The Uranium Waltz
By Sue Prent
Unless you’re a science geek who routinely trawls YouTube for entertainment, you probably haven’t seen this fascinating clip that observes a small pellet of uranium as it just sits sealed in a lighted cloud chamber infused with vaporized alcohol.
To the strains of a Strauss waltz, puffy little trails begin to erupt from the uranium in staccato straight lines, shooting through the alcohol cloud and radiating in all directions like soft white fireworks. It’s a mesmerizing sight to behold.
This is the stuff that gives nuclear weapons their destructive energy; the instability that, in the course of things, has been somewhat inefficiently harnessed to generate simple electricity.
It takes a whole lot of uranium, a relatively low energy source of radiation, to produce a little bit of weapons-grade plutonium. Between the mine and the battlefield, turning uranium into reactor fuel is a convenient first step on the way to enabling nuclear weapons, which is a major reason so many countries want “nuclear power”.
The dependent relationship between nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations provides one of the biggest bones of contention in the world today.
Setting that aside for others to consider, and returning to the simple lesson that is so vividly illustrated by the video, one cannot ignore the fact that even the tiniest particle of uranium is alive with radioactive potential.
Imagine the environmental hazards associated with every stage of uranium processing, from extraction to waste disposal, when every tiny particle is literally bristling with projectile energy.
While uranium in minute amounts is a common enough component of rock and soils available almost everywhere, there are relatively few places on earth where concentrations of uranium rich mineral deposits are great enough to represent opportunities for cost-efficient mining.
The danger to mine workers is not so much from the uranium ore, which has low concentrations of pure uranium relative to the mass in which it is sequestered. The real danger lies in the fine particulates and radon gas that are released from the rock in the course of mechanical extraction.
This hazard threatens the surrounding environment and population as well, since slurry and waste from the mining operation find their way into groundwater and may be redistributed through the air as well.
Even decades after uranium mines have been exhausted for all practical purposes, surrounding populations must endure the continuing threat posed by tailings, a waste byproduct of uranium mining. For example, hundreds of residents of the Navajo communities of North Church Rock and Quivera, New Mexico, where two nearby uranium mines ceased to be profitable and were abandoned at the close of the Cold War have suffered enormous health risks due to the mountainous piles of waste that the uranium mines simply left behind.
Ever since these New Mexico mines closed, corporate owners of the two lethal stacks have been feuding with the federal government over who is responsible for the cleanup.
At least one of the waste piles is scheduled to move down the road to a tailings dump, which will distance it somewhat from the local population, if not from the greater environment.
That move in itself raises another point of contamination in the uranium fuel chain: transportation. To transfer the waste to a less objectionable location, it is estimated that 38 open dump trucks will be required. Loading the trucks will stir up so much harmful particulate matter that the government will relocate residents for up to five years following the move in order to allow the dust to settle again, and to monitor the grounds for remaining contamination.
Just imagine each of those tiny particles being energized like that uranium pellet in the cloud chamber, and small enough to be inhaled… Now imagine what happens on a cellular level when all that bristling energy lodges deep in the human lung and continues to radiate indefinitely.
As those loaded dump trucks wheel through the environment to their ultimate destination, it isn’t difficult to imagine that they will be seeding the air with radioactive dust and particulates, endangering all who live and work along the way.
These same hazardous scenarios play out on a daily basis around active uranium mines, and at the processing plants where uranium ore is refined into nuclear fuel. I would guess that the concentration of harmful radiation in millings and tailings might be even greater as the uranium undergoes further refinement in the fuel production process.
Even if none of the collateral contaminants distributed by mining are considered, when nuclear energy production is viewed strictly from the perspective of fuel sourcing, it is clearly far, far from a “clean” energy source.
“What is the impact on the Earth from the Nuclear Age?” CCTV Host Margaret Harrington asks Les Kanat PhD, Professor of Geology in the Department of Environmental and Health Sciences at Johnson State College, Vermont during a televised interview, Dr. Kanat, also a science advisor to Fairewinds Energy Education points out that the Earth is less likely to be effected by the Nuclear Age and poses a new question “What impact will the Nuclear Age have on humans?”
In an effort to answer this question, Dr. Kanat guides us through an understanding of isotopes and explains Madam Curie’s research into radioactivity, which led to the discovery of unstable isotopes like uranium. Unstable isotopes are as their title suggests- unstable, constantly splitting, and always in a state of decay. A perfect example of unstable isotopes may be seen in the video referred to by Fairewinds Crew Member Sue Prent in her blog post, The Uranium Waltz. Sue writes,
“To the strains of a Strauss waltz, puffy little trails begin to erupt from the uranium in staccato straight lines, shooting through the alcohol cloud and radiating in all directions like soft white fireworks. It’s a mesmerizing sight to behold. It is also a sobering one, because what we are enabled to observe through that cloud of alcohol is the behavior of one of the most aggressive toxins on earth: radioactive decay.
This is the stuff that gives nuclear weapons their destructive energy; the instability that, in the course of things, has been somewhat inefficiently harnessed to generate simple electricity.”
Nuclear power plants are home to large concentrations of constantly splitting unstable isotopes. Dr. Kanat explains how with the discovery of radioactivity, and the adoption of extreme cultivation of radioactive isotopes, humans have left their geological mark. How much does this affect the Earth? Not really all that much. By alluding to dinosaurs, and other extinct species that came before us, the real question we should be asking ourselves is: How much does radiation affect us?
Arnie Gundersen- Chief Engineer of Fairewinds Energy Education, international specialist on nuclear safety, author of the best-selling book in Japan Fukushima Daiichi: The Truth and The Way Forward
Dr. Helen Caldicott- physician, cofounder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and well-know author on nuclear issues - including the Special Edition Book of the Month featured below
Dr. Ian Fairlie- scientist, former advisor to the UK government, and now independent consultant on radiological issues
Mycle Schneider- energy expert, consultant advisor to several governments in both Europe and Asia, lead author of the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report, member of the International panel on Fissile Materials
and many more...
Topics for the days events are:
April 14- Uranium mines & the Nuclear Life Cycle: Health and Environmental Issues
April 15- Civil & Military Nuclear: Ethics, Economics, and Political Issues
April 16- Human Rights, Indigenous Peoples' Rights & Governance Issues
Space is limited so be sure to register today!
Special Edition Book of the Month:
Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer by Helen Caldicott
Review by Caroline Phillips, Fairewinds Administrator
A trained physician with four decades of anti-nuclear activism under her belt, Dr. Helen Caldicott is well versed and knowledgeable when it comes to the costs and consequences of nuclear power. In her book titled, Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer, Dr. Caldicott discusses the nuclear industry and the government’s failure to respond correctly in the face of nuclear tragedy as first demonstrated in the meltdown at Three Mile Island (TMI) that began March 28, 1979.
Dr. Caldicott quotes an admission at the time of the TMI disaster by Joseph Hendrie, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), “ We are operating almost totally in the blind, [Governor Thornburgh’s] information is ambiguous, mine is nonexistent and - I don’t know- it’s like a couple of blind men staggering around making decisions (p. 67).”
Read more here.
If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans
Award winning author, Peter Eichstaedt uncovers the devastating impact that the US nuclear age has had on the health, land, and culture of the Navajo people who reside on some of the richest uranium deposits in North America.
Working as a senior reporter for Santa Fe’s daily paper the New Mexican, Eichstaedt exposed problems with the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) to bury nuclear waste in salt mines around Carlsbad, New Mexico. When Eichstaedt conducted his research and published in 1994, WIPP had not yet opened as an operational waste site. Eichstadt continued his investigation of the nuclear industry as a professor of English at the Institute of American Indian Arts culminating in the production of this book.
Based in Santa Fe, Eichstadt spent years collecting interviews, and data that reveals the forced sacrifice of a people. Native Americans of the Four Corners, where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado meet, comprised about one-quarter of the miners and millers working in the atomic mills located on the Navajo Reservation between 1950 and 1980. Despite growing evidence that uranium mining was dangerous, unhealthy, and destructive to the environment, state and federal agencies did nothing to protect their workers. Forty years later, after having given up their land under the impression that it was their patriotic duty, the Navajo people have suffered physical, psychological, and cultural devastation with little to no compensation.
“They’re saying you have to die first before you get a [compensation] check,” says Cecil Parrish in an interview translated by his son, Wayne, outside of Cecil’s traditional Navajo Hogan.
Why are we letting any oil trains pass near TMI and other nuclear plants? Take a look at security consultant Scott Portzline’s slide show presented to the Harrisburg, PA City Council April 2, 2015. What’s the danger threat at a nuclear plant near you?
July 2013- Bakken oil train derailed at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec Canada and exploded, killing 47 and burning down a quarter of the town.
During the last few hours of the British parliament’s latest sitting, members rushed through a major law allowing nuclear waste dumps to be forced on local communities anywhere within the U.K. Zac Goldsmith, one of the few government MPs who broke ranks to vote against the move, said the law effectively “strips local authorities of the ability to stop waste being dumped in their communities”. “If there had been a debate, there could have been a different outcome: most of the MPs who voted probably didn’t know what they were voting for.” This rushed new law declares nuclear waste sites as “nationally significant infrastructure projects” and will thus be chosen by the secretary of state for energy. Local councils and communities would be able to object to details of the project but cannot stop it altogether. As we have seen in the Vermont Yankee decommissioning report conducted by Fairewinds and submitted directly to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, we see the NRC making similar policy decisions within the United States.