URANIUM-MINING & HEALTH IN AUSTRALIA
1. Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today about uranium-mining and the health risks associated with radiation. I will also briefly describe the scientific understanding of the health risks from uranium-mining and radiation.
It is very important that you hear the voices of those Australians who have suffered the heaviest burden of the nuclear industry in Australia – the Aboriginal peoples – so I will show you 2 short videos of senior Traditional Owners talking about the impact of uranium-mining on their lands and their Health.
2. I have worked as the doctor in a small very remote Aboriginal settlement – called Walungurru – in the desert of the Northern Territory since the early 1990’s. Of my 12 fellow health workers in this picture – taken in 1995 – only 3 now survive.
Although as yet there are no active mines in this part of the country, there are several proposed mines in the desert country to the west. And there is a group of about 100 Martutjarra Aboriginal people walking across the desert in Western Australia – at this very moment – to protest a proposed uranium mine in their country in the Great Sandy Desert.
I am familiar with the extremely poor health of my patients – including three times the national infant mortality rate, 20 years lower life expectancy and the highest rates of kidney disease on the planet.
3. Yvonne Margarula is the senior Traditional Owner for the Mirrar people in the Northern Territory, where the Ranger uranium mine has operated for over thirty years. Yvonne made this video just after the meltdowns of the nuclear reactors in Japan at Fukushima in 2011 … reactors which were fuelled by Australian uranium.VIDEO OF YVONNE MARGURULA ~ 2:15 mins.
“Mining and millions of dollars in royalties have not improved our quality of life … None of the promises last, but the problems always do…”
Hello my name is Yvonne Margarula. I talk for my country, for when my father went to meetings asking him about our country for mining. They kept on pushing. He didn’t want it to happen.
And so today I look after the country. My home. Our home for the Mirarr.
So we all look after it.
But they keep on pushing us –the Mirarr. They keep digging. They want to dig Jabiluka.
But there is djang (sacred place) there. They’re going to disturb it and make it wrong.
The mining company doesn’t want to listen to Aboriginal people, like with my father.
We’ll keep on saying no to them forever.
The rock (uranium/sacred power) – when they export it overseas from Ranger mine – they took it to another place and that’s when they destroyed the rock (sacred power).
That’s how the disaster happened. That’s why that place (Fukushima) is poisoned.
And that’s it.
When we heard the story we all felt no good inside.
4. Radiation is just a word for the energy which is all around us. The energy – which comes in the form of waves and particles – is produced when uranium changes its shape. This process is called “decay”: the uranium gives off energy and produces a series of other elements or “isotopes” … very important ones in uranium-mining include thorium and radium and radon. The radioactive decay goes on and on and on for millions of years.
The radiation is invisible – you can’t feel it or hear it or smell it.
5. Radiation causes illness and death and genetic damage, by injuring the DNA in the cells that make up our bodies. Radiation breaks the strings of DNA and so the DNA can generate abnormal tissue – typically cancer – as well as genetic damage which can be passed on from mother to baby.
DNA is the coding material inside all living tissue. DNA is the “blueprint” for all life: it contains the information that determines every cell’s nature. DNA is passed on from one cell to the next and from one generation of humans to the next.
6. The most common type of cancer caused by uranium is lung cancer. The image on the right is a conventional CT scan of the chest – it is like a horizontal slice through a human chest at the level of the heart, which is the white shape in the middle of the deep black area – which is the lungs. You can see a grey cloud which is a cancer in the left lung.
Radon is the second commonest cause of lung cancer [after cigarette smoking].
The red star in the left hand picture is the track of one alpha-particle – the type of radiation emitted by radon – travelling through the lung of a dog, magnified many times using a technique called “microradiography”.
7. So, how can that radiation get to you? Through the air and the water. But remember that the radon gas changes as well – producing other radioactive elements – you can find them in the air and in the dirt and in the water. Those elements can get into plants: it might be because poisoned dust settles on the leaves. Or it might get sucked into the plant through the groundwater. An animal – or a fish – might come and eat that plant. So that animal will eat the radiation and the radiation will get inside the animal. You might come and kill that animal and when you eat it, the radiation can get inside you. The material goes into your stomach, and then into your blood, and then maybe into your bone marrow, where it can sit for years and years – all the time giving off its invisible toxic radiation.
Uranium changes shape and releases the gas called radon. Radon is a very poisonous gas – if you breathe in radon it can damage the DNA in your lungs and start a cancer.
8. When uranium is sitting in the earth, undisturbed, it’s not very dangerous. The most important source of radiation comes from the “tailings” – the leftovers once the uranium has been taken out … the tailings contain about 85% of the original radioactivity.
But when we mine the uranium and concentrate the uranium and burn the uranium in a reactor or make an atom bomb with the uranium, we keep releasing more and more of that radiation.
9. The “tailings” are usually disposed of in the vicinity of the mine-site – they can be enormous volumes of radioactive material over the life of a mine: the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia has already generated well over one million tonnes of tailing waste after over twenty years in operation. The left-over radioactive products include thorium which decays to produce radon gas – in the atmosphere, radon decays into the radioactive solids polonium, bismuth, and lead, which enter water, crops, trees, soil, and animals, including humans. The people living in the surrounding environment will be exposed to the radiation from radon gas and radium-contaminated dust over succeeding generations.
In intact rock formations, radon gas is mostly trapped within the rock. But in the finely ground tailings, radon gas spreads through wind and water, to the surface and the atmosphere.
10. Uranium mines are very hard to clean up afterwards: “rehabilitation” of all mines, especially uranium mines, is complicated and costly. Companies – even very big international companies – often have limited capacity, commitment and accountability. And regulators can lack the capacity to demand comprehensive clean up. Remember once the rock has been disturbed and the uranium taken away, most of the radioactive material remains and must be isolated from your environment for many thousands of years – what mining company will be around even in a hundred years to come back and clean up if their rehabilitation efforts prove unsatisfactory?
Here are some photos of old and new uranium mines where rehabilitation efforts have been inadequate and where country, even fifty years after mining finished, is still contaminated. Country is never properly cleaned up to the pre-mining standard.
11. Some people might tell you that the Australian mining industry is “world-class” and “adheres to international best practice”, but there are many examples of Australian miners leaving a terrible mess behind. The most recent example occurred in Brazil last year when the tailings dam at an iron ore mine which is 50% owned by Australia’s biggest, most-experienced mining company – BHP Billiton – collapsed, releasing a sea of contaminated tailings into the environment. 62 billion cubic meters of contaminated mining sludge.
Whole towns were wiped off the map. At least 17 people died. Up to 6,000 people were displaced. The water supply of 1.2 million people was affected.
12. Let Jeffrey Lee from Koongara in the Northern Territory have the last word … I will continue on fighting until we just gonna stop the whole process, when it’s going to be stopped and we will stop it. I mean I will fight to the end. And we will stop it then it won’t be continued on for more uranium here in Kakadu. In 2013, plans for uranium mining at Koongarra, NT, were permanently ended by Traditional Owner opposition and the area was formally included in Kakadu National Park – because of Jeffrey’s determination there will never be uranium mining at Koongara.
The deposit is just around the corner, yes it’s not very far. You’ve got escarpment all along here that’s very important to me. Because I really do care for this country. Why would you want to mine a beautiful country you know? It’s a beautiful country, we’ve got bush tucker[food] there, we’ve got everything we need there, and why you want to mine this country? It’s so important to me and it’s so important to my people, and I worry for my people who live downstream from here and people who live in Kakadu. Because we’re the ones we’re going to live here until the day we die. And we want our young to grow up and look after the Park, and look after the country next to it as well. And like I said the uranium deposit is just up there and we got turtle there, we got fish, we got bush tucker that live along the creek bed and we go there, we hunt and get mussel, fresh water mussel, we get fish there, we get turtle. We like to eat fresh things, we don’t want to eat poison, and we want to live in a clean environment, and we’d like to drink clean water.
VIDEO OF JEFFREY LEE ~ 2mins.
“I have said no to uranium mining at Koongarra, because I believe that the land and my cultural beliefs are more important than mining and money. Money comes and goes, but the land is always here, it always stays if we look after it and it will look after us…”
Thankyou – I am happy to answer questions and look forward to talking more with you…