The overlooked cost of nuclear power

In every argument for or against nuclear power as a clean power generator, a number of significant facts are overlooked.  They are the issues around the mining and beneficiation of the fuel, one of the heaviest metals and one of the most unstable known to man.

Uranium is a deadly metal to mine as the Navajo well know to their cost.  The Navajo have won a case in the courts around compensation for the costs to their health.  You can find out more here

Currently research is being done in Namibia in Southern Africa on the community around the Rossing mine by CIIRAD, where considerable health problems are being experienced.

However, to bring this home to South Africa itself, we have always mined Uranium with gold on the Witwatersrand.  The uranium has been dumped onto the tailings dams as waste.  Highly dangerous and toxic waste which has been enhanced by arsenic and other toxic chemicals used to release the gold for purification.  It is the fate of the poorest to live amongst these tailings dams. They inhale the toxic dust during the Highveld windy periods and unknowingly damage their health.  Dust from these dumps has been identified in Tasmania.

Prior to sanctions being imposed, South Africa exported uranium to the western powers to fuel the arms race.  When sanctions were put into place, the uranium was disposed of onto the tailings dams increasing the toxic load and further affecting our poor communities.

What actually happens during uranium mining and processing?

For every one kilo of uranium mined, there are 99 kilos of radioactive waste rock put into tailings dams.  Radon gas is released in the process of mining, which is inhaled by the miners.  This is radioactive as well.  The miners carry dust from the mine on their clothes – this is also radioactive.  The water used to carry out the mining is polluted by radioactive toxins and has not been remediated.

We now have a huge mining waste problem in South Africa, which is made worse by the lack of signage and protection by preventing access to casual walkers.  Bricks and roads are made from the waste bringing more radioactive exposure to vulnerable communities.

This is now set to worsen as our Minister of Mineral Resources want to beneficiate uranium in order to fuel the proposed roll-out of seven nuclear power stations.

The beneficiation process produces more toxic waste and more pollution of our precious water.

The regulatory framework in South Africa is extremely weak and government is pushing for more and more destructive and irresponsible mining (the Acts are good the implementation and regulation is not).  We have many instances of deformed children; people dying of “mining related” illnesses although they have never been miners.  We have lung diseases and children dying from drinking the highly polluted water from rivers and streams.  Children with skin lesions from playing in the polluted water are sick.

The mining and nuclear companies put all illnesses down to “life style” – smoking and drinking etc, yet many affected people belong to a religious sect that enforces that their adherents neither drink nor smoke.

The human life cost in and around mining waste from uranium worldwide is enormous and overlooked.  How much longer are we going to close our eyes to this very real cost of nuclear energy?

Is it because those involved in mining are in poor countries or are the poor in wealthy ones?  If so, we are highly cynical and also prepared to sacrifice entire communities for the benefit of the wealthiest sector of society to indulge in its wellbeing.

I do not think that this is justice.


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