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How Dangerous is Uranium Mining? - And To Whom? - nhpeacenik
How Dangerous is Uranium Mining? - And To Whom?
I think it is important for us, as citizens, to understand exactly how risky the process of mining and processing uranium is, before we decide to resume it on a massive scale and build new nuclear plants. I find it surprisingly hard to determine what the facts are.

Anecdotal evidence of cancers and neonatal deformities among people living in communities where uranium is mined are everywhere. Low-income indigenous people seem to bear a large burden of these effects worldwide. This article sums up the way indigenous people are banding together to share their stories and call for an end to uranium mining. The Navaho Tribe has banned any further uranium mining on its land, but if the US government concludes that new nuclear electric generation facilities are needed, I suspect the Navahos will be forced to rescind the ban. Looking at the results of a search of Google Scholar, I found more than 5000 scholarly articles on the subject of the level of increased risk for cancer from uranium mining.

Most of the studies blame radon and its "daughter" decay products for any increased cancer levels, and most find at least a slight inrease in risk, but surprisingly, there are some that find the level of cancer deaths in uranium miners to be less than the expected number in control populations. Review-of-the-literature studies come to extremely wishy-washy conclusions by averaging out the results of studies that find five times the expected rate with those that find no increase at all.

I have to assume that most scientists who study this issue are strongly committed to the scientific method and objectivity, but I also suspect that there is corruption in the way articles are placed in many journals, and I am aware that many of the studies are funded by industry-based groups that have as a goal to prove that uranium mining is safe, so they can go on doing it. 

If we can agree, as I am convinced we must, that global warming threatens the continued existence the human race and all the other living things on the planet, we also have to agree that extraordinary measures to reduce CO2 emissions are necessary. If building and fueling new nuclear plants is the best way to reduce these emissions, we need to answer the questions about whether it can be made safe, and if not, whether the injuries it causes can be spread fairly among rich and poor humans (i.e. can there be environmental justice in a neo-nuclear economy).

I made the statement in an earlier posting that urainium mining is arguably more lethal than coal mining; this was based on advocacy writing and not scientific studies, and I find it hard to get a good comparison from the executive summaries of the scientific studies I have look at so far. Coal is emphatically bad for the planet and should be phased out as an energy source as fast as possible.

I spent some time Saturday at Solarfest in Vermont, talking with people I have trusted for years, about whether solar and wind power can be brought on lline quickly enough to replace coal without building nuclear plants. I came home with a lot of literature that I have yet to digest and evaluate. At Solarfest, one could see alternaive energy powering a small community of thousands for a weekend, and it took little imagination to extrapolate that scene to the communities where we live permanently... a few acres of solar panels, maybe a solar-thermal plant on a few acres or a line of wind turbines on a ridgetop could replace all the coal-generated power our town now uses. Couldn't this infrastructure be built everywhere? If so, why add the permanent poisons and threats of uranium mining and nuclear waste storage to our children's children's children's future?

Nuclear is a politically feasable solution. As a costly subsidized, centralized energy solution, nuclear fits right in with the status quo, so that from a corporate point of view it's the only way to keep the profits high and still address global warming. Corporations don't get cancer and don't die, but they seek profit the way a vampire seeks blood. The congress and the executive are paid for and lobbied by corporations that thrive on the energy status quo. That's why the global warming bill just passed by congress allows coal mining and burning to go on for another two decades without serious obstacles and allocates a pittance to solar and wind development, why it favors large centralized power plants and includes nuclear as an option, why it doesn't charge corporations for the "right to pollute" for years to come. A Friend asked me last week why I thought that political feasability meant that the moneyed interests had to be bribed an exorbitant amount to allow any beneficial programs at all; I didn't have an answer, but if the current global warming bill is the best we can do in a time of crisis under the best administration we've had in years, what more can we expect.

Now is the time to bone up on the truth, both the heart-truth and the intellectual truth,  of the climate and energy situation and come to our own conclusions. Then, with luck, we can agree on some basic points and go "out in the streets" to demand that congress take sensible action without asking permission of its corporate masters.

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