Should We Be Afraid of Uranium Mining?

Uranium mining is touted as both a godsend and a one-way to ticket to hell on Earth. Which is it?

Say this much for the Coles Hill uranium deposit in Pittsylvania, Virginia: It is already generating a lot of heat. At a public meeting in Chatham a few days ago, one protester promised to do “whatever it takes” to prevent Virginia from lifting its moratorium on uranium mining, “all the way to civil disobedience.” Another said allowing the uranium to be mined would amount to “selective regional human sacrifice.”

If uranium mining is safe, then such histrionics look little different from the frightened rage of 17th-century villagers getting ready to burn a suspected witch. But if mining is as dangerous as the demonstrators contend, then their outrage is perfectly reasonable. Which is it?  

A report from a National Academy of Sciences panel was supposed to help shed light on the question. It did not. To the contrary, it restated the obvious: that radiation presents a “potential risk that must be addressed” and “uranium mining and processing” involve “a range of potential health risks” so “a detailed assessment … would be needed,” and the “adoption and rigorous implementation of [best] practices would be necessary.” No kidding. 

To be fair, the NAS panel was not asked to analyze the Coles Hill site itself – nor to consider any benefits from uranium mining, nor to compare it to any other sort of mining. This left it with a mandate so vague as to be nearly useless. Yet that has not kept mining opponents from making misleading use of it – principally by citing its conclusion that “there are steep hurdles to be surmounted” if Virginia is to lift its moratorium. 

Well. There are steep hurdles facing large-scale development of wind power, too. That in itself does not make wind a bad idea. Yet opponents of mining portray the neutral statement as a devastating critique – which it was not meant to be. As Nancy Roth wrote in Fuel Cycle Week, a uranium-industry trade publication: “Nothing could be farther from the intention of the panel, according to its chairman, Dr. Paul Locke … Locke told FCW that if [the report] was being read as an anti-mining tract, ‘then the report’s message did not come through.’ ”

The NAS report was supposed to be objective. Environmental groups need not be – and have not been. The Southern Environmental Law Center, for example, has taken a kitchen-sink approach to the debate, hurling every possible argument it can think of: The uranium at Coles Hill is low-grade, Virginia doesn’t spend enough on regulation, trucksfrom mines generate noise, and so on. It even argues uranium mining could induce “stress” related to “community changes” such as the “potential loss of recreation sites” as well as to “the perceived stigma of uranium mining.” That stigma might not be so stressful, were the SELC not trying to make it so.

When it gets around to the risk from uranium specifically, the SELC notes the presence of contamination downstream from a closed mine in France: “Sediments twelve kilometers downstream from the former mine showed uranium concentrations to be fifty-four times above background levels.” This sounds frightening – but is it? Uranium is naturally occurring, roughly as common as tin, and 40 times more common than silver. Normal soil concentration is anywhere from 300 micrograms per kilogram of dirt to 11.7  milligrams per kilogram of dirt. So uranium can be up to 39 times more concentrated from one area to the next even without any human intervention. 

Still, throwing ostensibly alarming numbers around might be effective in Virginia, because the state has no uranium mines. Canada does. In fact, Canada has mined more uranium to date than any other country on the planet. What is Canada’s experience? 

Here’s one clue: Nobody thinks of Canada as an environmental hellhole. There’s a good reason for that: Uranium in Canada has an excellent record. The SELC says Canada is not “a perfect match for the unique and unprecedented challenges” in Virginia. That’s another clue. The SELC would not be discounting the Canadian experience if it were awful. 

And it simply is not. Not even close. Scores of studies have been done on the issue. Here is how the Canadian government – the government, not the uranium industry –  summarizes some of them: 

  • “Overall, uranium mining and processing workers were as healthy as the general Canadian male population. Lung cancer was the only disease that consistently showed significantly higher death and cancer incidence rates among uranium mine workers.”
  • “The CNSC [Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission] ensures that the air quality in a uranium mine is tightly controlled with good ventilation. As a result, the lung cancer risk for today’s uranium mining and processing workers is the same as that for the general Canadian public.”
  • “Radon exposure to members of the public from CNSC-regulated activities is virtually zero.”
  • Q: “Do uranium mines and mills increase radon levels in the environment?” A: “No.”
  • Myth: Port Hope residents [near a processing plant] are sick as a result of exposure to historical low-level radioactive waste. Fact: Port Hope residents are as healthy as the rest of the Canadian population.

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  • ||

    My grandfather told me that when he was growing up his father and the other men in the area would all ride their horses off into the hills for a week and when they returned they would have enough lead for the next year. I asked him where they went but he didnt know. Years later, curious about that, I asked the children of some of the other families from that area.

  • ||

    I finally got a probable location. After some wandering around in the piney woods I found it.
    I took one look at the deposit they were mining and realized it was not lead, but uranium.

    We have a pretty big uranium deposit in Louisiana that comes to the surface in a little town named Urania and extends over into texas.

  • Hyperion||

    Uranium ore is commonly found with lead. So you melt it down and get some glow in the dark bullets. What could be more awesome than that?

  • ||

    Testicular cancer?

  • Hyperion||

    Lead plated underwear?

  • gaoxiaen||

    Antebellum tracers.

  • ||

    Yes, lead is one of the products of uranium decay.

  • niobiumstudio||

    Lead is the very end product of totally decayed uranium (and most other radioactive metals). Pretty much everything decays to lead.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Do you have superpowers from all that radiation exposure?

  • Raistlin||

    If by superpowers you mean no hair and sterile nads, then... yes.

  • John||

    What did they need lead for?

  • WTF||

    Bullets?

  • ¿Ex Nihilo?||

    What did they need lead for?

    Making bullets most likely.

  • rts||

    To shield themselves from the uranium.

  • ||

    John...they made shot and bullets.
    Squirrel hunting with a shotgun is common here, and while eating game one often bites down on shot. Hmmmm. Uranium laced meat....

  • John||

    I assume that was around the turn of the century. If you are still so poor you were making your own shot after World War II, wow is that poor.

  • ||

    that was around the turn of the century....the last one. Everyone made their own shot.
    You melt the lead (uranium) in a pot and pour it through a collander. The streams of molten metal form droplets and freeze during the drop and you catch them in a bucket of water. Change the size of the holes in the collander and you change the size of the shot.

  • ||

    Ha, I am not poor and I still make my own shot and bullets. If I bought the quantity I use retail, I would end up poor.

  • John||

    Yeah but you do that as a hobby not as a way to eat dinner.

  • niobiumstudio||

    Well if he is hunting with match grade bullets it would cost him $1-$2 per bullet. Dinner gets awfully expensive if you aren't making your own rounds! So he probably does it as a way to eat dinner. Or at least a tasty snack.

  • Mo' $parky||

    Hey, shot and microwaved at the same time.

  • John||

    A dupleted uranium rifle round would be quite bad ass.

  • ||

    In those days shotguns were the heaviest firepower around. The farming community had one 32-20 winchester which they all shared.

    If you know anything about rifles, then you know 32-20 is pretty feeble.

  • ||

    As a matter of fact, not a week ago I shot my smith and wesson 32-20 for kicks. I set up a couple of pieces of oak firewood in the back yard and popped them a couple of times. I could see the bullet arc across the yard. The bullets stuck in the wood with the bases exposed. Well, except for the ones that bounced off.

  • John||

    Out where I come from the .22 was the standard coyote and varmint rifle. Every rancher kept one in his pickup. I have inherited a love of .22s from that. Nothing better than a good varmint rifle.

  • ||

    Taylor vs. Weatherby? We all know how that turned out.

  • gaoxiaen||

    And they're fun because .22 ammo's so cheap. We would go to a local dump and shoot rats for fun.

  • niobiumstudio||

    What about .45-70 or .50-90 back in the day? Yeah, they wouldn't have repeaters like the awesome Winchester, but a sharps rifle would be perfect for hunting big deer and bear where he lived. I would think that would be much better for big game back then?

  • ||

    Oh yeah. If you have ever hunted anything that hunts you back you want something with mucho knockdown power.

  • niobiumstudio||

    Lol that's what I was thinking...especially when you are using a shotgun with colander made shot [read: small]. I know LA has plenty of bears and alligators and birdshot or the entire tube magazine of tiny 32-20 is just going to piss off a big bear. And YOU will be dinner. I must say I didn't know the shotgun was the primary hunting weapon back then in the woods - always thought it would be a sharps or some of the surplus .45-70 government rifles. Learn something new every day...

  • Hyperion||

    Isn't uranium a lot heavier than lead?

  • ||

    "In the case of uranium and lead, the uranium weighs 19.1 grams per cubic centimeter, while lead, which we know is pretty 'heavy' stuff, weighs 11.34 grams per cubic centimeter. That makes uranium over half again as dense as lead. Just for fun, the density of liquid mercury is 13.534 grams per cubic centimeter. That means lead will float on liquid mercury."

  • Hyperion||

    Uranium is darn near as heavy as gold in the pure form. Of course, it's not found in the pure form, not even close.

  • ||

    yes, substantially.

  • Hyperion||

    If uranium mining is safe, writes A. Barton Hinkle, then such histrionics look little different from the frightened rage of 17th-century villagers getting ready to burn a suspected witch

    Or attacking tractors with pitch forks?

    The luddites are alive and well, and still among us. We just changed their name to progressives or environmentalists.

  • o3||

    so the state of virginia, who enacted the moritorium, should change their name to progressives or environmentalists? not a very catchy name for tourism

  • Hyperion||

    At a public meeting in Chatham a few days ago, one protester promised to do “whatever it takes” to prevent Virginia from lifting its moratorium on uranium mining, “all the way to civil disobedience.”

    Get it now?

  • o3||

    i understood what hinkle wrote. i responded to ur unclear meme over-generalization. again, the state of virginia enacted the moritorium, not ONE protestor.

  • CockGobbla||

    Old school "progressives" used to drop fissionable uranium material on civilian population centers...Give 'em credit, dude.

  • John||

    n what league does Iraq beat Britain, Haiti beat the United States, and Afghanistan beat Denmark? Political corruption? Violent crime? Temperature? No, welcome to the weird and wonderful world of the Happy Planet Index. It is a little window into the way many environmentalists think.

    The Happy Planet Index (HPI) purports to "measure what matters: the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people that live in them." It beautifully illustrates the two great vices of environmentalist thought: fetishizing resource efficiency above everything else and treating happiness economics with far too much respect.

    Countries with high living standards tend to use more natural resources. That's why instead of being praised as having a dynamic economy and being the least corrupt country in Africa, Botswana comes at the bottom of the Happy Planet Index. It scores a pitiful 22.6, way below the Democratic Republic of the Congo (30.5) and Zimbabwe (35.3). Botswana's people might enjoy a much higher standard of living, but that means a larger ecological footprint.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/.....TopOpinion

    Wow

  • ||

    That is some straight up crazy shit. LOL.

    /anonbot

  • Hyperion||

    Happy Planet Index.

    I am still LMAO!

    It is time for these environmentalist wack-os to go extinct. Natural selection.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Buy one planet and get a free moon.

  • Broseph of Invention||

    I used to live in Botswana as a kid. The first time I went to Zimbabwe, the exchange rate was 20 Zim $ to the U.S. $; three years later it was 40:1; now it's shit. The Pula never changed. When we later moved to South Africa, there were problems with people from Mozambique (Happy Planet - 35.7) getting eaten by lions as they escaped into South Africa (Happy Planet - 28.2) through Kruger National Park. Of course, people from Zimbabwe and Mozambique have their treasures in the right place, despite toilet paper economy and dismembered children.

    Botswana's one of the most interesting studies in development. Scott Beaulier has some papers about Botswana, and while his anecdotes are nauseatingly touristy, he does some nice stuff with the data.

  • Paul.||

    dismembered children.

    I thought it was invisible children? I'm so confused with the state of Africa's children.

  • Broseph of Invention||

    Not your fault, it's a complicated subject.

    Invisible children = Uganda
    Flies-on-faces children = Ethiopia
    Celebrity children = Namibia
    Free children (living)/"Insurgents" (droned) = Libya
    Libertarian children = Somalia

  • Pip from the forge||

    Allowing the uranium to be mined would amount to “selective regional human sacrifice.”

    Yes, Virginia, there is a sanity clause.

  • Hyperion||

    Sounds good to me. Let's toss all of the liberals into the uranium ore extractors. That way, the Ore Gods with be placated and we can carry on.

  • o3||

    again, the state of virginia enacted the moritorium, not one protestor.

  • Hyperion||

    Are you still beating the same dead horse? We are talking about lifting the moratorium, not enacting it. It was already enacted. Get your timeline straight already. Are you just going to keep copy and pasting that one line. Lame as hell.

  • o3||

    so its alright for virginia to enact a moritorium, but *ONE PROTESTOR* at a public hearing is the problem?!

  • Loki||

    At a public meeting in Chatham a few days ago, one protester promised to do “whatever it takes” to prevent Virginia from lifting its moratorium on uranium mining, “all the way to civil disobedience.” Another said allowing the uranium to be mined would amount to “selective regional human sacrifice.”

    That's at least 2 at the same meeting.

    The Southern Environmental Law Center, for example, has taken a kitchen-sink approach to the debate, hurling every possible argument it can think of

    And there's an entire special interest environmental group opposing the lifting of the moratorium, with who know how many members, or how much money to buy politicians.

    Reading comprehension, how does it work?

  • T||

    Environmentalists lie and distort in pursuit of their policy goals. In the news business, I believe this is known as 'dog bites man'.

  • John||

    Dogs don't bite people nearly as often as environmentalists lie.

  • ¿Ex Nihilo?||

    Environmentalists are like politicians. You can tell they are lying because their lips are moving.

  • Hyperion||

    Do insane people really know when they are lying? I mean, they definitely do not know when their elected representatives are lying.

  • John||

    So George Costanza was right? It is not a lie if you believe it.

  • sarcasmic||

    If you repeat a lie not knowing it to be a lie then it is an untruth, not a lie.

  • Hyperion||

    Is that sort of like how all career politicians misspeak instead of lying?

  • sarcasmic||

    Politicians lie, then lie again when they say they misspoke.

  • Hyperion||

    And then they apologize, another lie. If that don't work, they apologize again and cry on national TV.

  • sarcasmic||

    The vast majority of politicians are lawyers. What is a lawyer other than a professional liar? Politicians just take it to the next level.

  • ¿Ex Nihilo?||

    NOBODY likes a lawyer, until you need one.

    A lawyer's true job is to take the law as written and bend it to mean what it was never meant to mean, for your benefit. That old letter vs. spirit dicotomy.

  • Hyperion||

    In a liberal's world, everything can be true if only you believe it. Including a planet that is a living deity and not just a big fucking rock with lots of goodies for us to exploit.

  • o3||

    ur describing religion, not lub-rahls.

  • sarcasmic||

    Liberalism is a religion: Secular humanism.

  • o3||

    radioism

  • ||

    Funny that you should make that comparison.

  • Hyperion||

    The eco freaks are religious. Where the fuck have you been? Mother Gaia? Mayan Moon goddesses? Constant blabbering about imminent apocalypse if we don't repent? Deniers? You can't make this shit up.

  • Hyperion||

    That was in reply to o3.

  • o3||

    by that def, the militia movement is also religious.

  • Hyperion||

    So?

  • ||

    If you wave your hands harder you might be able to take off there.

  • sarcasmic||

    Liberals consider the source to be more important than what is said.

    This way they repeat lies, believing them to be truth, not because of what is said but because of who said it.

    Experts. Top. Men. And such.

  • o3||

    a few moar *THEYS* its ready for radio entertainment!

  • noko||

    you just told me nuclear power is uneconomical. make up your mind, reason

  • Mo' $parky||

    Wait, two different reason contributors don't believe the same things? That's it, cancel my subscription.

  • o3||

    except the poor economics dont require belief.

  • John||

    Maybe it is. But that doesn't mean people shouldn't be allowed to mine uranium if they want to.

  • Hyperion||

    Uranium is our common heritage. That means, leave it in the ground, those of us with ivy league degrees need to study it, and what it's effects would be if we extracted it. I will need at least a 20 year grant for that. And that of course will need to be renewed when my results are inconclusive at the end of the first 20.

  • o3||

    look forward to hearing ur update...in 20 years. adios

  • Hyperion||

    ate depois, palhaco

  • Whiterun Guard||

    Well they didn't know we were sitting on a heaping pile of ...I got nothing...what's a good euphemism for Uranium?

  • Hyperion||

    Don't touch our uranium! A flaming arrow to your knee!

  • sarcasmic||

    Superlead?

  • Loki||

    Lung cancer was the only disease that consistently showed significantly higher death and cancer incidence rates among uranium mine workers.

    I'd be curious to see what the lung cancer rate is compared to other miners. IOW, is the increase in lung cancer rates strictly because they're mining Uranium, or is it just a bi-product of working in a mine in general?

    Of course these protesters are probably the same kinds of people who shit their pants everytime NASA launches a spacecraft with an RTG on board. "OMG, Plutonium!!!11!! What if the rocket blows up!!!111!!!eleven!!11one!!"

  • sarcasmic||

    I'd be interested to know what percentage of these miners were smokers, compared to other occupations.

  • IceTrey||

    Seems like the protestors should get behind Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors.

  • Brutus||

    Another said allowing the uranium to be mined would amount to “selective regional human sacrifice.”

    I see Warty signing on to this now.

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  • ||

    There are steep hurdles facing large-scale development of wind power, too. That in itself does not make wind a bad idea. Yet opponents of mining portray the neutral statement as a devastating critique – which it was not meant to be. As Nancy Roth wrote in Fuel Cycle Week, a uranium-industry trade publication: “Nothing could be farther from the intention of the http://www.lunettesporto.com/l.....c-3_9.html panel, according to its chairman, Dr. Paul Locke … Locke told FCW that if [the report] was being read as an anti-mining tract, ‘then the report’s message did not come through.’

  • hiro2012||

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  • Trout||

    Uranium 238 has a half life of 4.47 billion years. If you had 2 pounds of it it would take 4.47 billion years before 1 pound of it would decay. What this means is that it is barely radioactive at all. What tiny amount does decay is as an alpha particle (helium nucleus). It won't penetrate the skin (unlike gamma decay), so to be theoretically harmful it would have to be inhaled or ingested.

    Radon (half life of 3.8 days) is far more of a threat. It exists naturally in soils and can accumulate in basements or crawl spaces.

    All that need be uttered is "radioactive" and the ignorant get scared and outraged. Perfect tools for agenda driven enviro-assholes.

  • ||

    "Uranium mining in Virginia can be done safely at Coles Hill." "Uranium mining will be a disaster waiting to happen if the ban is lifted in Virginia." Both statements might be true. Depends on who you believe. I don't believe anyone knows for sure. I am not an environmentalist or doomsday type person. Business should be allowed to mine if it makes sense. Mining and processing uranium makes no sense in the proposed location. If it was in a remote location such as Northern Canada or in a desert location. Uranium mining makes no sense in a location where a single accident could have a devastating effect on a water supply that feeds up to a million persons in southeastern Virginia. On the other hand maybe "best practices" would work. "Best practices" would have to work 100% of the time for hundreds or thousands of years to successfully store the uranium tailings. What happened to common sense in this country? My dad once told me over 50 years ago when I was a small boy, "Never build an outhouse upstream from your drinking water supply." Made sense then. I hope it makes sense now.

  • Atomic Betty||

    Fact: I live in Port Hope and my 4 year old daughter who has been diagnosed with autism just had a hair analysis test done, and she has 3 times the allowable level of uranium, and we don't drink the tap water.

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