Friday, August 20, 2010

Nuclear Fuel Not as Safe and Green as We are Led to Believe: An Algonquin View of the Nuclear Industry

Comments:  Thanks, Dr. Gehl for the use of your article, it tells in all, the problems of the nuclear cycle, from uranium mining to the nuke plants is the cycle of death!
By: Lynn Gehl Ph.D., August 2010

As an Algonquin person existing within the contexts of the protests in Algonquin territory regarding issues of uranium mining, I have been motivated to return to my earlier vocation of chemical technology and learn about the nuclear fuel cycle.

Contrary to what TV commercials and the nuclear industry would have us believe, the nuclear fuel cycle is far from safe and green. The process of mining, milling, and building nuclear power plants requires huge amounts of energy obtained from fossil fuels. Thus, the process indeed produces carbon dioxide emissions. More disturbingly, the nuclear fuel cycle is harmful in other ways.

Nuclear energy depends upon elemental Uranium 235, which is naturally radioactive and undergoes decay, meaning it spontaneously radiates or ejects radioactive energy. Once Uranium 235 is removed from the earth and extracted from the ore that once cradled it, much soil and dirt is left behind. These so-called tailings are loaded with other radioactive elements such as Radon 222 and Radium 226, which contaminate the air, land, and water tables in the surrounding areas for many years.

There are three forms of radioactive decay: alpha and beta particles, and gamma photons. In this way, radiation consists of both particles and waves. Radioactive decay is undetectable through the human senses and can harm us through ionizing the atoms and molecules that comprise our body cells, hence the term “ionizing radiation.” It only takes one radioactive particle, for example, to damage a human cell. Children are particularly vulnerable because their bodies are containers of much cellular growth. Depending on the form, radiation is carcinogenic, meaning it causes cancer; mutagenic, meaning it mutates our egg and sperm cells and causes birth abnormalities; and teratogenic, meaning it has the ability to infiltrate the mother-child placenta barrier.

Uranium 235 is a gamma ray emitter, is carcinogenic, and causes bone cancer. Radon 222 is an alpha emitter, is carcinogenic, and causes lung cancer. Radium 226 is both an alpha and gamma ray emitter, is also carcinogenic, and causes bone cancer. These are the radioactive elements we are exposed to simply through the act of mining uranium.

In addition to this, creating nuclear energy through uranium fission produces more radioactive elements such as Strontium 90, Iodine 131, Cesium 137, and Plutonium 239. Strontium 90 is both a beta and gamma ray emitter and causes bone cancer and leukemia. Iodine 131 is both a beta and gamma ray emitter and causes thyroid cancer. Cesium 137 is both a beta and gamma ray emitter and causes muscle and brain cancer. Plutonium 239 is an alpha emitter that is both mutagenic and teratogenic and causes genetic mutations and gross deformities in our newborns.

Disturbingly, through “venting,” nuclear reactors routinely release these radioactive by-products into the atmosphere. In this way too our air, land, and water becomes contaminated for many years.

In sum uranium mining and processing produces carbon dioxide. It also contaminates the air, land, and water with radon, radium and other radioactive elements. Furthermore, uranium fission produces additional radioactive elements that harm living organisms in a variety of ways. We simply cannot afford to limit discussions about safe and green energy to carbon dioxide emissions, we must also consider radioactive emissions.

Published with permission from the Anishinabek News.

Dr. Lynn Gehl, Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe and Member of Safe and Green Energy, Peterborough (SAGE).