Canadian Coalition
for Nuclear
Responsibility






Regroupement pour
la surveillance
du nucléaire

URANIUM

A Discussion Guide


QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

by Dr. Gordon Edwards et al.




prepared for and published by
The National Film Board of Canada

to accompany the film "Uranium"
directed by Magnus Isacsson




TABLE OF CONTENTS


A. URANIUM AND RADIOACTIVITY

A.1. What is uranium?
A.2. What is radioactivity?
A.3. How far can atomic radiation penetrate?
A.4. Is radioactivity dangerous?
A.5. How do radioactive elements produce other radioactive elements?

B. URANIUM AND ITS USES

B.1. Where is uranium found?
B.2. How did Canada get into the uranium business?
B.3. How is uranium used in atomic bombs?
B.4. How is uranium used in nuclear reactors to produce electricity?
B.5. Are there other uses for nuclear reactors?
B.6. Are the peaceful and military uses of uranium incompatible?
B.7. Has Canada ever produced plutonium for use in bombs?
B.8. Does Canada still sell uranium and plutonium for bombs?
B.9. Does Canadian uranium still find its way into nuclear bombs?
B.10. Are there any other uses for uranium?

C. URANIUM AND NUCLEAR FISSION

C.1. What is nuclear fission?
C.2. What are fission products?
C.3. What is strontium-90? cesium-137?
C.4. What is "nuclear weapons fallout"?
C.5. What is "high level radioactive waste"?
C.6. How are plutonium and the other transuranic elements produced?
C.7. What is plutonium used for?

D. URANIUM AND PUBLIC POLICY

D.1. Is nuclear-generated electricity inevitable? Just a matter of time?
D.2. Are the alternatives to nuclear power feasible?
D.3. Is uranium and nuclear power accepted in Canada? in the World?
D.4. To what extent has Canada invested in uranium and nuclear power?
D.5. To what extent has Canada intervened in the uranium market?
D.6. What is Canada's present status in the international uranium market?
D.7. Why is uranium mining expanding in Canada?
D.8. Are there implications for aboriginal land title & rights? [Dr. Jim Harding]

E. THE HEALTH HAZARDS OF URANIUM MINING

E.1. What are the health hazards of uranium mining?
E.2. How long have we known that lung cancer is caused by uranium mining?
E.3. How did we learn that radioactivity causes lung cancer?
E.4. Which radioactive materials cause lung cancer among miners?
E.5. Have uranium miners in North America suffered from excess lung cancer?
E.6. Are there higher rates of lung cancer among uranium miners today?
E.7. Are the current levels of radiation exposure for miners considered safe?
E.8. Can health dangers be alleviated by using more miners for shorter times?

F. URANIUM TAILINGS

F.1. What are uranium tailings?
F.2. What is thorium-230?
F.3. What is radium-226?
F.4. What is radon-222?
F.5. What are the radon progeny?
F.6. What is polonium?

G. URANIUM AND THE ENVIRONMENT

G.1. What are the greatest environmental risks from a uranium mine?
G.2. Does uranium mining cause water pollution?
G.3. What dangers do tailings pose to humans, wildlife and the environment?
G.4. Is there a way to avoid this kind of radioactive contamination?
G.5. How long will the tailings be radioactive?
G.6. How long will it take to get rid of the hazard of uranium tailings?
G.7. Can modern science eliminate atomic radiation from radioactive tailings?
G.8. What are the long-term effects of uranium mining? [Dr. Stella Swanson]

H. REGULATING TAILINGS MANAGEMENT

H.1. Who is responsible for regulating tailings management in Canada?
H.2. What do the regulations require?
H.3. Are the regulations effective?
H.4. Are the regulators independent of the industry?

J. THE HEALTH EFFECTS OF ATOMIC RADIATION

J.1. Can the human body protect itself from radioactive materials?
J.2. How does atomic radiation cause cancer?
J.3. How does atomic radiation cause genetic defects in children?
J.4. How do we know that atomic radiation causes genetic damage?
J.5. How else can atomic radiation damage unborn children?
J.6. Is there a cure for radiation victims?
J.7. Can radioactivity be detected by human senses?
J.8. Are medical and dental x-rays free of risk?

K. THE REGULATION OF RADIATION EXPOSURES

K.1. What is an "acceptable" level of exposure to atomic radiation?
K.2. Who is responsible for regulating radiation exposure in Canada?
K.3. What is the basis for setting radiation standards?
K.4. What is "background radiation"?
K.5. Is background radiation increasing?
K.6. Is radon in homes a problem? how does it get there?
K.7. Are Canadian exposure standards being made more stringent?

L. BIBLIOGRAPHIC REFERENCES

L.1. Uranium Mining and the Environment
L.2. Uranium Industry and Regulation
L.3. Uranium Tailings
L.4. Historical Background
L.5. Health Hazards of Uranium Mining
L.6. Health Hazards of Atomic Radiation
L.7. Uranium and Nuclear Weapons
L.8. The Nuclear Option
L.9. Plutonium and High-Level Radioactive Waste
L.10. Non-Nuclear Energy Alternatives
L.11. Uranium and Public Policy
L.12. Uranium Mining and Aboriginal Land Title/Rights


A. URANIUM AND RADIOACTIVITY

A.1. What is uranium?

Uranium is the heaviest metal that occurs in nature. It is an unstable material which gradually breaks apart or "decays" at the atomic level, as described in the next section. Any such material is said to be "radioactive".

As uranium slowly decays, it gives off invisible bursts of penetrating energy called "atomic radiation". It also produces more than a dozen other radioactive substances as by-products.

These unstable by-products, having little or no commercial value, are called "uranium decay products". They are discarded as waste when uranium is mined. One of them is a toxic radioactive gas called radon. The others are radioactive solids.

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A.2. What is radioactivity?

Science teaches us that everything is made of tiny little particles called atoms. They are too small to be seen even under a powerful microscope. When a substance is radioactive, it means that its atoms are exploding (sub-microscopically) and throwing off pieces of themselves with great force. This process is called "radioactive decay".

During radioactive decay, two types of tiny electrically charged particles are given off, travelling very fast. They are called alpha and beta particles. Some radioactive materials are alpha emitters, and others are beta emitters. In addition, highly energetic rays called gamma rays are often emitted. Gamma rays are not material particles at all, but a form of pure energy very similar to x-rays, travelling at the speed of light.

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A.3. How far can atomic radiation penetrate?

Gamma rays penetrate through soft tissue just as light shines through a window. Beta particles have less penetrating power, travelling less than two centimeters in soft tissue. Alpha particles have the least penetrating power, travelling just a few micrometers in soft tissue, equivalent to a few cell diameters.

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A.4. Is radioactivity dangerous?

Alpha particles, beta particles and gamma rays can do great harm to a living cell by breaking its chemical bonds at random and disrupting the cell's genetic instructions.

Massive exposure to atomic radiation can cause death within a few days or weeks. Smaller doses can cause burns, loss of hair, nausea, loss of fertility and pronounced changes in the blood. Still smaller doses, too small to cause any immediate visible damage, can result in cancer or leukemia in the person exposed, congenital abnormalities in his or her children (including physical deformities, diseases and mental retardation), and possible genetic defects in future generations.

Outside the body, alpha emitters are the least harmful, and gamma emitters are more dangerous than beta emitters.

Inside the body, however, alpha emitters are the most dangerous. They are about 20 times more damaging than beta emitters or gamma emitters. Thus, although alpha radiation cannot penetrate through a sheet of paper or a dead layer of skin, alpha emitters are extremely hazardous when taken into the body by inhalation or ingestion, or through a cut or open sore.

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A.5. How do radioactive elements produce other radioactive elements?

When atoms undergo radioactive decay, they change into new substances, because they have lost something of themselves. These by-products of radioactive decay are called "decay products" or "progeny". In many cases, the decay products are also radioactive. If so, they too will disintegrate, producing even more decay products and giving off even more atomic radiation.

The number which appears after the name of a substance helps to indicate its place in the list of decay products. When the numbers go down by four, an alpha particle has been emitted. When the numbers stay the same, a beta particle has been emitted. Most of the time, but not always, there is a gamma ray emitted to accompany the alpha or beta emission.

Thus uranium-238 changes into thorium-230 (in three stages), which then changes into radium-226, and thence into radon-222. The numbers keep getting smaller because the atoms are losing a part of themselves.

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B. URANIUM AND ITS USES

B.1. Where is uranium found?

Tiny amounts of uranium are found almost everywhere. However, concentrated deposits of uranium (called ores) are found in just a few places, usually in hard rock or sandstone. These deposits are normally covered over with earth and vegetation.

In Canada (see the map below) uranium mining has taken place in the Northwest Territories (Great Bear Lake and Rayrock), in northern Saskatchewan (Cluff Lake, Key Lake, Rabbit Lake, Wollaston Lake and Uranium City), in Ontario (Elliot Lake and Bancroft), and in a few other places.

Uranium has also been mined in the southwest United States, Australia, parts of Europe, the Soviet Union, Namibia, South Africa, Niger and elsewhere.

In the 1970s, uranium deposits were discovered in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Labrador, but due to citizen opposition, the uranium mining companies have not been allowed to mine the ores in these areas.

In the past fifteen years, Saskatchewan has become the uranium capital of the world. The richest uranium ores ever discovered have been found in Saskatchewn.

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B.2. How did Canada get into the uranium business?

Before 1939, there was no significant use for uranium. German potters used it to make a reddish glaze, and it was studied by scientists for its radioactive properties. Then, during World War II, scientists realized that extremely powerful bombs could be made by "splitting" uranium atoms using nuclear fission, which is described in section C.

When the U.S. needed uranium to build the world's first atomic bombs, Canada paid to have a deserted, privately-owned radium mine in the Northwest Territories re-opened as a uranium mine. Canada secretly bought up shares in the company, Eldorado Mining and Refining, and turned it into a crown corporation: Eldorado Nuclear Ltd.

At the Eldorado refinery in Port Hope, Ontario, uranium from the NWT and the Congo was processed for the U.S. army who used it to produce the world's first atomic bombs. These bombs completely destroyed two Japanese cities at the end of the war in 1945.

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B.3. How is uranium used in atomic bombs?

The explosive in the Hiroshima bomb was a rare kind of uranium, found in very low concentrations in every sample of uranium. The Nagasaki bomb was made from a different nuclear explosive material called plutonium. But plutonium -- the most commonly used nuclear explosive today -- has to be made from uranium. In fact, without uranium, none of the current nuclear weapons could have been built.

For twenty years after the first atomic explosions, Canada's uranium was sold to make many more atomic bombs as well as hydrogen bombs, which are even more powerful (but which still require uranium or plutonium as a "trigger"). In 1959, uranium was Canada's fourth most important export, after newsprint, lumber and wheat. At that time, it was all sold for military explosive purposes.

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B.4. How is uranium used in nuclear reactors to produce electricity?

In the 1960s, the nuclear fission process began to be used to produce electricity in special machines called nuclear reactors. These machines use uranium as a kind of fuel to boil water. The steam that is produced spins a turbine to make electricity. There are now twenty nuclear power plants in Canada, and hundreds worldwide. Eighteen nuclear plants are operating in Ontario. There is also one in Québec and another in New Brunswick.

Since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, and especially since the Chernobyl accident in 1986, almost no new nuclear reactors have been sold. However, in 1990 Ontario Hydro announced that it wants to build about a dozen more.

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B.5. Are there other uses for nuclear reactors?

Nuclear reactors fuelled with uranium can be used to produce artificial radioactive substances called "radioisotopes" for use in industry, scientific research and medicine. Alternatively, many of these radioisotopes can be produced in special machines called accelerators, which do not require the use of uranium.

Nuclear reactors also serve to drive the propulsion units of nuclear submarines. In addition, special military reactors are used to produce most of the nuclear explosive materials used in nuclear weapons.

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B.6. Are the peaceful and military uses of uranium incompatible?

Nuclear reactors fuelled with uranium automatically produce plutonium as a byproduct. If that plutonium is chemically separated from the rest of the radioactive garbage in the spent reactor fuel, it can be used as a nuclear explosive. So, the spread of nuclear power around the world gives more and more countries the option of producing nuclear weapons at some future time.

In 1974, India exploded a bomb that was made from plutonium produced in a reactor given to the Indian government as a gift by the Canadian government. It was not an electricity-producing reactor, but a smaller machine called a "research reactor".

Canada has also given or sold reactors to Taiwan, Pakistan, South Korea, Argentina and Romania. Several regimes in these client countries have displayed an interest in either developing nuclear weapons themselves, or in sharing their nuclear technology with other countries having such military ambitions (e.g. Iraq and Libya).

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B.7. Has Canada ever produced plutonium for use in bombs?

During World War II, European scientists worked in a top-secret laboratory in Montreal, paid for by Canada, to find the most efficient method for producing plutonium for atomic bombs. This involved the use of a special material called "heavy water".

In 1944, a military decision was taken in Washington D.C. to build one or more "heavy water reactors" at Chalk River, Ontario, to test the Montreal laboratory's findings. When these Canadian reactors began operating after the war was over, they proved to be among the very best plutonium-producing reactors in the world. The reactor that was given to the Indian government was a copy of one of these.

To help defray the cost of its nuclear research program, the Canadian government sold plutonium produced in Chalk River reactors to the U.S. military for use in bombs for over twenty years. Plutonium from Chalk River was akso sent to the U.K. to assist the British in the development of their first atomic bombs. The British learned how to separate plutonium for military use by building and operating a plutonium separation plant at Chalk River, in cooperation with Canadian scientists. French scientists working at the Montreal laboratory likewise learned valuable lessons which assisted in the development of France's first nuclear weapons.

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B.8. Does Canada still sell uranium and plutonium for bombs?

Since 1965, Canada has had a policy of selling uranium for peaceful purposes only -- that is, as fuel for nuclear reactors. Any country purchasing Canadian uranium or a Canadian nuclear reactor must promise not to use it or the byproduct plutonium for bombs. This policy is complemented by an international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, as the Indian experience shows, the policy cannot be enforced; if a country chooses to make atomic bombs, Canada cannot prevent it.

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B.9. Does Canadian uranium still find its way into nuclear bombs?

Over 85 percent of Canadian uranium is exported. In most cases, before being sent on to foreign customers, it first goes to a uranium enrichment plant. For every seven pounds of uranium that enters the enrichment plant, less than one pound ends up in the finished product: reactor fuel. The other six pounds of uranium are discarded as a waste material having no significant civilian use.

Some of this cast-off uranium, called "depleted uranium", was regularly used by the U.S. military in the construction of nuclear weapons. In fact, it was the raw material from which weapons-grade plutonium was created in special military reactors.

   containers of depleted uranium                  "target rods" made from depleted uranium
left over from uranium enrichment                    used to produce plutonium for bombs

photos by Robert Del Tredici


Depleted uranium is also used in the manufacture of metal components for the bomb itself, thereby doubling the explosive power of each warhead. The U.S. military makes no distinction between uranium of Canadian origin and uranium of any other origin.

When Canadian uranium was enriched in the Soviet Union, Canada did not allow the USSR to keep the depleted uranium within its borders because of its military potential.

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B.10. Are there any other uses for uranium?

There are other uses for uranium, but they are less important. Some bullets are coated with uranium so that they can pierce through heavy armour. Some tanks are reinforced with uranium to make them stronger. Uranium is used as a weight in some airplanes and in the Cruise missiles tested in the Canadian north.

[ MORE . . . (Part Two) ] . . . or back to [ TABLE OF CONTENTS ]


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