Monday, March 30, 2009

Dr. Toohey’s Column Missed a Lot of Important Facts, Problems

Dr. Brugge spoke at a public presentation in Chatham on the evening of Saturday, Nov. 8, 2008 regarding studies, including his own, on the effects of uranium mining and milling on human health. That morning, he spoke at an invitational event in Danville to a group of community leaders and officials. His appearances were sponsored by the Dan River Basin Association. More information on those events can be found here:

Now he's written a response to Dr. Richard Toohey's remarks that appeared in the Danville Register & Bee on March 8, 2009. That Guest Editorial can be found here:

Published: March 29, 2009

Danville Register & Bee

To the editor:
I would like to respond to some of the comments recently published in your newspaper by Richard E. Toohey, president of the Health Physics Society, “Understanding the benefits, balancing the risks,” (March 8, page A11).

In his column, Toohey makes a number of claims that, while narrowly true, manage to distort a fair discussion of the issues.

The first example is his claim that nuclear energy is “carbon free.” In fact, this is true only if you look at the nuclear reaction itself. The mining, milling and processing of uranium into fuel for use in a nuclear power plant produce plenty of carbon dioxide. So does the building of a nuclear plant. And, of course, the remediation of the mines and mills and the disassembly of the plant itself and long-term disposal and storage of the high-level radioactive waste also consume energy and produce greenhouse gases. The level of this problem is less than with coal, but is not non-existent; and, should we have to mine lower and lower grade ore as we deplete higher grade deposits, the problem could increase dramatically.

A second example is his claim that no new radioactivity will be produced at the site. Technically this is true. The uranium and other isotopes in the ore are already there. If anything, mining will remove some of them. But that is not the real concern. Mining the ore will bring radioactive materials currently underground to the surface and has the potential, as has been the case elsewhere in the United States and around the world, to spread those materials around in the environment to an extent that they would not be if they were left alone. To date I have never seen a mining operation that did not leave copious contamination and environmental impact.

Third, Toohey talks a lot about trade-off of benefits and costs and cites power generation and production using U.S. natural resources as benefits. My understanding is that the nuclear industry has only been viable in the United States because of huge subsidies from taxpayers. But that aside, and addressing aspects I know more about, nuclear power is not clean in the sense of producing no toxic waste. In fact, the biggest problem that nuclear energy currently faces in the U.S. is that there is no approved storage site for the large qualities of high-level waste that are produced already. The Yucca Mountain site may never be approved.

What are we going to do with all this high-level waste we already have, let alone tons more that could be generated? Perhaps we could reprocess it, but there are problems that come with that option, including fears of contributing to nuclear weapons proliferation. And, if reprocessing is the answer, then it is an alternative to mining, not an argument for more mining. The bottom line is that nuclear energy has been neither cheap nor clean.

Finally, let me point out, as I did when I gave a talk in Pittsylvania County on the subject, that the focus solely on radiation hazards is misguided.

There are numerous chemical hazards associated with uranium mining, as well as radioactive concerns. While radon is a highly potent lung carcinogen, uranium itself is primarily a heavy metal toxin, more similar to lead or mercury. Perhaps it is not as exotic as radiation, but uranium is quite capable of causing kidney damage, birth defects and possibly estrogenic (feminizing) effects. Uranium ore also frequently contains other highly toxic, though non-radioactive, contaminants.

The upshot, from my perspective, is that the history (which some people want to forget or have you forget) is that uranium mining has left a miserable record of damage to workers, communities and the environment for more than 50 years. The onus is on the proponents of uranium mining to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they will not continue the legacy from the past into the future. Arguments such as those ofToohey that seem to play with words to sound reassuring are, if anything, quite the opposite.


Associate Professor

Tufts University Boston

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