Peter Hessler has published a valuable piece of journalism titled The Uranium Widows (subscription required) in the September 13, 2010 issue of The New Yorker that demonstrates the importance of a questioning attitude and penetrating research skills.
He visits a uranium mining region, including a town that had been evacuated and expensively remediated by a Superfund project. The town had experienced a substantially elevated rate of small cell lung cancer which had been blamed on uranium mining and milling in support of national defense needs.
He talks to people who are encouraged by the prospects of a revival of the uranium mining and milling industry. The local residents often have detailed, sophisticated knowledge about radiation. They tell him about the differences between alpha, beta and gamma emissions, the importance of dose rates, and and the results of detailed studies about the health effects of low level radiation.
“The locals often speak of uranium in highly technical terms. They refer to “thermoluminescent dosimeters,” and they distinguish between alpha and gamma radiation. The sudden sophistication can be jarring; once, a woman compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler and then mentioned the results of an epidemiological study on the effects of ionizing radiation. Few people have much formal education, but anything atomic seems familiar to natives. They often say surprising things. They insisted that unenriched uranium isn’t carcinogenic and they said there is no evidence that the low radiation levels involved in regulated mining and milling have negative health effects.”
The uranium production area residents also accept that much of the lung cancer attributed to uranium extraction might also have been related to the fact that the miners were heavy smokers in an era with unventilated mines.
“Every time Larry breathed out, he hissed and pursed his lips, which gave him a thoughtful expression. He told me that half of his right lung had been removed. “But I smoked probably sixty years,” he said. “So I won’t say that the cancer was caused by Carbide.”
(Note: Union Carbide owned the mine where Larry Cooper, a former uranium miner who is in his eighties, worked.)
Hessler also speaks to activists who claim a whole litany of health effects from uranium mining and exposure to the types and doses of radiation common in mining areas.
“The contrast with the environmentalists who opposed the mill couldn’t have been greater. They were better educated and more worldly, and their opinions weren’t influenced by the prospect of financial gain. But I noticed a vagueness with regard to scientific issues. “There’s always been talk of leukemia and cancer rates around these places,” Travis Stills, a lawyer who is involved with two of the anti-mill lawsuits told me. When I asked about evidence, he said that epidemiological studies were unreliable.”
(Note: Hessler is naive about monetary motives – a lawyer who is involved in lawsuits against the construction and licensing of a uranium mill qualifies as being “influenced by the prospects of financial gain”. I suspect that Mr. Stills is being well compensated for his opposition.)
Finally, Hessler does what a good journalist should do when confronted by this kind of controversy; he asks scientists and investigates the credible research to determine which group is correct.
“And yet almost everything I heard in the uranium towns could be documented. The World Heath Organization does not classify uranium as a human carcinogen. The walls of Grand Central Terminal are made of granite, which contains elements that produce radon; a worker there receives a larger dose of radiation than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows a uranium mill to emit to a next-door neighbor. Being closer to the sun – living in mountains, flying in planes – also means more radiation.”
Hessler concludes his article with a solid piece of information for readers to take away – radiation exposure at a level that is 50 times as high as the average annual exposure for a nuclear power plant worker is still nothing to worry about when compared to all other hazards of living on earth.
“Scientists said that, despite the public perception, radiation is a weak carcinogen. Dr. Ethel S. Gilbert, who served as a committee member for the National Academies’ report on radiation health risks, explained that people often fail to distinguish between high and low doses. “They think that if you get exposed, it’s bad,” she said. “It’s hard to understand that the dose is important.” Gilbert described what researchers know about an exposure of 0.1 sieverts, which is more than 50 times the average annual dose of an American nuclear-power employee. From the industry perspective, such a dose is high, but not in terms of health effects. “Out of one hundred people exposed to 0.1 sieverts, we would expect one cancer from that exposure,” Gilbert said. “But there would also be forty-two people who would get cancer for other reasons.”
Hessler’s work should cause thinking people to question why so much money has been and is still being wasted to reduce an already minor hazard and why there has been so much vocal opposition to wise use of nuclear energy. I still wish that he had recognized that the opposition might also be motivated by the prospects of financial rewards, but that is a mere quibble about a useful contribution to the important discussion about our future energy sources.
The New Yorker is hosting a discussion about Hessler’s article and the above video clip at News Desk Video: Uranium Ghost Town.