Experts discuss health effects of uranium mining
Meeting, 19-22 June 2014
From June 19 to 22, doctors, scientists and environmental experts met in the town of Ronneburg and discussed the long term health and environmental effects of uranium mining.
Between 1946 and 1990, the Soviet-German "Wismut" company ran a vast network of uranium mines in this region in Saxony and Eastern Thuringia, becoming the largest supplier of fissile material to the Soviet nuclear weapons programme. Especially in the early years, miners were exposed to high amounts of radioactivity, but even until the 1980s, safety precautions and protective measures were insufficient, information on dose rates classified as top-secret and radioactive mine tailings widely used for construction purposes. A large population was thus exposed to increased levels of radioactivity for many decades. Today, more than 7,000 cases of lung cancer have been accepted as radiation-induced occupational disease, while many thousands of sick miners and local residents are being ignored by occupational insurance associations. The exposed population is entirely left to fend for itself, without proper recognition or compensation.
Several former uranium miners participated in the IPPNW conference and described the lack of proper protection, their medical histories and their decade-long fight for recognition.
Shortly after German reunification, uranium mining in the region was stopped due to the high risks for public health and the environment. In the past 24 years, more than 7 billion Euros have been spent on renaturalization projects. This is an attempt to rehabilitate the scars of uranium mining, which has turned this once pastoral countryside into a hostile moon-landscape, dubbed by locals as "valleys of death". Uranium mining left radioactive waste dumps right next to towns, highly poisonous tailing ponds, acidic and contaminated ground water, collapsing, delapitated mine shafts, radioactive roads and houses, constructed from mine waste, and high concentrations of radon gas in most municipalities in the region. Water treatment and mine stabilisation will have to continue for many centuries to come. If one includes the social, medical and environmental impact of uranium mining, the long-term financial costs have proven to far outweigh the orginal profit gained.
The detrimental legacy of uranium mining in Germany is slowly beginning to be addressed. But in other countries, especially in Africa, the extraction of uranium ore continues unabated. Guests from South Africa, Australia and Niger described the current situation in their countries. While uranium mines in Australia are putting production on hold due to low demand after Fukushima, profitable mining is still possible in Africa, where safety regulations or trade unions are virtually non-existent, working conditions inhumane and environmental impacts not taken into consideration. Around Johannesburg in South Africa, impoverished black townships are constructed on top of radioactive tailing heaps, and in Arlit, Niger, the radioactive dust from dried-out tailing ponds contaminates the nearby city. In both places, health effects are not addressed and exposure data are not collected or kept secret from the affected population.
IPPNW called for a worldwide ban on uranium mining at its World Congress in Basel and continues to work for this goal. Generations to come will have to deal with the negative impact of uranium mining on health and the environment. It is imperative to stop further mining and to begin the long and difficult process of renaturalization and securing the radioactive materials to prevent further public health disasters.
Dr. Alex Rosen, pediatrician and member of the German IPPNW Board of Directors closed the conference with the words: "Every part of the nuclear chain represents a threat to public health: from uranium mining to the industrial enrichment process, the transportation of fissile materials around the globe, the unsafe civil use of nuclear energy, the inhumane military use in nuclear warheads, all the way to the unsolved problem of nuclear waste - we should leave the uranium where it belongs - deep under the surface of the earth."