Opponents of Montrose County uranium mill misrepresent health risks
There have been considerable debate, meetings and media coverage of Energy Fuels Resources’ proposal to open uranium mines in Western Colorado and build a mill in the Paradox Valley. There has also been much disinformation about the environmental impacts from such an operation and on the health affects of workers and near-by residents.
Having spent 34 years overseeing radiation and environmental aspects of uranium mining and milling, most of that time with Union Carbide’s Mining and Metals Division, I am familiar with these subjects and would like to present a few facts with which others may not be familiar.
Extensive studies on the impact of uranium mining, both underground and open pit, showed there was no measurable increase in ambient radon, a gas that is one of the decay products of uranium, nor particulate concentrations (solid matter) in the immediate vicinity of mining operations. This was well documented in a paper that I presented at an international conference in Canberra, Australia in 1983.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s before a health problem was recognized, some underground uranium miners were exposed to high levels of radon gas. Some of those miners, primarily those who smoked cigarettes, developed lung cancer. Today the mines are well-ventilated and the radon level is controlled at a small fraction of the levels found earlier. Also, smoking is prohibited. Those who did develop lung cancer have received compensation from the federal government, which was spearheading the national effort to develop a reliable domestic source of uranium.
During the 1950s and 1960s the Atomic Energy Commission established very strict standards for protection of mill workers and far stricter standards for the areas surrounding uranium mills to protect the public. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission later took over this program and has, over time, implemented even stricter standards under their As Low As Reasonably Achievable regulatory standard.
In the case of Colorado, the licensing and regulation of uranium mills are now under the jurisdiction of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which is responsible for implementing both state and NRC rules and regulations.
Union Carbide operated six milling operations and hundreds of mines during the 1940s through the mid-1980s. This included operating a mill in Uravan in western Montrose County for several decades. A company town where employees lived was located across the San Miguel River from the mill.
Air sampling was conducted around the mill and in the residential area. Most samples showed either immeasurable concentrations of various radionuclides or only a small fraction of the limits established for unrestricted areas.
Toward the end of operations at Uravan, an extensive epidemiology study was done to determine if the mill operation had any health effects on the current and past residents of Uravan. The only conclusive evidence from the study was that the women in Uravan tended to smoke somewhat more than the general public. No health effects contributive to mill operations were found.
Union Carbide’s mine and mill operations in the Uravan area resulted in the company being the second largest taxpayer in Montrose County. In these days of hard times, the Montrose commissioners understandably took note of this fact when they considered the land use decisions for the proposed Paradox mill.
From my experience, I believe it can be done safely with minimum impact on the environment. With the resurgence of nuclear power in the United States and worldwide to meet the ever increasingly demand for electric power, a renewal of uranium production in the Colorado Plateau area is inevitable.
The Energy Fuels Resources’ plan for mining and milling of uranium in Montrose County should go forward, as the county commissioners decided last week.