By RICHARD TOOHEY
Published: March 8, 2009
While we can appreciate the response by Dr. Randolph Neal in his letter to the editor, “Let’s put uranium mining to a vote,” (Jan. 28, page A10), some of his comments reveal the need for factual information.
First, a broader view of the scientific facts concerning the safety and benefits of radiation uses and uranium mining might be useful. Then we would like to address some of Dr. Neal’s comments specifically.
There is a recognition that nuclear power will continue to play a role in United States energy production — not the entire role, but a necessary sector to help assure less dependence on foreign oil and future environmental protection.
As of now, nuclear power is the only proven technology for large-scale, centralized power production that is carbon-free. Uranium is needed to fuel these electrical generating plants and, although we could rely on a supply of it from politically unstable nations, as we do for oil, mining for it in North America is a prudent solution. Currently, 90 percent of the uranium we use comes from foreign sources and we need to find solutions to change that, including safe methods of mining uranium here at home.
What about the radioactivity? It already exists at the site. No extra radioactivity will be put there, and Virginia Uranium Inc., wants to remove some or most of it. It has been estimated that an average square mile of earth — one foot deep — contains more than a ton of uranium. Coles Hill has an even greater deposit. The benefits of removing and using this uranium are significant since 35 percent of Virginia’s energy is generated by nuclear power plants.
The benefit isn’t only for Virginia, although Virginians will benefit the most. The benefits are ensuring a cleaner form of power generation, less dependence on oil and less dependence on foreign sources of uranium.
One quarter-ounce uranium fuel pellet has the energy-to-electricity equivalence of 3.5 barrels of oil, 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas or nearly a ton of coal.
All technologies and activities have benefits and risks; there is no free lunch. As an example, the spill of millions of tons of fly ash from a coal-burning plant about 20 miles from my house demonstrated just one of the environmental and health hazards of burning coal for electricity. What we each need to decide is whether the benefit is great enough to allow the technology to exist or the activity to continue. Convenience and being pressed for time sometimes dictate eating calorie-laden fast food. The benefit is obvious although we’re aware of the potential for the increased risk of heart disease and obesity. The benefit of walking, biking or driving to work is obvious although we’re aware of the thousands of deaths each year from being hit by a car.
The benefit of having a clean form of electricity for our homes, workplaces, hospitals and eventually motor vehicles is also obvious. And for that, uranium mining must occur.
But what are the accompanying risks? For normal operations, there is little or no downside. Normal operations would get the uranium from the soil and transport the ore to a uranium mill. There would be waste rock and dirt that would be replaced during remediation (putting the site back to normal after operations cease) along with original topsoil that may have initially been removed. In general, the overall environmental impact of uranium mining is less than that of coal mining.
Now to some specific comments of Dr. Neal. He suggests that “zero is the only acceptable risk regarding a radioactive substance.” This comment is perfectly understandable if there is no benefit to be gained. One of the basic principles of radiation protection is that any radiation exposure must be justified; that is, the benefit must outweigh the risk. I assume that in his medical practice, Dr. Neal has sometimes had to order an X-ray or nuclear medicine scan of a pregnant patient; he and the patient decided that the risk to the fetus from the radiation exposure is outweighed by the benefit of the diagnostic information to be gained. The problem arises when the benefit is an overall benefit to society, rather than to a given individual. The only way this issue can be resolved for something like uranium mining is stakeholder involvement and transparency; all those affected must be provided factual information and invited to participate in the decision-making process.
Dr. Neal suggests that had people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki thought we were simply dropping a regular bomb on them (versus an atomic bomb), they would not have felt overly threatened. This is absurd. There may, in fact, be different forms of anxiety when someone is told that a “regular” bomb versus an atomic bomb is going to be detonated; however, both forms would leave a person, city and country feeling threatened.
It is also of interest to note that more Japanese people were killed by a firebombing raid on Tokyo in May 1945 than in the atomic bombings; war is hell, regardless of the weapons used.
Dr. Neal states “There are too many unknowns concerning radiation exposure.”
Radiation is the most studied toxic substance known to humans. At very high doses, like some received during the atomic bombings, cancer and other diseases can be caused. At low doses, like the natural background dose we receive annually or from living near a nuclear power plant, study after study has shown no health effects. In fact, human exposure standards for uranium are based on its chemical toxicity, not radioactivity, because it is a heavy metal and so, taken internally, can have health effects on our organs. He also states that if a patient were to ask him if her unborn baby would be adversely affected, all he could answer is “I hope not.” There are numerous published studies in the medical literature concerning the risks of prenatal radiation exposure, such as L.K. Wagner, et al., “Exposure of the Pregnant Patient to Diagnostic Radiations” (Medical Physics Publishing, Madison, Wisc.).
More information is available on our Web page at http://hps.org/publicinformation/ate/cat4.html.
An additional tool providing factual information on uranium and uranium mining can be found on the Health Physics Society Web site (hps.org/publicinformation/ate/uranium.pdf).
• Richard Toohey, PhD, CHP, is president of the Health Physics Society, a nonprofit scientific professional organization whose mission is excellence in the science and practice of radiation safety. Society activities include encouraging research in radiation science, developing standards and disseminating radiation safety information. Society members are involved in understanding, evaluating and controlling the potential risks from radiation relative to the benefits. Its objectives include providing information for the public to assist in the understanding of radiation, so as to enable them and their health-care providers to make informed decisions about risks and benefits.
More about Dr. Toohey's affiliations can be found here: http://www.orau.org/news/releases/2007/fy07-15.htm He's hardly unbiased.