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Deadly Ore

The horrors of a nuclear war or a nuclear meltdown color public perception of uranium. However, even without such an outcome, the mining of uranium ore harms human life.

The nuclear chain must always begin with the mining of uranium to produce fissile material. In most countries, little is known about this first phase. Mining companies and countries where uranium is extracted hide behind a mask of silence concerning the health risks. Operators of nuclear power plants talk about “clean” and low-CO2 power genera­tion. Fuel rod manufacturers and operators of uranium enrich­ment plants refuse to provide information on where their raw material, uranium, comes from.

Uranium exists everywhere on Earth but mostly in very low concentrations. The Rössing mine in Namibia is at the lower end of the scale of mineable deposits with a uranium content of 0.03 weight percent. Yet, there are even plans to mine deposits with concentrations as low as 0.017 or even 0.01 weight percent. The mine with the highest uranium concen­tration in the world – of 13 weight percent – is Cigar Lake in Canada. This means that in order to achieve a significant yield, large amounts of ore must be extracted in open pit or deep mining operations: with a uranium concentration of 0.1 percent, 999.9 kilograms of waste remain per mined ton of ore. This waste then contaminates the environment for thousands of years.

The reason for this is due to the properties of the raw material: uranium is a heavy metal which, like lead and mercury, is toxic to humans and animals. At the same time, uranium is not a stable element, but is radioactive even in its natural form and thus radio-toxic. It decays into other elements which emit alpha, beta and gamma radiation, until, at the end of the decay chain, only stable lead-206 remains. Therefore, the fine and coarse dust released during uranium mining is full of radioactive particles and the air is contaminated by radon gas – one of the main reasons for the high incidence of lung cancer in miners. Drinking water and the food chain are contaminated by uranium and its radioactive decay products. But an organism can be damaged even if only exposed to low doses of radiation.

Miners perform strenuous physical labor and, as a result, can have difficulty breathing. In open pit as well as in under­ground mining, they are exposed to noise, dust, heavy metals, radon and ionizing radiation. Groundwater and pit waters are contaminated. Consequently, it is the miners who suffer the most from work-related as well as secondary diseases. But their families can be also contaminated via food, clothing, drinking water and toxic and radioactive dust particles.

Uranium is a chemo-toxic heavy metal while at the same time it is radioactive since it is an unstable element

As early as the end of the Middle Ages, the term “Schnee­berger lung disease” was well known. Workers from mines in the German Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge) around Schneeberg suffered from this disease. At the time, nobody had an explanation for the many mysterious deaths. Today we know that it was lung cancer – caused by radon and uranium dust. When uranium and its radioactive decay products disintegrate, alpha, beta and gamma radiation is emitted. Ionizing radiation can kill affected body cells. If the cells survive, their genetic material can be damaged. These diseased cells transmit the damaged genetic material to their “descendants”, so that, even decades later, malignant tumors may occur. Since, in addition to ionizing radiation, heavy metals also have toxic effects, the overall risk of contracting cancer is significantly higher for uranium miners and their families. A fetus is especially vulnerable, since its organism is still developing. Stillbirths occur and women have fertility problems. Children in mining regions contract leukemia much more frequently than in other regions. For adults, the most typical diseases are lung and throat cancer, cardiovascular and immunodeficiency diseases and mental disorders. Indigenous people in mining regions also report cases of renal insufficiency and an increase in type 2 diabetes. Here, the data situation is still patchy and cannot yet be scientifically proven.

However, since the information from all continents is similar, there is a high probability that many diseases are a direct result of uranium mining.

The German Federal Office for Radiation Protection (Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz BfS) in Berlin confirms the findings in a study, the only one of its kind in the world: in a cohort study, 59,000 miners who worked in uranium mining for the Wismut company were examined. The results of this study, also published in the British Journal of Cancer, show an increase in the lung cancer rate of 50 to 70 percent, as well as 7,000 radiation-induced deaths among the 59,000 study participants (11.9 percent). A significant correlation between time worked in the mines and cancer risk (a 21 percent higher risk per month worked in the mines) was detected. Smokers and non-smokers among the miners had the same increased risk so that smoking was ruled out as a possible confounder.

Nuclear energy clearly violates human rights. For example, miners in Niger and Namibia are officially expected to tolerate a radiation exposure of 20 millisieverts per year. This corresponds to 2,000 chest x-rays. In the United States, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) became law in 1990 and recognizes that uranium miners and some downwind communities are entitled to compensation and health care as a result of their exposure to radiation from atomic weapons testing or uranium mining, and milling. RECA provides a onetime 100,000 US dollars payment to workers who may have developed cancer or other specified diseases after exposure. However, many workers died before getting compensation and many others have not been approved. There are legislative efforts to provide coverage for more uranium workers and downwind communities and extend the current legislation beyond 2022.

Further Information

  • Health Hazards for Uranium Mine and Mill Workers: wise-uranium.org/uhm.html

  • British Journal of Cancer: nature.com/articles/6603403; nature.com/articles/6604776