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Uranium mining 'a health risk'
ScienceNetwork WA   
Monday, 17 August 2009
istock_uranium.jpg
Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr Helen
Caldicott says uranium mining could pose
a range of health risks to WA inhabitants.
Image: iStockphoto

Uranium mining could present WA communities with a variety of health problems, from leukemia to congenital defects, according to a health expert at a recent forum.

Speaking at the Public Health Association of Australia’s “Uranium Mining: What are the health risks for WA?” seminar, Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr Helen Caldicott said the public health effects on Western Australians could be disastrous if plans to begin uranium mining in the State go ahead.

Dr Caldicott said miners and nearby residents could be at risk should they be exposed to harmful materials.

“Often when people mine uranium, radon in the form of gas is inhaled into the terminal bronchi, which quickly converts by radioactive decay to lead (Pb212, Pb210) which induces lung cancer.

“All radiation is cumulative, every small amount of radiation you get adds to your susceptibility to cancer.”

Dr Caldicott also said the transportation of uranium could prove a serious health risk to regional communities.

“After processing the uranium is packed into drums and transported on road trains. There will be accidents. If one of those trucks jacknifes and turns, the drums would certainly break apart and the uranium could be released and the powder would be spread around Kalgoorlie.

“The region could then be contaminated for ever more.”
 
Dr Caldicott said uranium exists naturally in two forms, uranium-235 and uranium-238; present in 0.7 per cent in raw ore. It must be enriched to 3 per cent for use in reactors, greater than 50 per cent to produce bombs.  She said a huge amount of ore would need to be mined to produce small amounts of uranium.

Uranium mining has been on the agenda in WA recently with several projects being considered by developers since the newly-elected state government lifted the ban on uranium mining in WA.

Various groups and businesses, such as Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) and Rio Tinto, have endorsed uranium mining as a clean, low cost alternative to carbon heavy fossils fuels, however Dr Caldicott said uranium mining would drastically increase WA’s carbon emissions.

“With uranium mining you have to dig up hundreds of thousand of tones of ore and rock to discover the uranium. It is then crushed which produces more CO2.

“This is a very energy consuming process, to enrich the uranium."

Dr Caldicott is internationally recognised for her work on nuclear issues, as well as being the co-founder of Physicians For Social Responsibility and President of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute in Washington DC. 


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