Saturday, July 6, 2013

Mining is a dangerous industry.  The presence of radioactive substances makes it even more so.  Despite assurances and safeguards, the nuclear industry cannot stop workers from exposure, illness and even death due to the nature of the element they are working with.

 There are also many instances of corporate negligence and human error leading  to workers accidents, and the nature of their work means that many insurance companies may refuse to give them personal or health insurance

The three main dangers to workers are risk of inhaling radon gas, inhaling Uranium dust and external radiation exposure.

Mining  uranium   and mineral  sands creates  radioactive dust and radon gas. When breathed into the lungs, the dust and gas release their radiation at close range where it does the most damage to the lining of the lung and increases the risk of developing cancer. Radiation exposure can affect men and women’s reproductive health and is also associated with lower testosterone levels, chromosomal abnormality, skin, lung, kidney and bone cancer and bronchitis and emphysema.

workers are still expected to tolerate a higher level of exposure than others, between 20 and 5 mSv, compared to 0.1 for everyone else.

Risks to the wider community

 Risk is not confined to workers alone. Uranium mining continually increases the l e v e l   o f   b a c k g r o u n d   r a d i a t i on   t h e community is exposed to. People’s skin, clothes and vehicles can be contaminated through being physically near the source of radioactive material.

 Risks are also posed by other stages of the nuclear industry including nuclear power, transport , storage of waste and of course, weapons. Many accidents, leaks, misplaced ‘orphaned sources’, and intentional releases of radiation emitting sources occur every year…

The insurance industry does not insure against any incidents of any nuclear activity.  According to five Australian insurance companies surveyed by NFQ, insuring against loss, damage, injury or death that occurs as a result of radioactivity or nuclear activity would set the risk too high. …

Radiation risks to uranium miners 
Dr Peter Karamoskos 

There is a well established link between uranium  mining and lung cancer. In 2009, the International  Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP)  reported that radon gas (a radioactive gas present  in underground uranium mines) delivers twice the  dose of radiation to humans than they had previously  thought.

While the ICRP is in the process of reassessing  the permissible levels, previous dose estimates to miners can be approximately doubled to reflect the  real lung cancer hazard. The Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation VI report (1999) reviewed eleven studies covering a total of  60,000 underground uranium miners. The report  found an increasing frequency of lung cancer, directly  proportional to the cumulative amount of radon the  miners had been exposed to.

In addition to exposure to radon gas, uranium miners  are also exposed to gamma radiation directly from the radioactive ore.

At the Olympic Dam underground  uranium and copper mine, the total annual dose per  miner is approximately 6 millisieverts (mSv), of which  2−4 mSv are due to radon gas (allowing for the new  ICRP risk estimate for radon) and the balance due  to gamma radiation. Workers at the smelter at the  Olympic Dam mine receive annual doses that may  exceed 12mSv.

The Olympic Dam doses are typical of modern mine  practices.

The average miner at Olympic Dam is young  and stays on average five years at the site.

A calculation  of the additional risk of cancer to uranium miners  indicates that the average miner at Olympic Dam has a  1 in 670 chance of contracting cancer, most likely lung  cancer, as a result of radiation exposure at work. Are these risks properly communicated to miners so that  they can make informed decisions about working in such environments?

Most modern uranium mines have air extraction  systems to make sure radon levels remain low and  miners are given personal protective equipment  including masks to filter out the radioactive  particulates.

However, many underground miners  find the masks extremely uncomfortable, especially  where it is hot. It is estimated that around 50% of  underground uranium miners in Australia do not use  their masks, putting them at greater risk of lung cancer.

Cancer in nuclear industry workers  Real-time monitoring of radiation exposure of nuclear  industry workers has been occurring since the 1940s.  More than one million workers have been employed in  this industry since its beginning.

 However, studies have  often investigated small groups of workers making  it difficult to estimate precisely the risks associated with low levels of exposure.

Risk estimates from these  studies are variable, ranging from no risk, to risks similar  to or greater than those seen in atomic bomb survivors.

In 2005 the results of a 15-country study of nuclear industry workers (excluding mining) was published − the largest study of nuclear industry workers ever  conducted. The study found a statistically significant  increased risk of cancer and leukaemia in nuclear  industry workers, even at low dose.