Things could have been much worse if the fires had reached the region where uranium mines are located in Australia, which supplies 12% of the uranium fuel used in nuclear power plants operating worldwide; Australia however, has no nuclear power plant of its own.
Even though the extraction of uranium which is used for nuclear power generation, requires high security standards worldwide, danger to these facilities is possible under all conditions, since in order to obtain 30 tonnes of uranium that is used in a 1200 MW capacity reactor in a year, 440 thousand tons of uranium rock must be extracted from the ground. However, heavy metals such as thorium, radium, radon gas, and nickel which are released in the waste and waste pools following the extraction and other processes, causing heavy substances such as arsenic and mercury getting mixed in the environment and groundwater. Actually such health-related concerns are not limited to Australia since there are also uranium mines in India, the United States, primarily in Niger and Kazakhistan. For Australia, Ranger Uranium Mine, Olympic Dam and Beverly uranium mines have long been on the radar of environmental organizations. According to Dave Sweeney, a renowned anti-nuclear campaigner at the Australian Protection Foundation (ACF), uranium mining and the processing of the extracted material pose enormous risks to the environment and health. However, Sweeney underlines that there are families working in the uranium mines, who inadvertently carry home radioactive dust from the job site.
‘If the fire reached the mines, it would be a nightmare for the world’
A relatively new scientific study published on January 8, 2019, on this subject also points out the danger in uranium mines, especially for those working in the extraction, grinding and production of nuclear fuel and uranium oxide production. Accordingly, due to the regular exposure of employees to radon gas even at low doses every day, it is possible to develop lung cancer due to the cumulative dose accumulated at the end of 10 years. Sweeney argues that the spread of the fires to the uranium mining areas would have been a “ nightmare for the world” since it would have meant the spread of radioactive particles into the air. This would have been in addition to the already existing dangers posed by the uranium mines, such as, in the case of the Ranger uranium mine, whose license, although it has not expired and rehabilitation has not begun yet, there are mineral wastes stacked in waste pools at the production site.
On the other hand, the possibilities for experiencing such multiple disasters are not limited to fires alone. As experienced in the USA with the Harvey and Irma hurricanes in 2017, there is a danger for the whole world in terms of both, the reactors and the wastes accumulated in the facilities due to extreme weather events such as storm and hurricanes, and the melting of glaciers and rising water levels. Therefore, these reactors should be shut down as soon as possible since there will be a need to wait for 10 years to have used reactor fuel rods transported from nuclear power plant area in case sea level rises become dangerous for nuclear power plants plus the amount of unsolvable waste problem should not be increased. The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster and the radioactive solid wastes stacked in the open area which have since found their way into the sea with each storm can be considered as an example of the susceptibility of nuclear facilities/sites to extreme weather events. The risk and danger posed by these nuclear reactors and their radioactive wastes can be understood more clearly when one considers the fact that the half-life of the plutonium is 24 thousand years and the cancer-causing effects last at least 240 thousand years.
Moreover, according to their half-life, other radioactive isotopes (strontium 90, cesium 137…) extending to tens of millions of years are also spread into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, there are nearly 400 nuclear reactors worldwide, thousands of uranium mines as well as waste facilities in operation, which have the potential of Chernobyl and Fukushima-like disasters.