The poor pay for the grim legacy of uranium mining

A stark greeting for those tempted to explore a Polish uranium mine site. Image: By Przemysław Woźnica, via Wikimedia Commons

Uranium mining costs humans dearly. The nuclear industry prefers not to discuss the price paid by miners and their families.

LONDON, 31 July, 2020 – The scars left on barren landscapes by uranium mining are rendered more frightening in many countries – in the former Soviet bloc, for example – by the signs warning would-be visitors of their presence, decorated with little more than a skull-and-crossbones.

The signs use few words to explain that vast areas of land, containing small mountains of mine tailings, will be dangerous to intruders for billions of years, by which time the deadly alpha particles in the dust should have decayed.

But the terrible price paid by the poor miners and indigenous peoples who have had their lands torn apart to get at the uranium ore is now laid bare  in a new publication, The Uranium Atlas, Facts and Data about the Raw Material of the Nuclear Age. It is the work of a band of researchers from around the world, first published in German and now updated in English.

The central message of the Atlas is uncompromising: “The price for keeping the nuclear power stations in South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, the EU and USA online is paid by the people in the mining regions: their health and livelihoods are destroyed.”

The particles inhaled by uranium miners bring lung cancer, and the dust carried back to their homes endangers their families, even unborn children. Although uranium is everywhere, even in seawater, extracting it for use in nuclear power stations is a messy business.

“Any mention of the health risks of uranium mining, the possibility of a nuclear meltdown, and the still unsolved issue of the ‘permanent disposal’ of highly radioactive nuclear waste is studiously avoided”

The Atlas shows how extracting uranium from the ore is carried out in remote locations, often on the lands of indigenous peoples, for example in Canada, Australia and the US. More recently, though, two African states, Namibia and Niger, have joined the list of prime examples.

At the mines large quantities of rock have to be crushed and treated with chemicals to leach out the uranium. For a uranium content of 0.1%, 10,000 tonnes of ore must be mined to yield one tonne of uranium.

The ore is then ground down and the uranium chemically extracted, producing a form of powdered concentrate called yellowcake, totalling 7.11 kgs of usable material left over from the original 10,000 tonnes of ore.

The yellowcake then has to be transported long distances to the countries which use nuclear power so that they can extract the fissile material needed to fuel power stations and make nuclear weapons – uranium-235.

Little European mining

The point the “Atlas” is making is that supposedly civilised and crowded countries that rely on nuclear power to keep the lights on will not allow uranium mining at home because of the destruction it causes and the danger to the health of their citizens.

The authors write: ”At the start of 2020 there were still 124 nuclear power plants in operation in the EU, making it the world’s largest consumer of uranium. The nuclear fuel is imported from outside the EU and there is strong opposition to any new uranium mining in Europe.”

With maps and diagrams the Atlas traces the history and current operations of the uranium mining business, but comments: “The exact pathway of uranium is hard to follow: the mining companies do not disclose where they deliver the uranium and the power plant operators do not reveal where the uranium for their power plants comes from.”

Not surprisingly, the researchers conclude that nuclear power has no place in the modern world, and that renewable technologies are both cheaper and safer than power from uranium.

They say: “One kilogram of uranium-235 contains enough energy to generate 24 million kilowatt hours of heat; one kilogram of coal can generate only eight. As a result the nuclear industry has always promoted nuclear power as a better alternative to fossil fuels, and is now using the climate crisis to justify its continued – and expanded – use.

High subsidies

“Any mention of the health risks of uranium mining, the possibility of a nuclear meltdown, and the still unsolved issue of the ‘permanent disposal’ of highly radioactive nuclear waste is studiously avoided.

“For almost 70 years the nuclear industry has been highly subsidised and has never been able to stand on its own two feet economically.

“From cleaning up the damage caused by uranium mining, to routine operations, to decommissioning and final storage of nuclear waste, the industry has neither calculated the real costs of its activities nor has it adequately disclosed its financial conditions.

“Viewed as an essential component of the construction of nuclear weapons and the maintenance of nuclear submarine fleets, the nuclear power industry has always been a steady recipient of generous state subsidies.” – Climate News Network