Uranium – the new asbestos
1. Major union bans members working in uranium mines, nuclear power stations, et al
2. ETU’s educational video launched in Brisbane
The debate over uranium mining and the role of nuclear energy in Australia has intensified with a major union launching a campaign against the nuclear industry by banning its members from working in uranium mines, nuclear power stations or any other part of the nuclear fuel cycle.
In an Australian first for the union movement, the Electrical Trades Union Queensland and Northern Territory (ETU Qld & NT) branch’s, peak body, the ETU State Council, has imposed a ban on its members working in uranium mines, nuclear powers stations and any other part of the nuclear fuel cycle.
The ETU’s rules mandate that members must abide by Union policy, a situation that was recently tested with the expulsion of two State Labor MPs, Neil Roberts and Jason O’Brien.
Any member breaching this ban can be brought before State Council, with the most severe penalty being expulsion from the union and losing access to union support or assistance with collective and personal workplace issues.
ETU secretary, Peter Simpson, said there is little point having policies on these issues if you are not prepared to act on them.
“We are sending a clear message to the industry and the wider community that vested interests in the uranium and nuclear industries are trying to hoodwink us about this dangerous product and industry. Corporate interests, and their political supporters in the Labor and Coalition parties, are also trying to buy working families off with high wages, while denying the true short-term and long-term health risks of such jobs.
“Following the release of our DVD our members are now fully aware of the dangers and health risks, if they decide to take a job in a uranium mine or any other nuclear facility,” Mr Simpson said.
To help educate its 14,000 Queensland and Northern Territory members, and other Australians, on the dangers of uranium mining and the nuclear fuel industry and the reasons for the union’s ban on employment in the nuclear fuel industry, the ETU has commissioned a 35-minute film, When the Dust Settles, which has been posted to every ETU member in Queensland and the NT.
Electricians at the Northern Territory’s Ranger mine have been advised of the ETU’s decision.
It is expected other unions will follow the ETU’s lead on this issue and join its campaign against the uranium and nuclear industries.
Australia has about 20 per cent of the world’s known uranium deposits and the largest known deposits of high-grade uranium ore.
When the Dust Settles – new drama/doco outlines uranium mining risks
When the Dust Settles is a 35-minute documentary film commissioned by the ETU Qld & NT for the purposes of this renewed campaign against the nuclear industry. It combines comedy and serious content to explain the dangers of uranium mining, the nuclear fuel cycle and the use of depleted nuclear materials – much of which originates in Australian uranium mines – in weapons production.
It is presented on location at the Olympic Dam and Ranger uranium mines and Roxby Downs, by veteran Australian actor, and former electrician, Tony Barry. Academy Award nominee and internationally-respected Australian filmmaker, David Bradbury, of Frontline Films, was director.
Other participants include Canadian nun, Dr Rosalie Bertell (who led an international team into Chernobyl), Dr Helen Caldicott (paediatrician and high-profile anti-nuclear campaigner), Dr Peter Karamoskos (nuclear radiologist and specialist in the health effects of radiation, including low level radiation), and a representative of the uranium mining industry.
The film is based around a family, the Sparkies – played by Austen Tayshus, Mandy Nolan, Zoe Hutchence and Dylan Bradbury – who consider taking the big money on offer for electricians in the uranium mining industry until their son confronts them with the health and environmental risks.
The message from When the Dust Settles is simple and clear:
Despite assurances from the mining companies, there is NO SAFE LEVEL of radiation exposure, below which there is no risk of cancer or birth defects occurring.
The ETU’s decision to intensify its campaign against uranium mining and the nuclear fuel industry comes as the federal ALP and Coalition parties and major media and mining interests, are pushing for the expansion of uranium mining in Australia and for Australia to consider the generation of nuclear power.
The ETU’s decision to enter the debate represents a significant challenge to those advocating Australia’s continued and expanded involvement in nuclear fuel industries.
The ETU has shown its effective campaigning capacity through its recent anti-WorkChoices and anti-privatisation campaigns in Queensland. This anti-nuclear campaign will also include advertising and community and political events.
At a State and Territory level, it also puts the Queensland Government and Opposition on notice that its policies on this issue will be scrutinized carefully. At the moment the State ALP has a policy of not issuing leases for the mining of uranium. However, extensive exploration and identification of Queensland’s uranium resources is underway and there is no doubt the mining industry will increase the pressure on governments to let them exploit those ore deposits.
So this will be an issue at the next State and federal elections. The ETU will also campaign strongly against any attempt to put a nuclear waste dump at Muckity Station, outside Tennant Creek.
Queensland is no stranger to the uranium mining industry, with mines operating up until the early 1980s at places such as Mary Kathleen near Mount Isa. The Northern Territory is already mining its uranium deposits at the Ranger mine.
The science on this issue is well known and well documented – there is no safe level of radiation.
The federal ALP, despite its new-found enthusiasm for the nuclear industry, recognizes this in the introduction to its uranium policy:
Labor recognises that the production of uranium and its use in the nuclear fuel cycle present unique and unprecedented hazards and risks, including:
• Threats to human health and the local environment in the mining and milling of uranium, which demand the enforcement of very strict safety procedures.
• The generation of products which are usable as the raw materials for nuclear weapons manufacture, which demands the enforcement of effective controls against diversion.
• The generation of highly toxic radioactive waste by-products that demand permanently safe disposal methods not currently available.
The facts are well summarized by two Canadian physicians, Doctors Cathy Vakil and Linda Harvey, in their comprehensive 2009 paper, Human Health Implications of Uranium Mining and Nuclear Power Generation:
The scientific community generally agrees that there are no “safe” levels of exposure to ionizing radiation, and that any exposure carries the risk of harm (10). “Acceptable” levels are based on “acceptable harm”.
Uranium mining contaminates air, water and soil. Crushing tons of radioactive rock produces dust, and leaves behind fine radioactive particles subject to wind and water erosion. Radon gas, a potent lung carcinogen, is released continuously from the tailings in perpetuity. Drilling and blasting disrupt and contaminate local aquifers. Water used to control dust and create slurries for uranium extraction becomes contaminated. Tailings containments can leak, leach or fail, releasing radioactive material into local waterways. Various organisms can transport radioactive material away from contaminated sites. These sites remain radioactive for many thousands of years, and will be unsafe to use for most human purposes for that long, as well as being a source of continuing contamination for surrounding populations.
Also, as Carolyn Stephens and Mike Ahern, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, point out in their 2001 literature review, Worker and Community Health Impacts Related to Mining Operations Internationally:
Radon particulate daughters are responsible for alpha irradiation of the bronchial epithelium. Epidemiological studies on miners indicate that radon exposure causes an increased risk of lung cancer in these workers but “how much?” and “how?” is still under investigation. Uranium mining presents a complex worker health and safety problem: studies in the 1990s and to date are only now finding out the nature of risks that men experienced in mines in the 1940s. (page 21)
And at page 22:
Most (studies) find relative risks of lung cancer between 2 and 5 times higher in uranium workers who have been exposed to higher levels of radon, or to longer periods of low exposure (Kusiak, Springer et al. 1991; Woodward, Roder et al. 1991; Tomasek, Darby et al. 1994).
Culture of denial in the corporate world
Corporate denial of the dangers of various substances and products has a long history. Doctors Cathy Vakil and Linda Harvey again point out:
There is a very long list of products which were considered to be safe when first introduced into the public domain: cigarettes, DDT and many other pesticides, food additives, flame retardants, and drugs such as diethylstilbestrol (DES) and thalidomide.
Many have subsequently been removed from the market or had their use restricted. We have no logical basis to assume that radiation exposure will not follow this same pattern, and indeed we have seen allowable exposures to radiation decrease dramatically over the past century as we come to understand its effects. The weight of scientific evidence indicates that there is no safe dose of radiation exposure (10) and there is currently pressure to reduce permissible exposure limits even further.
Add to this list asbestos, which has been the subject of a well-known recent Australian case involving corporate “ducking and weaving”, and it is clear the corporate world has a long history of trying to deny the facts about various dangerous substances.
The uranium mining and nuclear fuel industries are just the latest in a long list of corporate deniers. For example, look at this comment from the World Nuclear Association (a body representing the industry) in its February 2010 paper, Nuclear Radiation and Health Effects:
In addition, there is increasing evidence of beneficial effect from low-level radiation (up to about 10 mSv/yr). This ‘radiation hormesis’ may be due to an adaptive response by the body’s cells, the same as that with other toxins at low doses. In the case of carcinogens such as ionizing radiation, the beneficial effect is seen both in lower incidence of cancer and in resistance to the effects of higher doses. However, until possible mechanisms are confirmed, uncertainty will remain. Further research is under way and the debate continues. Meanwhile standards for radiation exposure continue to be deliberately conservative.
ETU secretary, Peter Simpson, said the ETU believes, in this sense, that uranium is the new asbestos and denial of the scientific and health-risk facts cannot be allowed to occur again.
A final word on climate change
The ETU does not accept the argument that nuclear energy is an answer to the harmful impact on the world’s climate of burning fossil fuels.
Mr Simpson said you do not solve one problem by creating another, more dangerous one.
“How can anyone credibly argue that the answer to global warming or atmospheric pollution is to significantly increase the risk of people getting cancer or them giving birth to deformed babies?
“This is a classic example of the intellectual laziness we so often see in sections of the corporate sector, as it progresses its vested interests at the expense of the wider community. It is also a classic example of the innovation laziness we so often in the corporate sector.
“They so often would rather take the easy, but high risk route, rather than do the hard work on developing and expanding renewable energy sources. We don’t need to mine uranium and build nuclear reactors, we just need to reduce, through technology, the release of pollutants into the atmosphere. Necessity is the mother of invention, so get on with developing the safer alternatives and leave the uranium in the ground,” Mr Simpson said.
“When the Dust Settles” can now be viewed on You Tube
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