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



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PART TWO


C. URANIUM AND NUCLEAR FISSION

C.1. What is nuclear fission?

Nuclear fission was discovered by German scientists in 1939. They found that some uranium atoms will split (or "fission") into two or three pieces, when bombarded by tiny projectiles called "neutrons".

When fission occurs, a great deal of energy is released, and more neutrons are thrown off with great force. These extra neutrons can cause additional uranium atoms to split, releasing even more energy and more neutrons. Thus one fission can cause many more by starting a "chain reaction".

The fission process allows uranium to be used as an explosive in nuclear weapons or as fuel in a nuclear reactor. In an atomic bomb, fission takes place in an uncontrolled fashion, resulting in a gigantic explosion. In a nuclear power station, the fission process is very carefully controlled to produce a steady stream of electricity. Unlike the process of radioactive decay, the fission process can be started and stopped, speeded up and slowed down, by using special neutron-absorbing materials.

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C.2. What are fission products?

All the broken pieces of uranium atoms left over from the fission process are atoms of new radioactive materials called "fission products". These are not the decay products of uranium mentioned earlier; they are new radioactive materials not found in nature.

There are dozens of different fission products, including such substances as strontium-90, cesium-137 and iodine-131. They are all lighter than uranium, because their atoms are much smaller than uranium atoms. They give off beta radiation and gamma radiation, but not alpha radiation.

Fission products never occurred in human food, air or water before the first atomic bomb explosions. Now they are everywhere, all over the earth, in small amounts. Each one behaves differently in the body. They are all dangerous.

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C.3. What is strontium-90? cesium-137?

Strontium-90 and cesium-137 are two of the most dangerous fission products created inside a reactor or released from a nuclear explosion.

When strontium-90 is ingested in food and drink, it is stored in bone, teeth and milk (like calcium). Atomic radiation from strontium-90 disturbs the bone marrow and the blood, leaving the individual more vulnerable to infectious diseases. It can also lead to serious blood and bone disorders, including cancers.

Cesium-137 is stored in the flesh of fish and animals. If it is stored at high enough levels, it makes the meat unfit for human consumption. Cesium-137 also adheres to the soil and to buildings. At high enough levels, it can make contaminated areas of farmland unusable for growing crops, and in some cases it can make entire regions uninhabitable. That's why so many villages near Chernobyl had to be abandoned. That is also the reason Laplanders have been advised to refrain from eating reindeer meat.

Caribou in the Canadian arctic have more strontium-90 and cesium-137 in their bodies than other North American animals do, because they eat lichen which capture the radioactive materials right out of the air. Fish also concentrate cesium-137 in their fleshy parts. Being meat-eaters and fish-eaters, Canadian Inuit have higher levels of fallout radiation in their bodies than most other North American residents. These levels have been slowly decreasing since the 60s, when governments stopped testing nuclear bombs in the atmosphere; but the Chernobyl accident caused a slight increase.

Once distributed in the environment, strontium-90 and cesium-137 remain hazardous for many decades. One part in a thousand will still remain after 300 years.

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C.4. What is "nuclear weapons fallout"?

When an atomic bomb explodes in the atmosphere, fission products are dispersed into the environment. They contaminate air, water and soil, as well as plants and animals. Some of them become attached to dust particles and water droplets, and come down as rain or snow. Some are sent high up into the stratosphere; they descend very slowly for many years thereafter, all over the globe, as radioactive "fallout".

If the bomb explodes at ground level, huge quantities of earth are scooped up into the fireball. Many of these materials, originally non-radioactive, become radioactive by absorbing stray neutrons from the fission process. These new radioactive substances, caused by neutron absorption, are not fission products; they are called "activation products". They can contribute significantly to the fallout from an atomic explosion.

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C.5. What is "high level radioactive waste"?

Nuclear reactors produce large quantities of fission products. These are not normally dispersed in the environment except in the case of an accident like the one at Three Mile Island in 1979 or the much more catastrophic accident at Chernobyl in 1986.

Less than four percent of the fission products inside the Chernobyl reactor escaped -- yet the consequences were felt worldwide. Four years after the accident, in 1990, reindeer in Scandinavia and sheep in Wales were still judged unfit for human consumption because of radioactive contamination by cesium-137 from Chernobyl.


Because these reindeer carcasses in Lappland (Sweden)
are contaminated with radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident,
they are not fit for human consumption.

photo by Robert Del Tredici


If there are no accidents or leaks, the fission products will remain contained within the spent uranium fuel. Even so, the gamma radiation that they give off is so intense that a person would receive a fatal dose of radiation in less than a minute if he or she stood just a meter or so away from an unshielded spent fuel bundle fresh out of the reactor.

Spent nuclear fuel is too radioactive to be handled by human hands; it is moved only by robotic equipment. It is shipped in special flasks weighing over 50 tonnes, chained to flat-bed trucks or rail cars. This "high level radioactive waste" is unapproachable for centuries (due to the gamma radiation from fission products) and highly toxic for millenia (due to alpha radiation from plutonium and the other transuranic elements).

It would take more than twice all the water in all the lakes and rivers of the world to dissolve the spent nuclear fuel on hand by the year 2000 to the maximum permissible levels of radioactive pollution. Therefore, the material must be safely stored in a near-perfect containment system. There is as yet no proven safe method for permanently disposing of high level radioactive waste.

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C.6. How are plutonium and the other transuranic elements produced?

Although plutonium is an indirect byproduct of the fission process, it is not a fission product. Inside a nuclear reactor, some of the uranium atoms in the fuel are gradually "cooked" into plutonium atoms when they absorb neutrons without splitting.

Since it is heavier than uranium, this man-made radioactive element is called a "transuranic" element.

Additional neutron captures yield other transuranic elements, such as neptunium, americium, curium and californium. Most of them, including plutonium, will continue to give off alpha radiation for centuries or even millenia.

Plutonium is one of the most toxic man-made substances there is. A few milligrams of plutonium dust inhaled into the lungs, though invisible to the naked eye, will cause death in a short time due to massive fibrosis of the lungs. A few micrograms (one thousand times less!) can cause a fatal lung cancer ten or twenty years later.

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C.7. What is plutonium used for?

Plutonium, like uranium, can undergo nuclear fission. This substance can therefore be used as a nuclear explosive or as fuel for a nuclear reactor.

As noted earlier, the Nagasaki bomb utilized plutonium. For technical reasons, it is easier to use plutonium instead of uranium as a nuclear explosive. In fact, most of the warheads in the world's nuclear arsenals use plutonium as the primary explosive.

Plutonium can also be used to fuel a nuclear reactor. Some of the electrical energy produced in any nuclear reactor comes from the splitting of plutonium atoms, but there is a considerable amount of unused plutonium left over in the spent nuclear fuel. If nuclear power is to be a major energy source in future, plutonium will almost certainly have to be used instead of uranium as a nuclear fuel, because uranium supplies are not expected to outlast oil supplies. To extract plutonium, however, the spent fuel must first be dissolved in boiling nitric acid, releasing radioactive gases and vapours and creating millions of gallons of high-level radioactive liquid waste.

Much has been written about the dangers of relying on plutonium as a fuel, partly because of its extraordinary toxicity, partly because of the inherently dangerous process of extracting it from spent fuel, and partly because of the threat of nuclear blackmail. Criminals, terrorists, or irresponsible political leaders could use the separated plutonium to make crude but powerful nuclear weapons with relatively little effort.

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D. URANIUM AND PUBLIC POLICY

D.1. Is nuclear-generated electricity inevitable? Just a matter of time?

Nuclear proponents claim that the only substitutes for our rapidly diminishing oil supplies are coal and uranium. Since coal is such a dirty fuel, they say that nuclear power will be needed. But others disagree, maintaining that nuclear plants can't replace oil because they are too slow and too expensive to build. Besides, nuclear plants only supply electricity; yet 85 percent of our energy needs are non-electrical.

Numerous studies around the world -- such as Energy Future (the Harvard Business School Task Force Report on Energy) and 2025: Soft Energy Futures for Canada -- have argued that we can live quite affluently without requiring more nuclear power, oil or coal, by investing in energy efficiency, energy conservation, and renewable forms of energy. According to these studies, our best hope for the future lies with technologies such as solar heating, biologically renewable fuels (methane or fuel alcohols), solar electricity, wind power, geothermal energy, ocean thermal energy, wave power, etc.


These charts are taken from Amory Lovins' brilliant book, "Soft Energy Paths", which contrasts two radically different energy policies -- two competing strategies for providing essentially the same energy services, in the form of heat, light, transportation, drive power, telecommunications, etc.

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D.2. Are the alternatives to nuclear power feasible?

Through efficiency improvements alone, according to these alternative studies, we can free up more energy than is currently produced by nuclear plants. Moreover, such efficiency measures are less costly than nuclear power, and create more jobs. They reduce acid and greenhouse gas emissions faster than nuclear power can. They allow us to provide the same energy services (heat, light, transportation) while using far less energy to do so. The energy saved can then be used for other purposes.

According to these studies, once demand has been trimmed by efficiency (doing more with less) and conservation (eliminating wasteful uses), renewable energy sources can meet most if not all of our diminished energy needs. In general, these alternative supply technologies are portrayed as no more expensive than nuclear power, yet they are faster, cleaner, more easily sustainable, and they create more jobs. There are also cleaner and more efficient foosil fuel technologies that can be used during the relatively short transition period to a sustainable society powered by renewable forms of energy.

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D.3. Is uranium and nuclear power accepted in Canada? in the World?

The population of Canada and of the world is sharply divided on the merits of uranium and nuclear technology. Most Canadians and Americans oppose nuclear power because of the unsolved waste problems and the links to nuclear weapons.

Since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, there hasn't been a single nuclear reactor sold in all of North America as of September 1990. Since the Chernobyl accident in 1986, millions of European and Soviet citizens have turned against nuclear power. Sweden, Austria, Italy and the Phillippines are among the countries which have decided to phase out nuclear power.

When Margaret Thatcher privatized the British electricity industry in 1989, she was unable to persuade any private investors to buy the nuclear plants. The buyers balked when they learned how much money it will cost to dispose of radioactive wastes and to dismantle the radioactive structures when the reactors outlive their usefulness.

Unlike most other countries, France is expanding its nuclear power program -- but the French refuse to separate their civilian nuclear program from their nuclear weapons program.

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D.4. To what extent has Canada invested in uranium and nuclear power?

During World War II, Canada spent more on the nuclear weapons program than on all other scientific research and development activities. After the war, Ottawa decided to pursue the civilian possibilities of nuclear technology. According to a study prepared for the Economic Council of Canada, close to 18 billions of dollars (in 1990 currency) were spent in developing the nuclear power option.

Federal subsidies continue unabated to the present day. Research funding has consistently been far greater for nuclear power than for all other energy options combined (oil, coal, gas, hydro, energy conservation, and renewable forms of energy), even though nuclear power contributes only 3.3 percent of Canada's delivered energy.

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D.5. To what extent has Canada intervened in the uranium market?

The federal government monopolized uranium mining, milling and refining until the mid 1950s; then private enterprise was allowed to invest. In the 1960s, when the military contracts dried up, Prime Minister Lester Pearson (the M.P. from Elliot Lake) began stockpiling uranium, at taxpayer's expense, to keep two privately-owned Elliot Lake mines from going out of business. In 1965, Pearson promised in the House that henceforth Canadian uranium would be sold for peaceful purposes only.

In the early 1970's, the Trudeau cabinet was instrumental in establishing an international uranium price-fixing cartel in collaboration with South Africa, Australia, France and the British mining conglomerate Rio Tinto Zinc. The cartel used secret quotas and phony bidding to boost world prices in apparent violation of Canadian and international laws. When prices soared, Canada financed an ambitious uranium reconnaissance program to help mining companies locate and exploit economically recoverable reserves. Meanwhile, Ottawa continued to own and operate the largest uranium refinery in the world (at Port Hope), through Eldorado Nuclear Limited.

Critics of the nuclear industry maintain that the Canadian public would have been better served if the tax money and political will that has been poured into uranium and nuclear power had been channelled into alternative energy technologies instead.

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D.6. What is Canada's present status in the international uranium market?

The first country ever to mine and refine uranium on a large scale, Canada was the undisputed world leader in uranium exports until 2009. In 2010, Kazakhstan has taken over the lead as the world's largest uranium exporter.

For about 25 years, beginning in the mid-1950s, the U.S. led the world in production, while Canada led in exports. During the 1980s, Canada became the world's leading producer, largely because of the extraordinarily rich uranium deposits found in Northern Saskatchewan. These ores are much less costly to mine than traditional ores. In 2010, Kazakhstan surpassed Canada in uranium production.

A few years after the dissolution of the uranium cartel, the price of uranium began falling. It fell steadily from the late 1970s until 2006. Uranium prices reached an all-time low in 1990. During this period, uranium producers in the U.S.A. and elsewhere, including Elliot Lake, were forced to shut down, unable to compete with cheap Saskatchewan uranium.

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D.7. Why is uranium mining expanding in Canada?

It is unclear why Canada is expanding uranium mining activities when the price of uranium is so low and the market is glutted. The investors in Canada's uranium resources are mostly large foreign corporations who are interested in stockpiling Canadian uranium at bargain prices. In the meantime, no money is being put aside to deal with the serious environmental damage done by past uranium mining operations, or to dispose of some hundred million tonnes of radioactive waste left over from abandoned uranium mines and mills.

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D.8. Are there implications for aboriginal land title & rights? [Dr. Jim Harding]

Uranium mines in Canada are, for the most part, located in areas traditionally inhabited by aboriginal people, on land for which aboriginal Canadians continue to assert title. Even where treaties are in place (Ontario and Saskatchewan), aboriginal communities believe their full rights have not been extinguished, that they should have a say over whether or not mining proceeds and, at the very least, that they should receive compensation (such as revenue sharing) if mining proceeds. In Canada, there is no necessary legal provision for such compensation.

The Inuit of the Keewatin region in the eastern arctic (a non-treatied area) believe that uranium exploration on land where they have hunted caribou for several thousand years contravenes their aboriginal rights. Though a federal court ruling in 1979 upheld the legality of uranium exploration in the region, it rejected the federal government and corporate argument that the Inuit had no aboriginal rights in respect of the land. Later judgements (notably, the 1990 Sparrow decision by the Supreme Court of Canada) have strengthened the acknowledgement of aboriginal rights of Canada's first people.

Under various international conventions, collective aboriginal rights of ownership over lands occupied by aboriginal people are explicitly upheld. Foreign owned uranium mining companies operating in Canada under license from the Government of Canada frequently undercut these rights of ownership over treatied and non-treatied land, often with the approval of their home governments. The government of Germany, for example, has not ratified one such convention because there are no native peoples, as defined in the convention, living in the Federal Republic of Germany.

Consideration of the aboriginal rights of native people living in northern Saskatchewan (where the world's largest uranium mines are located) was ruled out by the public inquiries on uranium mining in the province in the 1970s. Nevertheless, the Cluff Lake Board of Inquiry recommended that a northern development board be created to provide aboriginal people more control over uranium mining in northern Saskatchewan. The recommendation has not been implemented.

According to at least one legal expert (Bartlett), "The furtherance of uranium development represents an unjustifiable extinguishment of aboriginal title without compensation."

The terms of reference set for the FEARO (Federal Environmental Assessment Review Office) review of the proposed Kiggavik uranium mine near Baker Lake, NWT, also rule out consideration of aboriginal rights. The Kiggavik mine is being proposed by Urangesellschaft, a uranium mining corporation based in Germany.

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E. THE HEALTH HAZARDS OF URANIUM MINING

E.1. What are the health hazards of uranium mining?

Uranium mining is hazardous. In addition to the usual risks of mining, uranium miners worldwide have experienced a much higher incidence of lung cancer and other lung diseases. Several studies have also indicated an increased incidence of skin cancer, stomach cancer and kidney disease among uranium miners.

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E.2. How long have we known that lung cancer is caused by uranium mining?

For four centuries, beginning in 1546, it was reported that most underground miners in Schneeburg, Germany, died from mysterious lung ailments. In 1879 it was shown that up to three quarters of them were dying of lung cancer, and many of other lung diseases.

By 1930, the same grim statistics were found among miners in Joachimsthal, Czechoslovakia, on the other side of the same mountain range. More than half of them were dying of lung cancer. Among the non-mining populations on both the German and Czech side of the mountains, lung cancer was all but unknown.

The ores in question were particularly rich in uranium. Men who mined other types of ores were not found to suffer the same epidemic of lung cancer as these miners did.

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E.3. How did we learn that radioactivity causes lung cancer?

In 1897 it was learned that uranium ores are radioactive. By 1900 it was found that severe skin damage can be caused by prolonged contact with some of the radioactive decay products of uranium. By 1920 it was well established that chronic exposure to atomic radiation, even without any visible damage to skin or other bodily tissues, can cause cancers and leukemias, years later, in both humans and animals.

By the 1930s, scientists were convinced that the centuries-old lung cancer epidemic among German and Czechoslovakian miners was caused by the men inhaling airborne radioactive materials in the underground mines. Decades later, Japanese atomic bomb survivors were found to have a much higher rate of lung cancer than others.

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E.4. Which radioactive materials cause lung cancer among miners?

Before World War II, it had been established that radon gas, rather than uranium ore dust, was the cause of lung cancer among underground miners. This conclusion was reached by comparing the miners with other workers who breathed radioactive dust but got almost no lung cancer. It was confirmed by experiments with animals.

Scientists were baffled as to why this alpha-emitting gas, radon, was such a powerful cancer-causing agent. It seemed much more damaging than other alpha emitters such as those found in the ore dust. The mystery went unexplained for more than a decade.

In the 1950s the mystery was partially dispelled when it was pointed out that the radon gas, hovering in the stagnant air of the mine, produces radioactive decay products called "radon progeny" (or, formerly, "radon daughters"). These solid radioactive byproducts, produced a single atom at a time, hang in the air along with the radon gas. When radon gas is inhaled, the radon progeny are also inhaled, resulting in a much larger dose of alpha radiation to the lungs than would be delivered by the gas alone.

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E.5. Have uranium miners in North America also suffered from excess lung cancer?

When uranium mining began in earnest in the 1940's, first to supply uranium for bombs, and later for nuclear reactors, the evidence from Schneeberg and Joachimsthal was ignored. In the U.S., Navajo indians were sent into the Colorado uranium mines and exposed to levels of radon (the gas and its progeny) every bit as high as those recorded in the German and Czechoslovakian mines, with equally tragic results. In Canada, large excesses of lung cancer deaths occurred among the Newfoundland fluorspar miners, who began work in the 1930s, as well as among the uranium miners of the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and Ontario, who started mining in the 1940's and 1950's. Although radiation exposures in Canadian mines were less than those in American mines, significant increases in lung cancer deaths still occurred.

Uranium itself was not present in the Newfoundland fluorspar mines, but high levels of radon gas were dissolved in the water seeping into those mines. This deadly gas, exhaled into the mine atmosphere and inhaled by the miners, killed many of them.

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E.6. Are there higher rates of lung cancer among uranium miners today?

In 1976, an Ontario Royal Commission -- the Ham Commission -- found that 81 Canadian uranium miners had died from lung cancer. That was twice as many as expected. By the end of 1977, the number had risen to 119; by the end of 1981, the toll was 174; and by the end of 1984, it was 274. A 1980 report from the British Columbia Medical Association said that we must anticipate "a gradually-flowering crop of [radiation-induced] cancers" among the uranium mining population. There are many current research studies of hard rock miners exposed to radon and its progeny in Europe, the U.S. and Canada, all showing clearly increased lung cancer rates. The amount of cancer is dependent on the radiation exposure of the miners; the higher the exposure, the greater the number of cancer deaths. Significant increases in lung cancer due to radiation have been observed in both smokers and non-smokers.

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E.7. Are the current levels of radiation exposure for miners considered safe?

There is no scientific evidence to indicate that there is any safe level of exposure to radon. Virtually all of the evidence points in the opposite direction. The only prudent assumption consistent with the evidence is that any exposure to radon will cause a proportional increase in the incidence of lung cancer. This conclusion has been echoed by every major report on the subject since the late 1970s.

In the early 1980s, an independent scientific study on the risks of radon was published by the Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB -- the body that sets standards for radiation exposure in Canada). This study, known as the Thomas/MacNeill Report, reviewed all available evidence from several countries. It concluded that the risks are very high.

If uranium miners worked at AECB's maximum permissible level over their entire working lifetime, the Thomas/MacNeill Report found that the lung cancer incidence would likely quadruple. Instead of 54 lung cancer deaths per 1000 males, the Ontario average, there could be close to 200 lung cancers per 1000 -- that is, one in five.

The 1980 report published by the British Columbia Medical Association (BCMA), already mentioned, called the AECB "unfit to regulate" because of the health risks it permits. No other industry, says the BCMA report, allows a cancer-causing substance in the workplace at anything close to the doubling dose for cancers in humans.

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E.8. Can the health dangers be alleviated by using more miners for shorter times?

The Ham Commission warned that using more miners for shorter times, without reducing the total exposure to inhaled radon, will not reduce the number of cancer victims. If anything, it could increase the number of excess lung cancers.

The Ham Commission Report, the BCMA Report, the Thomas/ MacNeill Report, and the 1988 BEIR-IV Report (by the U.S. National Research Council) have all pointed out that at lower radon exposure levels the number of cancers caused per unit dose may actually increase. In other words, spreading the same total dose out over a larger population, so that each individual gets a smaller dose, may increase the total number of cancers caused. The BEIR IV Report observes that this phenomenon is well-known for laboratory animals, but is less clearly established in the case of human populations.

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