The Other Side of Nuclear Waste

mining operationThe residents of Kara Agach, a mountain village in western Kyrgystan, are receiving radiation doses as much as 40 times the internationally recognized safety limit, according to a new study cited in the June 10 issue of New Scientist. After intensive uranium mining from the 1940s to the 1960s, the region is home to 23 radioactive waste dumps, many of which risk being dislodged by earthquakes, landslides, and other geologic activity. As the villagers of Kara Agach ingest contaminated food on a daily basis, the 25,000 people who live three kilometers downstream are at constant risk of the waste entering the river system and affecting their health. The unstable dumps also threaten neighboring Uzbekistan’s main agricultural center, the Fergana valley, some 20 kilometers west.

Uranium mining is an essential part of the nuclear energy industry, but its health and environmental effects are often overshadowed by debates over the safety and byproducts of nuclear power plants. (According to Karen Charman, author of a recent two-part series on nuclear energy in World Watch magazine, as reactors and equipment age there can be no guarantee that Chornobyl-like disasters will not happen again.) But the problems associated with the uranium feedstock are no less serious.

The waste sludge from uranium mining, known as tailings, contains radioactive isotopes such as radium-226, which decays into radon, a cancer-inducing gas. Ingestion or long-term exposure to radium increases the risk of developing debilitating diseases including lymphoma, leukemia, and aplastic anemia. But the uranium boom shows no signs of slowing. Between 2002 and 2004, global uranium production increased 11 percent, reports the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA). And the NEA estimates that production could double by 2010 as worldwide energy needs grow.

The nuclear industry says it has significantly reduced the environmental impacts of uranium mining by requiring such practices as keeping the tailings under water and then burying them so the radon is not released. Even so, Ian Hore-Lacy, a scientist with the World Nuclear Association in London, does not have “great confidence” that all countries will adhere to such standards, particularly developing countries where enforcement is lax. If the demand for uranium grows faster than current mines can produce it, the pressure to loosen environmental standards could have dire consequences for those who work in or live near uranium mines.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.