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.
  • "Studies carried out over several decades have repeatedly demonstrated that people who live near [uranium mines and processing facilities] are as healthy as the rest of the general population." 
  • "No increased risk to children living near nuclear power plants or uranium mining, milling, and refining sites was detected."

Those are some of the facts about the safety of the uranium industry in isolation. Sunday's column will compare the safety of uranium with that of other energy sources.