Let's not forget the hidden costs of uranium mining

  • Jen Jackson


Here in the West, uranium mining continues its wobbly resurgence. In recent years, it has sputtered through the peaks and valleys of pricing to once again climb in importance and output. The graph-line of this revival seems to correspond with the vicissitudes of our love-hate relationship with fossil fuels.

In 2003, a time of cheap oil, there were only 321 uranium miners working in the West, producing 779 tons of uranium that year. In 2008, there were over 1,500, who produced about 1,500 tons. In 2006, the Pandora mine south of Moab, where I live, reopened with just 10 employees. This year, it has 57. Recently, however, it lost one. Hunter Diehl, a 28-year-old Moab man, died in the mine this May, crushed by rock falling from the mine's ceiling. It was the first uranium mining death in the country since 1998, and the first since uranium's fickle resurgence.

If uranium makes a strong comeback, what other such tragedies lie ahead? With the epic oil spill in the Gulf causing many to question our current energy policies and to begin viewing nuclear power in a more favorable light, the uranium industry's slow resurgence may turn into another spike in growth. But at what cost?

With other extractive industries, we tend to see the tragedies boldly splashed across the front page of the newspaper -- the massive oil spills, deaths on the natural gas rigs, or the dozens of coal miners killed in collapses and explosions. We can't avoid a general awareness of some of the true costs of fossil fuels-based energy production. But many of the costs of nuclear power -- beyond the Three Mile Island tragedy now fading in our memories -- have been more insidious.

Cancer deaths do not occur suddenly, inside a mine. Instead, they happen slowly and at a remove from the time and place of exposure. The deaths occur at home or in the hospital, surrounded by grieving loved ones rather than reporters with TV cameras. The family mourns, but the nation goes on about its business; nobody makes speeches. Mining disasters are horrible, but uranium takes an even more deadly toll. And it's not just the miners who are affected. It's also the families that live near the mine or the mill.

South of the Pandora mine, in Monticello, Utah, a uranium-processing mill operated through World War II until 1960. Children at the time would play in the tailings piles and drink water from the millponds. People living in the shadow of the mill knew not to hang laundry on windy days because their linens would turn yellow from the mill's dust. Now, 600 cases of cancer -- a number that is growing each year -- have been confirmed among current and former Monticello residents. The town has a population of just under 2,000. The Utah Department of Health has finally labeled what is occurring in Monticello as a cancer cluster that does not appear to be a random occurrence.

If 600 mine workers died in a single day, the nation would be abuzz. People would be outraged and collectively grieving. Instead, news of the Monticello cancer cluster hasn't reached much beyond Utah's borders.

Nor do most of uranium's environmental impacts occur publicly, suddenly or explosively, as was the case with the massive BP spill in the Gulf. Rather, like cancer, the effects are slow and insidious. One doesn't see uranium-covered aquatic life nearly paralyzed by the weight of its residue. We don't witness death washing up on the Colorado River's shores. Instead, uranium's equivalent of the oil spill -- the Atlas Mill's uranium tailings site -- accumulates over decades. Eventually, we find 16 million tons of still-radioactive uranium tailings piled up on the banks of the river, leaching tens of thousands of gallons of deadly soup into the life-giving river. But all of this happens beneath the horizon of our perceptions. It happens with the relentless force of erosion rather than the immediate shock of an earthquake.

The death of the Pandora miner last month was sudden and tragic. Many in Moab are mourning Diehl's loss. Yet perhaps we can take this tragedy as a shout in the darkness, alerting us to the otherwise whispery warnings that surround us amid this current uranium renaissance.

Jen Jackson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Moab, Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

hidden costs of uranium mining
Maria Varela
Maria Varela
Jun 15, 2010 03:29 PM
In 2007, uranium workers living in the Grants mineral belt in North West NM were concerned by the number of their peers who were ill, diseased and/or whose families were suffering from uranium related medical conditions. After asking and unable to receive help from professional researchers, they created their own survey. Over 1200 former uranium workers responded from across the country. An astounding 72% of those who responded were experiencing uranium related medical conditions as defined by 4 federal agencies. These workers were supposed to be protected by new mining regulations that went into effect in 1971. However, just like the BP case in the Gulf of Mexico, federal and state regulators were in bed with mine owners and operators and overlooked dangerous working conditions. The results of the survey may be viewed on the Post '71 Uranium Workers website. (It takes a while to load....be patient). http://www.post71exposure.org/[…]/Post_71_August_12_revision.pdf

Nuclear power is unsustainable because of the long term damage uranium mining and milling wreaks on uranium workers and communities.
uranium mining in Utah
Tracy Welch
Tracy Welch
Jun 15, 2010 04:57 PM
If you think the uranium mining is bad in Utah, do
some research on the Lakota (Sioux) Pine Ridge
Reservation during the late-1970s/early-1980s. The
ground water is still contaminated in large parts of
North and South Dalota, but since it is "Indian
Country," nobody talks about it as if it were a
That Word
Jonathon Severdia
Jonathon Severdia
Jun 15, 2010 08:20 PM
You keep on using that word, "tragedy." The recent tragic loss of a uranium miner. A tragedy at Three Mile Island. I do not think it means what you think it means.

A tragedy is an event that converts suffering into pleasure. Each of these is a necessary condition, and therefore to call Three Mile Island a tragedy is plainly inappropriate. No loss of life, no injuries; no suffering. Then, is the work-related death of a single uranium miner tragic? A very small one, perhaps, if one considers the pleasure that will be created by the electricity Mr. Diehl labored to produce.

But tragedies of that magnitude are abundant. From policemen, to soldiers, to construction workers, one can find no shortage of individuals who are willing to suffer and even die, so that others can find themselves in more pleasurable circumstances. Those of us who would prefer life be lived out as a comedy owe their sacrifices the carefulest tenderness and the judicious use of the best tools available when attempting to determine which were necessary, and which were in vain would that we could do things differently, and especially, how different quantities of suffering and loss compare and equate to one another. Your casual drawing of an equivalency between certain externalities of nuclear power and those of the ongoing Deepwater Horizon event lacks tenderness and is injudicious.

Your writing has a peculiar quality, solemnly accepting the massive duty of judging the worthiness of some deaths over others, and yet blissfully unencumbered by deeper than a glimmering sheen of quantitative analysis in so doing. You write with the strung out determination of a Saturday morning Erin Brockovich that "uranium takes an even more deadly toll" because "it's also the families that live near the mine." Six hundred people in Monticello UT now have cancer, possibly due to a uranium mine that closed fifty years ago. That is deeply unfortunate, but for whatever number of them still count among the living, the toll is not yet deadly. 311 coal miners died in America between 2000 and 2009. This year, 29 miners died in a single event at the Massey mine in Montcoal WV. In China, in 2009 alone, 2,631 coal miners died. In competing industries, six workers died in February in an explosion at the Kleen Power natural gas plant in Middletown CT. And the current count in the unfolding saga on the Gulf Coast stands at eleven humans, and hundreds each of pelicans, sea turtles, and assorted marine mammals. What William Blake called the eternal delight of energy is regularly borne from tragedy. Who are you to tell us we’ve missed one of the more splendid ones?

In the annals of the "Journal of Things We Know Now that We Didn't Know Then," the most recent article is, of course, "Why we don't drill oil wells at oceanic depths where we don't know how to plug a leak." You have to comb through the microfiche to find the issue that contains "Why we don't build homes out of uranium tailings or let our children play in them." With sincere condolences to the burden placed on Monticello, this is known. It has been known. Similarly, although many miners in the Navajo Nation had to learn this one the hard way, we now know why you don't smoke cigarettes in a uranium mine. As it turns out, the smoke particles give radionuclides in the mine atmosphere a valid passport and safe passage into a miner's lungs. We know that now.

Yes, radiation can cause acute sickness and long term cancer. But because we now know far more about radiation than we did in 1960 we have a vital and growing field in nuclear medicine. We use radiation to diagnose and even to fight cancer. I read Terry Tempest Williams' book "Refuge" and I would bet all the money in my bank account that you did too. It is a beautiful book, right up until the point when she goes ballistic on unstable atoms with her “Clan of the One-Breasted Woman” blame game.

That is a sour note on which such a beautiful book should end, and the biggest problem is, I can’t fault her grief coping process for deploying her characteristic intensity of emotion on the subject matter. For one thing, much of what she writes is correct. Many of her Mormon clanspeople are downwinders, most notably residents of St. George in the aftermath of the Dirty Harry test. It is at least plausible that her mother’s cancer is a result of the atomic blast her family drove past in her youth.

But when she writes that she and her avian friends at the Bear Mountain Migratory Bird Refuge were among the “virtual uninhabitants” of the downwind regions, while it may be a nice rhetorical flourish, her assertion is incorrect. The Radiation Exposure Compensation Program does not recognize northern Utah as among the downwinder regions. As I said, I’ll give her latitude. Ms. Tempest Williams’ 180 degree latching on to a bogeyman to blame for her suffering is depressing, but it is understandably human.

Another human trait is to temporarily set aside emotion, however vainly, and strain to understand something “as it really is.” This is the approach we who have the luxury to should take when confronting radiation and nuclear technologies. They are strange phenomena, and our well-worn metaphors and mental models for identifying danger do not apply there. Many scientists are coming to disbelieve in the linear, no-threshold hypothesis by which cancer rates are currently predicted following a given dose; evidence is even emerging that radiation doses below a certain threshold may actually be beneficial.

I make my best effort to understand these things soberly and dispassionately, and I find myself among others with a growing belief that an expanded role for nuclear power would lead to less suffering, and fewer tragedies.

Of course, Ms. Jackson, life is suffering, and anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
that word
Jun 16, 2010 10:38 AM
There is nothing wrong with "that word" that Jen used in her essay.

noun ( pl. -dies)
an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe

What qualifies as a tragedy is subjective and relative. It can affect a few or many. And it is not, as you state, "an event that converts suffering into pleasure"

More importantly, there is no justifiable reason for your diatribe that followed.
Regardless of how intellectually gifted you believe yourself to be, your response is a complete display of rambling, flatulent lunacy. There is no reason for you to project your insecurity on another.

Perhaps you can focus the utilization of your gifts to the effort of making the world a better place.

Good luck.
Frank Gladics
Frank Gladics
Jun 16, 2010 10:45 AM
freezing to death in the dark would also be a tragedy - especially when man has the technology to make nuclear work
That word tragedy
Chris Merrill
Chris Merrill
Jun 23, 2010 12:02 PM
No, she knows exactly what the word means, Jonathon. In fact, she understands something that you obviously fail to grasp: that the word tragedy means what the dictionary says it means.

And like many words in the dictionary, tragedy has more than one definition, depending on the context. You don't have to learn just one! You can learn them all, if you want. It helps improve fluency.

No rational person reading a High Country News column about uranium mining and its costs should be confused about what the author means by the word "tragedy." One reason for this is that Ms. Jackson is writing about mining deaths, cancer, and explosions--and not, say, King Lear.

Your supposed "definition" of tragedy ("an event that converts suffering into pleasure") is just a strange and wholly inappropriate re-purposing of David Hume's observation that audiences derive pleasure from fictional portrayals of suffering. So, nice try, Jonathon... but completely wrong. Hume was writing about well-written literature. Jen is writing about work-related deaths and suffering.

She can safely assume that rational readers will understand that word to mean what the dictionary says it means (and not, for example, what Jonathon says it means).
Riley Pass Abandoned Uranium Mine
Harold One Feather
Harold One Feather
Jun 16, 2010 05:25 PM
In South Dakota, the Riley Pass abandoned uranium mine still records radiation measurements over 1,700 micro-Roentgens which is comparable to radiation measurements taken just after the Hiroshima atomic bombing.
Here is the video Dark Water http://www.youtube.com/watch#!v=640Gef94dVE published on the Secret Chernobyl existing in the Upper Great Plains, or more specifically, Harding County in northern corner of South Dakota. This mine drains into the Grand River, where children still swim...genocide
toxic environments
Jun 17, 2010 08:05 AM
You're not alone Harold. Everywhere, people are victims of sick greed and lack of regard for human welfare. The dollar is more valuable than innocent lives.

Not far from where I currently live, there is the following story of a hugely disproportionate concentration of brain cancers. The world is steadily becoming
a toxic dump.

"JOHNSBURG, IL – Village officials are trying to gain control of a 29-acre parcel of wetlands they plan to sell to Rohm and Haas.
The chemical manufacturing company, which is facing 31 cancer-related lawsuits, is eyeing the property to continue its efforts to monitor and clean up a plume of toxic chemicals oozing from its Ringwood plant.
The contamination is blamed in the lawsuits against Rohm and Haas for causing brain and pituitary cancers in McCullom Lake and the Lakeland Park subdivision in McHenry, about 2 miles south of the plant.
The plant, formerly owned by Morton International, first reported the contamination in 1983, and a network of monitoring wells has been drilled since then to chart the plume’s extent. The company discovered that a closed 8-acre, 15-foot-deep waste pit, as well as industrial accidents, contaminated groundwater with carcinogens such as vinyl chloride and vinylidene chloride.
Experts also discovered that the neighboring Modine Manufacturing plant had contributed the carcinogenic solvent trichloroethylene to the plume. Modine had been sued by the plaintiffs as well but settled out of court in 2008.
Morton, and subsequently Rohm and Haas, have insisted that the plume is accurately mapped and that the plant has been upfront about the contamination.
Northwest Herald investigations since 2007 have called both assertions into question. For example, documents reveal that Morton officials knew about the contamination a decade before reporting it to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and withheld the discovery from their own attorney in order to secure an exemption from dumping permit requirements."

Jun 23, 2010 07:01 PM
One cost that was forgotten is the waste! Until this can be sucessfully neutralized it will affect any living being for thousands of years. Do you think any mining company or government thinks that far ahead? Utah, thanks to that protem governor, the soon to be ex senator who allowed the train from the East to bring more highly toxic waste to Utah State, we now have the new State title to contend with, Utah the State of Trash. Add to that so called company, Energy Pollutions, trying to ship waste from Europe without even taking into account any risk factors of a ship sinking, being hijacked etc. as it crossed the Atlantic and the various US States, if it ever arrived in one piece. After the Gulf disaster imagine what a ship load of nuclear waste would do to the oceans - everything dead or dying. Alternative energy is the only safe way to go, so vote accordingly in November if you value your planet's future.