Don't Judge Uranium Mining in a Vacuum

Uranium mining and nuclear power are not perfectly safe. But when you compare them to the alternatives, they look pretty good.


Should Virginia lift its ban on uranium mining? The question has generated a lot of heat, but not much light. Last week, this column looked at uranium mining in isolation, and made three points: 

  • The recent report by the National Academy of Sciences was too vague to be of much use, and the use to which it has been put by opponents is misleading.
  • Opponents of lifting the moratorium throw around a lot of numbers that sound scary but mean little.
  • The uranium industry in Canada, where more uranium has been produced than in any other country on the planet, has an excellent environmental, health, and safety record, according to a review of the literature by the Canadian government.

That last point is worth dwelling on. Among many other things, the Canadian government – not the industry, the government—says "uranium mining and processing workers were as healthy as the general Canadian male population." And: "Radon exposure to members of the public from [government]-regulated [mining] activities is virtually zero." And: "Do uranium mines and mills increase radon levels in the environment? No." And: "Studies and monitoring have shown that there are no significant impacts to the health of the public living near uranium mines and mills." 

Also: "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." And: "It is completely safe to consume fish, game and fruit from regions near operating uranium mines and mills." And just for good measure: "No increased risk to children living near nuclear power plants or uranium mining, milling, and refining sites was detected."

In short, then, there is very little to fear from uranium mining or nuclear power when considered in isolation. But we must not consider the issue in isolation – because the fossil-fuel alternatives are, in fact, considerably worse.

Just ask Joseph Romm, who studies energy issues at the Center for American Progress – a liberal think tank founded and run by former Clinton and Obama staffers. "There is no question," Romm has said, that "nothing is worse than fossil fuels for killing people."

He is not alone. In 2010 – admittedly, before the tsunami-caused disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan – the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency produced a report comparing the risks from nuclear power with those from other energy sources. It found that, "contrary to many people's perception, nuclear energy presents very much lower risks. For example, more than 2,500 people are killed every year in severe energy-related accidents…. In contrast, there has only been one severe accident in nuclear power plants over this period of time (Chernobyl) resulting in 31 [direct and nearly immediate] fatalities." 

The OECD says the total number of Chernobyl-related fatalities could rise as high as 33,000 over the next seven decades, "but we note that the OECD Environment Directorate estimates that 960,000 premature deaths resulted from levels of particulates in the air in the year 2000 alone, of which energy sources accounted for about 30 percent." That works out to a 9:1 ratio in nuclear power's favor. 

Then there's The Washington Post, which reported – after Fukushima – that "making electricity from nuclear power turns out to be far less damaging to human health than making it from coal, oil, or even clean-burning natural gas, according to numerous analyses. That's even more true if the predicted effects of climate change are thrown in."  

How much less damaging? This much: "Compared with nuclear power, coal is responsible for five times as many worker deaths from accidents, 470 times as many deaths due to air pollution among members of the public, and more than 1,000 times as many cases of serious illness, according to a study of the health effects of electricity generation in Europe." 

But what about radiation? Well. According to a 2007 piece in Scientific American, "Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste." In fact, "the fly ash emitted by a power plant – a by-product of burning coal for electricity – carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy." 

Gerald Marsh concurs. Two years ago the retired nuclear physicist told Popular Mechanics, "The amount of radiation put out by a coal plant far exceeds that of a nuclear power plant, even if you use scrubbers."

And again, remember: All these effects are in addition to anthropogenic  climate change, which environmentalists insist is the greatest existential threat facing humanity – at least when they are not ignoring the issue in order to frighten people about the supposed perils of uranium mining. 

Upshot? Uranium mining and nuclear power are not perfectly safe. Nothing is. But when you compare them to the alternatives, they look pretty good.

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.