Community Coalition Against Mining Uranium (CCAMU)
Citizens’ Inquiry on the Impacts of the Uranium Cycle
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The Petri Dish

Linda Harvey M.D.

When single celled organisms are placed in a petri dish, with suitable nutrients and comfortable conditions, they grow. And grow. And grow, until they either run out of nutrients or poison themselves with their own wastes. They are very simple creatures, they can perhaps be excused. It seems, however, that the most advanced, highly evolved creatures on this planet are doing the very same thing. Yes, that would be us. This time there is no excuse. We are graced with brain cells, some of us, and the others have ears to listen.

The uranium mining issue, and indeed the whole nuclear power and weapons issue, of which it is a part, is pivotal in this path to destruction. It’s not just about digging up some rock near Robertsville, or Bancroft, or Elliot Lake. It’s about how we manage our finite resources and preserve our rather fragile biological infrastructure on this planet in this critical time. It’s about whether we continue to race headlong toward the cliff or whether we apply the brakes, hard.

We cannot sustain 6.5 billion people in the profligate, wasteful comfort to which some of us have become accustomed. Our oil reserves, according to most experts, have peaked and are now in decline (1). Global warming threatens us as greenhouse gas concentrations rise (2). Uranium is seen as a saviour, our life raft in troubled times. Our life raft, at our present rates of consumption will last us about 50-80 years (3). Hardly a long term solution. And we’d better save out plenty of fossil fuel with which to dig it up, refine it, transport it and build reactors for it, because it’s going to take a lot. Not to mention decommissioning the reactors (ie. taking them apart and disposing of them as radioactive waste), and burying the spent fuel rods deep in the earth. We don’t want to be doing this by hand. At replacement rates, that is with most or all of our power needs coming from nuclear sources, not just the present 17%, our reserves will last us a paltry 9-12 years.

This, of course, completely ignores the fact that we will be unleashing a scourge just as deadly, and even more irreversible than global warming. Radioactive contamination. This is the fearsome beast in the closet that nobody wants you to know about. It has been cloaked in secrecy and deception.

In 1996, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, expert on radiation and human health stated “…I was personally amazed to discover in the literature that most of the really detailed research [on low level radiation and health] was conducted before 1951.Since 1951 the myth that you can’t study low level radiation has prevailed.” 1951 marked the opening of the Nevada above-ground nuclear test site. She continues, “At that time there was a concerted effort to declare that low level radiation wasn’t harmful and that there was no way to prove that any effects were connected with [it]” (4) . Some of the studies done at this time may well be forming the basis for the decision-making done by our governments and our regulatory bodies today.

You have to understand that a scientific study can be designed to find something or to not find it. Imagine a person looking for a needle in a haystack, only he’s looking for it on the front walkway. He won’t find it, and he will be able to say with confidence that it is not there. Scientific studies have to be read with a great deal of discernment.

The scientific community is generally agreed that there are no safe levels of exposure to ionizing radiation. (5) Even natural background levels result in background rates of human ills, such as cancers, genetic defects and in part the aging process. Anything we put out there adds to this.

There is in many situations an unfortunate lack of solid information on exactly how much radiation people are being or have been exposed to in different settings, e.g. mine workers, nuclear power plant workers, populations living near these installations, and those exposed in accident or disaster situations. Careful monitoring is not always done. Elliott Lake miners started wearing radiation dosimeter badges in 1985 (6), even though these badges were available to military personnel in 1945. At 3 Mi. Island functioning gamma-radiation monitors went off scale early in the accident, and no other monitoring was done for several days. Alpha and beta radiation was apparently never monitored, nor was there tracking of many of the important individual isotopes. So we will never know what those populations were exposed to. (7) Similar inadequacies occurred at Chernobyl. (8,9)

Even more fuzzy are the data on the effects of these exposures. Helen Caldicott, in her book “Nuclear Power is not the Answer” chronicles a litany of wasted opportunities to study the effects of the exposure of populations to radioactive contamination, from Hiroshima onwards. (7,8)

Early studies on this population, rather than recording all health events in exposed persons, a sensible approach when dealing with a new and unknown hazard, chose to focus only on cancer deaths. People who were not within a specified distance of the blast but who came into heavily contaminated areas to search for or attend relatives were counted as “not exposed”, thus obfuscating and obscuring the effects of radiation exposure. (10) Much information was lost.

The hundred other ills and health problems which could have had some connection to exposure were dismissed. There is now fairly compelling evidence that a long list of other health consequences may be linked to low level, long term radiation exposure including atherosclerotic heart disease, thyroid disease, diabetes, arthritis, increases in autoimmune disorders, immune system malfunction, mental retardation stemming from fetal exposure, and genetic deterioration.(10,11) Plausible physiological mechanisms exist to explain how most of these could occur. In fact in suppressing them, in making them “go away” we allow ourselves to blindly set up exposures for ourselves and our descendants which are sure to cause us grief. And we won’t know what’s hitting us.

What we do know is that radioactivity eats away at the very fabric of life, our DNA, in an insidious and cumulative way, and that some of the isotopes we are blindly and wantonly scattering about have half-lives in the billions of years.

Now is our big chance to show that we have evolved meaningfully above the inhabitants of the petri dish. Or we may have another opportunity, say, 4.5 billion years from now when the earth has cleansed itself from the mess we made the first time.

References:

1) Homer-Dixon, T. “The Upside of Down”, Random House, Toronto, 2007 pp. 85-89
2) Christianson, G., “Greenhouse”, Greystone Books, Vancouver, 1999, pp. 1-277
3) Caldicott, H., “Nuclear Power is not the Answer”, The New Press, NY, 2006, p. 8
4) Bertell, R. in “Chernobyl: Environmental, Health and Human Rights Implications”, International Medical Commission on Chernobyl, 1996, p. 15
5) BEIR VII, Phase 2, “Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation”, National Academies Press, Washington, 2006, pp. 6-8
6) Rekmans, L. et al., eds., “This is My Homeland”, Serpent River First Nation, 2005, p.38
7) Caldicott, H., “Nuclear Power is not the Answer”, pp. 65-74
8) Caldicott, H., pp. 74-80
9) Myrnyi, S., in “Chernobyl: Env., Health and Human Rights Implicaions”, pp. 22-25
10) Bertell, R., in www.ccnr.org/rosalie_testimony.html
11) BEIR VII, Phase 2, pp. 152-154