratorium on uranium exploration and mining in the province. Many years later, in 2008, British Columbia finally declared a permanent ban on uranium extraction.

4000 kilometres away from British Columbia is the province of Nova Scotia. That province declared a moratorium on uranium in 1982, and again the medical doctors played an important role by producing the evidence of medical harm. In 2009, Nova Scotia finally passed a law forbidding the mining of and exploration for uranium.

If the mine now proposed for Greenland had been proposed in Nova Scotia, it would be against the law. The company could not even carry out any exploratory activities.

In my province of Quebec, a uranium moratorium was declared in 2012. One of the events that led to this moratorium was an open letter to the government signed by 23 medical doctors from the City of Sept-Iles. The letter said that if the government did not act to stop uranium exploration and mining in their region, these doctors would quit their jobs at the hospital, leave the City they were living in, and perhaps even leave the province.

The voices of these doctors, added to anti-uranium resolutions passed by 4 hundred Quebec municipalities, and reinforced by the powerful voice of the Grand Council of the Cree Nations, made it very clear that uranium mining is not welcome in Quebec. The government has set up a committee to recommend a course of action — whether to ban uranium permanently, or to extend the existing moratorium, or what.

Canada is and always has been one of the biggest producers and exporters of uranium in the world. Nevertheless, three of Canada’s ten provinces have outlawed uranium mining, and health professionals have played an important role in each case. Let me now explain why these medical professionals are opposed to uranium mining.

 

 

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All things are made of atoms. Every atom has a tiny core called a “nucleus”. Energy from the nucleus is called “nuclear energy”. It’s the most powerful energy known. Science did not even know this energy existed until 120 years ago.

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This is a model of the uranium atom. It is the heaviest element in nature.

In 1938, just before I was born, scientists discovered that enormous nuclear energy can be released by “splitting” the nucleus of uranium atoms. That energy can be used to make an atomic bomb, or to run a machine called a nuclear reactor. Without uranium, no nuclear weapons or nuclear reactors would be possible.  There is no other significant use for uranium.

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This is a Russian monument to the splitting of the uranium atom.

The half-circles represent the energy that is released, and the two half-balls represent the broken pieces of the uranium atom. There are hundreds of different kinds of broken pieces. They are called “fission products”.  They are very dangerous to living things because they are highly radioactive.

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A single atomic bomb destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6 1945.

It was immediately clear that nuclear warfare had the potential to destroy human civilization and kill most higher forms of life because of the aftermath of such a war.

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After 1965 Canadian uranium would be sold only for peaceful purposes, as fuel for nuclear reactors.

But in 1974, India used a man-made substance called plutonium produced inside a Canadian nuclear reactor to explode its first atomic bomb. Inside every nuclear reactor, some of the uranium atoms used as fuel are changed into plutonium atoms, and plutonium is an even more powerful nuclear explosive than uranium. So even the peaceful use of uranium produces material for atomic bombs.

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The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) is a global association of medical doctors that calls for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

IPPNW explains the catastrophic medical consequences that would happen following a nuclear war – no hospitals, no medicines, no facilities to treat patients. IPPNW won the Nobel Prize in 1985 for their outstanding educational activities. Physicians for Global Survival is the Canadian branch of IPPNW.

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In 2010, after years of debate, IPPNW called for a global ban on uranium mining.

Of course, uranium being used in nuclear weapons had to be stopped. But what if uranium is used for peaceful purposes, as fuel  in nuclear reactors? Unfortunately, even when it is used for peaceful purposes, uranium fuel produces plutonium that can be used for bombs 1000s of years from now.  Once created, it can’t be destroyed.

In addition, the used nuclear fuel becomes “high level nuclear waste” containing all those hundreds of varieties of broken pieces of uranium atoms – the fission products. This material remains highly dangerous for millions of years, because radioactivity is a form of nuclear energy that cannot be shut off.

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So what is radioactivity? Most atoms are stable – they never change. But a radioactive atom is one that has an unstable nucleus – it will disintegrate, suddenly and violently.  It is like a little “time bomb”. And when it disintegrates, it gives off a burst of that powerful “nuclear energy”.

When a radioactive nucleus disintegrates, it throws off a very high-speed particle. There are two types: the beta particle, which is a bit like a subatomic bullet, and the alpha particle, which is more like a subatomic cannon ball.  The alpha particle is 7000 times more massive than the beta particle.  Each alpha particle is 100 to 200 times more biologically damaging than a beta particle.

In addition, many radioactive materials (but not all!) give off a burst of penetrating energy called a gamma ray. A gamma ray is like an x-ray but more powerful.  Together, these three types of radioactive emissions – alpha, beta, and gamma – are called “atomic radiation”.

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It is only at the moment of disintegration that biological harm can be done by a radioactive material. When radioactive emissions hit a living cell, the cell is either killed or damaged. If  it is damaged and able to reproduce, that cell can develop into an abnormal growth – a cancerous tumor, for example, or a malformed child.

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In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered that a rock containing uranium gives off a mysterious invisible light that can penetrate right through black wrapping paper and create a photographic image on the film inside. Two years later, in 1898, Marie Curie separated the uranium from the rock. She found that uranium is indeed radioactive, but the crushed rock left behind is about six times more radioactive than the uranium itself.  She explored, and discovered two new radioactive materials in the crushed rock, called “radium” and “polonium”. A student of hers found that the radium (which is a metal) also gives off a radioactive gas called “radon”.

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We now know that when a radioactive atom disintegrates, it changes into a completely different kind of atom. For example, a radium atom changes into an atom of radon gas.  And a radon gas atom changes into an atom of polonium.  And uranium atoms eventually change into radium atoms, slowly but surely. So uranium is never alone, it has a whole family of other radioactive materials called the “progeny” of uranium.  It’s as if uranium were the great great grandfather, and these other radioactive elements are the descendants of uranium.

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In the first half of the twentieth century doctors learned how dangerous these radioactive materials can be. In 1920, radium sold for $100,000 per gram, and it was used for many things, including a “glow-in-the-dark” paint.  But the young girls who worked with the radium-based paint started dying of severe anemia, the same blood disease that killed Marie Curie and her daughter Irene.  Before long these girls, the radium dial painters, developed bone cancer.  And later still, they developed cancers of the head.  Radium is now considered too dangerous to use, and it is thrown away as a waste byproduct at any location where they mine uranium.

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By the 1930s it was demonstrated that radon gas had been killing thousands of underground miners for several centuries by causing lung cancer. These were not uranium  miners, but men who were mining for other things like silver, or cobalt.  In Newfoundland there was an enormous death toll from radon gas among fluorspar miners, even though there was no uranium at all in the ore body.  It is known that rare earth mines always contain an important fraction of uranium, so radon gas is always a problem in such mines.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 20 to 30 thousand Americans die every year from lung cancer caused by breathing radon gas in their homes. But every atom of radon begins as an atom of uranium, so uranium mines have more radon gas than any other kind of environment by far. Radon is acknowledged to be the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.

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Polonium is the most dangerous element on earth. It is a radioactive disintegration byproduct of radon gas, also called a “decay product”.  There are three types of polonium associated with uranium  mines, called polonium-218, polonium-214, and polonium-210.  According to the US Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory web site, polonium-210 is 250 BILLION times more toxic than cyanide, one of the deadliest chemical poisons known.  The American Health Physics Society says that up to 90 percent of the deaths blamed on cigarette smoking are probably caused by very tiny amounts of polonium-210 in the tobacco leaves.  The polonium-210 is inhaled into the lungs, where it causes lung cancer.  But it is also transferred to the blood, where it causes the accelerated buildup of blockages in the arteries, leading to heart attacks and strokes.  Thus polonium-210 is responsible for over 400 deaths in the US every year, among cigarette smokers.

In the last sentence, it is not 400 deaths per year, but 400 THOUSAND deaths poet year.

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When uranium is mined, all the uranium “decay products” are left behind, including the radium, the polonium, and radioactive varieties of bismuth and lead. Eighty-five percent of the radioactivity in the original ore is left behind in the mill residues, called “tailings”.

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Here is a 10-metre high wall of uranium tailings near the town of Elliot Lake in Ontario. Behind the wall is an entire lake filled with uranium tailings – 70 million tonnes worth.

If the Greenland mine goes ahead, you will have more than 1000 million tonnes of radioactive sand-like tailings. Imagine 15 lakes full of tailings, just like this one in the picture, right on your doorstep here in Narsaq.  And it’s all radioactive.

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The worst thing is that this material will remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. One of the radioactive substances left behind in the tailings is called thorium-230.  It has a 76,000 year half-life, meaning that it will take 76,000 years for half of the atoms to disintegrate.  But as long as the thorium atoms are disintegrating, they are continually replenishing the supply of radium, radon and polonium in the tailings.

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And don’t forget that radon is a gas that turns into seven different radioactive decay products, among them the notorious lead-210 and polonium-210. Now radon gas is 8 times heavier than air, so it stays pretty low to the ground, and as it travels it deposits solid radioactive materials into the soil and the fish and the water and the crops and the food for animals.  In the Canadian Arctic, they have found the caribou have elevated levels of polonium-210 in their meat because of the fact that the lichen that the caribou love to eat are very good at trapping the radon decay products.

By the way, that’s also how lead-210 and polonium-210 gets into the tobacco, because the fertilizer the farmers use is radioactive and the radon decay products get attached to the sticky “hairs” on the tobacco leaves. So the radioactive lead and polonium gets harvested right along with the tobacco.

 

 

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If any of this sandy material is used in construction, at any time in the future – even thousands of years on – then the radon gas will enter into the buildings and expose the residents to vey high levels of radioactive gas. St. Mary’s elementary school in Port Hope Ontario had to be evacuated because the levels of radon in the cafeteria were higher than those allowed in the uranium mines. The cause was radioactive sand used as “fill” material around the foundations and in the playground.  Hundreds of other buildings in Port Hope have had to be demolished or remediated. Currently, the most expensive environmental cleanup of any municipality in Canadian history is underway in Port Hope, costing $2 billion.

Over long periods of time, some fraction of 1000 million tonnes of radioactive sand will be gradually (or suddenly) spread around – by wind, by rain, by climate change, by plant roots, by burrowing animals, or by human intervention.

 

The health of a population depends on clean air to breathe,

unpolluted water to drink, and wholesome food to eat.

 

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Radioactive materials enter into the air, water and soil.

These materials get into fish, plants, animals, and humans.

 

A small fraction of the exposed population will develop cancer,

years later. Infants and children are especially vulnerable.

 

If a larger population is exposed to the same level of

contamination, we say that the “population dose” is greater.

The greater the population dose, the more cases of harmful health

effects, such as cancer and inherited diseases, will be seen.

At low levels, radioactivity does not attack humans directly.

It damages individual cells. A population is like an ocean of cells.

As damaged cells reproduce, they gradually spread the harm which only

becomes evident 5, 10, or 20 years later – even longer in many cases.

Who is going to pay to look after these enormous volumes of radioactive waste once the mine is closed and the mining company has disappeared?

Who is going to retrieve the wastes if they become scattered by freak weather events or human carelessness or opportunism? In Montreal, where I live, several hundred thousand tonnes of radioactive tailings were used in construction projects.

Who is going to have enough money, expertise, and resources needed to run this entire operation in a manner that will safeguard the health and safety of workers, farmers, and the environment – not just for the years when the mines is operating, but for thousands of years afterwards? One would like to say “from cradle to grave” but in this case there is no grave.  For the sake of a couple of decades of economic activity, Greenland will be taking on a task requiring eternal vigilance.

 

 

 

Inuit Ataqatigiit Kattuffiat

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Email: ia@ia.gl