URANIUM threatens the health of mine workers and the communities surrounding the mines. According to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, uranium mining has been responsible for the largest collective exposure of workers to radiation. One estimate puts the number of workers who have died of lung cancer and silicosis due to mining and milling alone at 20,000.
Mine workers are principally exposed to ionising radiation from radioactive uranium and the accompanying radium and radon gases emitted from the ore. Ionising radiation is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that extends from ultraviolet radiation to cosmic rays. This type of radiation releases high energy particles that damage cells and DNA structure, producing mutations, impairing the immune system and causing cancers.
Uranium mining companies, including WMC and ERA, claim that they can minimise the risk to ‘acceptable levels’ by attention to proper ventilation of the shafts, and close monitoring of workers to radioactive exposure. However, each time International Commission for Radiation Protection and other experts/organisations conduct a review on “safe” levels of radiation exposure, they conclude that low levels of ionising radiation are more dangerous than was previously decided. On average, these organisations have concluded that the actual danger is twice as bad as they thought twelve years before. This means that people are legally exposed to a certain dose of radiation one year and the next year they are told that the dose was far too high.
The new limits mean that the annual risk of death (from cancer) for a uranium miner is 1 in 1250, which is nearly ten times the risk of fatal injury in Australian industry generally, which is 1 in 20,000.
Even so the uranium industry has protested that the ICRP’s new limits would be uneconomic for underground mining. In the Roxby mine underground miners have received up to 30 milliSv a year. The dose limits which the NHMRC has adopted permit a health risk which is clearly unacceptable.
It is widely agreed in the scientific community that there is no safe level of radiation exposure. Because it can take more than twenty or more years for cancer produced by low levels of ionising radiation to become apparent, it is not easy to trace the cause. It is imperative that long term medical records be kept of all workers, residents and their children, including those conceived after leaving Olympic Dam and Ranger, and yet this is not being done.
At present there is no independent monitoring of the Roxby Downs or Jabiru communities. We are the only ‘developed’ nation which has no such monitoring system in place. In twenty years time, when the health effects of uranium are emerging, the people will be left to pick up the costs, just like the asbestos mining communities before them.
Information by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War (WA) and the MAUM public education sheet on Ionising Radiation And Health.
Anti-Nuclear Alliance of Western Australia