Anne: Canada is and always has been one of the biggest producers and exporters of uranium in the world. Nevertheless, three of Canada’s ten provinces have outlawed uranium mining, and health professionals have played an important role in each case. Could you please explain why these medical professionals are opposed to uranium mining?
Gordon Edwards: This is a great question. The answer hinges on the remarkable properties of uranium, and the unprecedented nature of the health dangers that it poses. In order to answer the question properly, a good deal of explanation is required.Tens of thousands of doctors and health professionals in 64 countries belong to IPPNW (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War), a Nobel-Prize winning organization that has called for the abolition of uranium mining worldwide. All doctors swear an oath that features an admonition to “do no harm.” The medical hazards posed by uranium are extremely long-lived and potentially devastating to the health and safety of humans and the environment now and in the distant future, whereas the benefits of uranium are short-term and obtainable in alternative ways. Thus IPPNW regards the abolition of uranium mining as a medical priority. It is a case of preventative medicine on a global scale.[…]
Uranium had no use prior to the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938-39, at the outset of World War II. The first practical use of uranium was to build atomic bombs that were used to destroy two cities filled with men, women and children. About 200,000 people were killed promptly by the bombs, and many thousands of innocent people died lingering deaths from radiation-induced illnesses many decades later. Canada supplied uranium for the WWII Atomic Bomb Project, and for 20 years afterwards Canada sold large quantities of uranium to help build tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. There were no non-military markets for uranium at the time, and the entire industry was shrouded in Cold War secrecy.
In 1965, Canada declared that its uranium would no longer be sold for bombs, but only as fuel for nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors can be used for scientific research, to produce electricity, and to produce isotopes for use in medicine and industry. But in 1974, India exploded its first atomic bomb using plutonium from a Canadian nuclear reactor, fuelled by uranium, given to India as a gift. Plutonium is a uranium derivative not found in nature, and all reactors fuelled with uranium produce plutonium as a byproduct. Plutonium is a nuclear explosive material that can be used to build nuclear weapons even thousands of years in the future.
IPPNW was formed in 1980 by a group of Soviet and American doctors to alert political leaders and the general population to the unprecedented threat to human survival posed by nuclear arms. A nuclear war would be a medical disaster of unimaginable proportions – there would be no hospitals, few doctors, and no cure. Medical procedures would be ineffective. By documenting the case for abolishing nuclear arms in stark medical terms, IPPNW won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.
Physicians know that chronic exposure to radioactivity, even at low levels, will cause an increase in the incidence of cancer and inherited diseases. Such exposure also weakens the immune system that the human body needs to fight infectious diseases. There is as yet no proven safe method for keeping nuclear reactor wastes out of the environment of living things for a period of time exceeding the span of recorded human history. Several attempts in the USA and Germany to bury radioactive waste permanently in underground repositories have failed. Some are questioning the wisdom of abandoning this dangerous material under any circumstances. On medical grounds, IPPNW and PGS oppose the continued mass-production of indestructible man-made radioactive poisons in nuclear reactors.
The dangers of uranium mining became apparent in Canada in the mid 1970s, after some of the military secrecy surrounding this 30-year old industry was lifted. In 1975 an Ontario inquiry into the health and safety of workers in mines revealed that uranium miners were dying at an alarming rate from radiation-induced lung cancers twenty years or more after their radiation exposures first occurred. In 1978 it was reported that a 55-mile stretch of the Serpent River System, involving 18 lakes, had become a “biological desert” as a result of contamination from uranium mining operations. A hundred million tonnes of sand-like radioactive wastes called “uranium tailings” had accumulated in the Elliot Lake region of Ontario. Over 30 tailings dam failures in that region had dispersed long-lived radioactive poisons and dangerous chemicals into the surface waters.