“Based on available data concerning the effects (from both exposure to uranium and ionizing radiation) of releases of radionuclides from both uranium mines and mills, and waste management areas, it has been concluded that these releases are entering the environment in quantities or concentrations or under conditions that have or may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity” (Environment Canada, July 2002.)(1)
Wow ! This sounds exactly the opposite of what the uranium mining industry claims about how it is ‘protecting’ the environment. So what do we really know about the wastes that come from the uranium chain from its mining to its uses in nuclear power generation and weapons manufacture ? Let’s begin with a reality check of northern Saskatchewan where uranium and radium have been mined since the 1930's.
Radioactive tailings from the Gunnar and Beaverlodge mines and others in that area are still drifting into Lake Athabasca and NOTHING has been done to clean them up. The Federal and Saskatchewan Governments have reached tentative agreement on what to do but their estimated combined financial cost of $24 million falls(2) far short of the TWO BILLION dollars that Federal Minister of Environment Anderson said was necessary. (3) A study around the Key Lake mine area (4) in 1997 concluded that uranium, radium-226, lead-210 and polonium-210 , all dangerous to the biosphere, were present in plants, soil, animals in amounts well above permissible limits for humans. The highest amounts were for Polonium-210 a breakdown product of the gas radon that enters the atmosphere from uranium mines and mills and can spread around the globe. An American scientist (5) estimated that from the 150 million tonnes of rock waste produced by uranium mining at Elliott Lake, Ontario, up to 250,000 people will die from the effects of radon gas over the next 16,000 years ! There were already at that time (1992) more than 200 uranium miners dead from lung cancer. (6)
Radium-226 is the main radioactive substance in uranium mine wastes and it all goes back into the huge tailings areas where it can leach into the interconnected waterways of the north where almost every uranium mine is situated either under or adjacent to a lake. Radium is extremely radioactive; for example the McArthur River mine has an average uranium content in the ore of 21%. This brings 122 bequerels of radium-226 into the environment with each gram of ore. Radium and thorium are both dangerous alpha-radiation emitters and they persist for immensely long periods of time (Half lives of 1600 and 75,400 years respectively).
The JEB pit at McClean Lake mine where these wastes are being stored is enormous - roughly four football fields in diameter and half a kilometre deep ! By the year 2002 Canada had accumulated 197.2 million tonnes of uranium mine waste, mostly in Ontario because of the low grade of uranium ore. But in Saskatchewan the 22 million tonnes accumulated from 38 years of mining contain orders of magnitude more radioactivity due to the exceptionally high grades (20-40% ) of uranium in the ore.
Uranium mining worldwide had been associated with lung cancer deaths in miners since the 1600's - the proof is there, but the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission that is supposed to be the watch dog for the public has concluded it is not worth studying the epidemiology of cancer in uranium miners in Saskatchewan mines “because the risks are so low now in monitored mines that we cannot show effects from radiation” ! (7)