Radiation Reality Check

Radiation in Perspective

I’ve covered this ground more times than I care to recount but a recent piece from Discovery News gave me the sudden urge to repeat myself, again.

So here’s the shocking news: radiation is all around us. We are inundated by it every single day of our entire lives. It isn’t killing us; it isn’t man-made; and, only an infinitesimal amount of it comes from nuclear power plants and uranium mines.

Radiation is simply the process of elements (a.k.a. the building blocks of everything in the universe) shedding particles (a.k.a. the tiny things that make up every element).

Radiation is the most common, naturally occurring phenomenon in the entire universe. Our bodies are constantly exposed to this radiation from everything we encounter in our lives – our food, our water, the earth, rocks, trees, buildings, you name it. (Here’s where I caution my anti-nuclear friends to think twice before hugging that tree.)

And the most astonishing thing is that radiation isn’t scary or dangerous. Our bodies are designed to be exposed to it every single day without any harm to our health.

Many routine activities expose us to radiation, such as airline travel, medical x-rays, eating food and even standing next to another human being. That’s right, even your spouse is slightly radioactive! The sun is radioactive, and so is the Earth, and that pretty granite countertop in your kitchen.

Does this ever-present shower of radiation mean we should tremble in fear or run around like Chicken Little, anxious and paranoid that the sky is falling down on us?

No. The minimum annual radiation exposure linked to an increased lifetime risk of cancer is 10,000 mrem, which is a hefty dose of radiation. How hefty, you might ask?

That’s the equivalent of having 1,000 medical x-rays in a year – almost 3 every single day.

That’s more than 1,400 times the radiation exposure you would get from living near a uranium mine for an entire year.

You would have to fly from Los Angeles to New York City and back 2,000 times in a single year to rack up that kind of radiation dosage.

In short, it’s not easy to get cancer from radiation exposure. You would have to deliberately try to make it happen.

Let’s bring this perspective into our understanding of nuclear energy and uranium mining. It would help all of us cut through the emotion and make our decisions based on facts instead of fear.

Uranium Opponents Ask The Wrong Questions

Kevin Scissons 2In the new, critically acclaimed documentary Pandora’s Promise, former anti-nuclear activist turned pro-nuclear advocate Richard Rhodes makes the following keen observation about the mentality of anti-nuclear activists: “I avoided looking at the whole picture. I only looked at the questions that seemed to prove that nuclear power was dangerous.”

As Pandora’s Promise highlights, it’s a syndrome that has afflicted anti-nuclear activists for decades. For those familiar with the debate over uranium mining in Virginia, it should be quite familiar.

For years, the anti-uranium crowd has ignored any and all information that contradicts its prefabricated opinions and only pays attention to that which seems to reinforce their views.

They only ask questions that confirm what they already believe to be true, and have no desire to ask any other questions whatsoever.

Those familiar with psychology know that this actually has a name: it’s called “confirmation bias.” Look it up.

The phenomenon was on full display just this last week in Pittsylvania County.

For the better part of last week, Southside Virginia had a walking, talking uranium mining encyclopedia touring the region and answering any and all questions related to uranium mining.

Kevin Scissons is the former Director of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s Uranium Mines and Mills Division.

For more than 20 years, Scissons was the man responsible for bringing Canada into the modern era of uranium mining.

There isn’t an environmental, public health or worker safety question he isn’t capable of answering.

Scissons has written multiple Op-Eds in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the safety of modern uranium mining and the proven effectiveness of modern regulations and best practices. Here are links to both Op-Eds:

Canada’s experience with uranium mining proves positive – January 31, 2013

Canada’s experience with uranium mining: Safe, environmentally sound – November 11, 2012

He has provided compelling data points about the  environmental and safety track record the industry has maintained over the last several decades in Canada and the U.S. He has met with dozens of Virginia lawmakers and briefed top McDonnell administration officials.

His resume is extensive and impressive, and last week he came down to Pittsylvania County for four days to try to cut through the storm of misinformation that still swirls around the issue.

Scissons met with several civic groups and the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors and presented a simple and reassuring message: the concerns Virginians keep hearing about uranium mining have been settled for decades. The concerns about water contamination, radiation exposure and worker safety are all based on the industry’s track record in the 1950s and 60s, not how the industry operates today.

“Modern uranium mining is not about the 1950s or 1960s,” Scissons told the Chatham Star Tribune. “We learned from that. Modern uranium mining is about health and safety.”

Kevin Scissons can tell you from experience how safe uranium mining can be with modern regulations because he was in charge of making it safe in Canada. Were opponents even remotely interested in listening to what he has to say?

No.

They didn’t want to hear about how the uranium mining industry operates today. Instead, they peppered him with questions about environmental problems from the 1950s, or outlandish worst-case scenarios based on 1950s technology.

None of their questions (or antics) was intended to inform anyone or address anyone’s legitimate concerns. Instead, they only ask questions that lead to predictable answers, answers that only confirm their calloused and unbending bias against uranium mining.

No, the anti-uranium crowd doesn’t want to hear what Kevin Scissons has to say, because he is reasonable, informed, and his experience proves them wrong.

Mr. Scissons has nothing to gain by lying about his experience with the uranium mining industry. He is a retired Canadian nuclear regulator.

But the sad truth is that professional anti-uranium groups do have a lot to gain by exaggerating risks and scaring the hell out of good people.

Anyone with a basic understanding of how special-interest fundraising works knows that fear brings in money like nothing else.

Bellicose, scary rhetoric about environmental devastation raises big money. Reassuring answers by a soft-spoken retired Canadian regulator does not.

My advice to Virginians: keep an open mind, especially if what you’re hearing is challenging your initial bias—or worse, your fears.

In an age when we are inundated by fear and predictions of catastrophe, be more open to good news, especially when it’s coming from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about.

Listen less to special interest environmentalist groups that depend on fear to raise money, and listen more to professional regulators and other experts whose only interest it is to protect the public.

If an unbiased expert assures you that something is safe, you’re not a dupe if you give them the benefit of the doubt.

And if special interest groups warn you that that very same thing will cause untold devastation and catastrophe of epic proportions, you’re not a traitor if you challenge them.

That’s how thoughtful people make informed decisions.

Hot Air

1950s Car

The anti-uranium zealots are at it again, digging up horror stories about uranium mining from a bygone era before most of them were born and billing them as prophesies of how uranium mining will be done in Southside Virginia.

A new anti-mining documentary Hot Water rallied the anti-mining crowd for a special screening in July in Halifax County, Virginia.

The documentary showcases anecdotal accounts of uranium mining in South Dakota and the Southwest in the 1950s and 60s, an era during which mining occurred in the total absence of environmental protections or modern regulations.

Just think, uranium mining in the 1950s and 60s predated the existence of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, EPA, OSHA, MSHA, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act by more than two decades!

Selling this documentary as a premonition of what is to come in Southside Virginia would be like swindling a documentary film about automobile safety in the 1950s as a cautionary tale about automotive safety in 2013.

Back then, the number of people who died in car accidents was more than twice as high as they are today. That’s because in the 1950s, cars didn’t have seat belts, air bags, anti-lock breaks, crash-resistant frames, shatter-proof glass and the list of modern safety features goes on.

The same is true of uranium mining and the safety advancements made since the 1960s.

Today, uranium mining is the most tightly regulated industry in the US. Mill tailings are no longer dumped on the open ground, without liners and directly on the banks of major rivers. Residents can no longer use tailings to build homes, driveways and other buildings like the Navajo did in the Southwest in the 1950s and 60s, exposing their entire population to dangerous levels of radiation.

Instead, today tailings are stored in heavily-lined, below-ground structures that are located far away from any rivers or streams and outside of maximum flood zones to prevent runoff. Extensive groundwater monitoring and sophisticated networks of drains, pipes and municipal-grade water treatment facilities ensure the protection of groundwater aquifers. None of these regulations or best practices were in place in the 1950s and 60s.

Hot Water? More like hot AIR.

 

 

Get a grip on radiation, people

Radiation Comparison 2.fw

Let’s face it: Americans are way more scared of radiation than they should be, and it’s destroying our environment and our health.

Most people don’t know why they’re scared; they just are.

Maybe it was Hiroshima and Nagasaki—which had nothing to do with nuclear power.

Maybe it was Three Mile Island—in which no member of the public was actually exposed to harmful levels of radiation.

Or maybe it was the Simpsons—a fictional cartoon of a fictional town filled with a bunch of strange, yellow people, a couple of whom work at the local nuclear power plant.

Here’s the bottom line: most people don’t know what radiation is, or where it comes from; they just know that it’s scary and dangerous and gives you cancer.

I don’t really blame them.

We don’t teach our children about radiation in school, and we generally treat adults like children when it comes to talking about radiation.

And the Simpsons? Well, d’oh!

But what if everything we’ve been told about radiation, or thought we knew for sure, was just wrong?

What if we learned that our fear of radiation was based on a giant misunderstanding, and that in fact we are exposed to radiation every second of every day of our entire lives?

Or that it has nothing to do with nuclear power plants, or uranium mines, or even nuclear bombs?

The average American is exposed to 620 mrem of radiation every year (mrem is the standard unit of measurement for radiation exposure), and it comes from a variety of sources that you cannot avoid, even if you wanted to.

Right now the building you’re in, the computer screen you’re looking at, the banana you’re munching on and the Earth itself are all showering you with radiation.

What’s more, many routine, life-saving medical procedures expose us to radiation. CT scans, mammograms, x-rays, and countless nuclear medicine procedures help doctors save millions of lives every year, all the while exposing patients to radiation.

The worst part is, our unjustified fear of radiation has been disastrous for the environment and our health. Fear of radiation has prevented us from using more emissions-free nuclear power and made us rely on mass-polluting coal and natural gas.

Pollution from coal and gas plants kills people, every day. Radiation from nuclear power plants and modern uranium mines does not.

Let’s face our fears about radiation, people.

The REAL WE Supports Uranium Mining!

On a beautiful Saturday in Chatham, the REAL WE finally showed the world what they’ve been saying all along: Southside Virginia wants to mine uranium at Coles Hill.

On June 1 almost five hundred people came to a barbecue at the farm owned by Walter Coles, Sr.

The REAL WE ate delicious food, enjoyed great bluegrass and proudly spoke up and spoke out in favor of uranium mining.

Barbeque Picture

Both candidates for the 16th District House of Delegates seat vacated by Don Merricks, and journalists from area newspapers and TV stations, heard us clearly state our position. (Check out the coverage from the Danville Register & Bee and WSET-13.)

Lillian Gillespie, the Chairman of the citizens group People for Economic Prosperity (PEP), spoke for the REAL WE when she said she was tired of the attention grabbers and naysayers insisting they speak for “everyone” in Southside, and decided to do something about it by starting PEP.

“Six months ago, me and a few other Coles Hill supporters decided we’d had enough,” Mrs. Gillespie told the crowd. “We were tired of seeing jobs disappear from this community,” she said, “and we’d had enough of the naysayers standing in the way of every economic opportunity that came our way.”

So they decided it was time to speak out in favor of uranium mining and galvanize their community behind the Coles Hill project.

Mrs. Gillespie is not the only local with that view. In just six months the People for Economic Prosperity has grown from a small handful of supporters to a true grassroots movement numbering more than 2,800 Southside Virginians, and they say they expect thousands more by summers end.

Gillespie, and many other supporters at the event could hardly contain their enthusiasm about the outpouring of support they’ve seen in recent months: “I look out at this crowd, and I’m filled with optimism about our future,” Gillespie said as she gleamed with pride. “Don’t believe what you read in the newspapers: this community supports the Coles Hill project!”

“Those of us who support uranium mining will no longer sit quietly on the sidelines and allow opponents to dominate this debate,” Gillespie wrote in a recent OpEd in the Chatham Star-Tribune.

PEP Vice Chairman and Danville building contractor Chris Dunlap was equally as determined to bring supporters to the forefront of the debate: “We’re not going to let a vocal minority stand in the way of progress and economic opportunity any longer,” Dunlap told me. “This is our community; the majority of us support uranium mining; and we will not remain silent.”

So the next time you hear one of the disgruntled naysayers insist that “we” don’t want uranium mining, don’t believe it. Judging from the turnout at Coles Hill, and PEP’s steadily growing numbers, it’s pretty obvious that the REAL WE does.

The REAL WE isn’t ruled by fear but makes decisions on facts. The REAL WE doesn’t need to tell everyone else their business but decides what’s best for themselves and their families. The REAL WE wants living wages, economic development and a healthy tax base. And the REAL WE isn’t afraid to say so. Trust me, this won’t be the last you’ll hear from them.

This Just In: Uranium Saves Lives

Uranium Saves Lives.fw

Uranium isn’t just the world’s safest, cleanest, most energy dense power source – it also saves human lives. Actually, millions of human lives.

CT scans, X-rays, PET scans and other life-saving nuclear medicine procedures help spot deadly illnesses in tens of millions of people each year. With the help of these diagnostic tools, doctors are able to treat these patients early, resulting in much higher rates of success. Without radiology, many of these patients would not survive.

And here’s something you may not know – the vast majority of all nuclear medicine could not occur without uranium. That’s because uranium is essential for producing the most widely used isotope in medical diagnostics: technetium-99m.

This uranium derivative is the force behind “some 30 million medical procedures every year,” according to the World Nuclear Association, “accounting for 80% of all nuclear medicine procedures worldwide.”

To produce this life-saving diagnostic tool, uranium is first processed into molybdenum-99, which in turn produces technetium-99m as a daughter product. Technetium-99m is a mainstay in the field of nuclear medicine and is ideal for use as a ‘tracer’ in diagnostic procedures, especially full body scans and bone scans, where it can be useful in determining if cancer has spread.

Radioactive tracers like technetium-99m are injected into a patient before they undergo a scan. To state it simply, the circulatory system distributes the isotope throughout the body, and doctors can make diagnoses based on the nature of the distribution. Because of the short, 6 hour half life of technetium-99m, its concentration in the body falls to zero within a few days, minimizing radioactive exposure to the patient.

A world without uranium mining would be a world without one of medicine’s most powerful life-saving tools.

Nuclear Power: A Real Life-Saver

1.8 million lives saved

It turns out that nuclear energy is not only healthy for the environment – it has measurable health benefits for human beings as well.

I’m not talking about the zany idea that carrying radioactive rocks in your pockets will make you immortal. I’m talking about the massive reduction in pollution-related deaths that has resulted from the generation of electricity from nuclear that would otherwise have come from coal.

new paper published in Environmental Science and Technology has found that, between 1971 and 2009, an estimated 1.8 million pollution-related deaths have been prevented by nuclear power plants. If coal plants had been producing all the electricity that came from nuclear during that time period researchers found that our atmosphere would be swimming in an additional 64 gigatons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.

What’s more, a nuclear power boom could prevent an additional 7 million human deaths by the middle of the 21st century. But a nuclear boom needs an abundance of uranium, and we have plenty of that down here in Virginia. The first step to saving all those lives is digging it out of the ground.

Wind Turbines and ‘Dirty’ Mines – Hypocrisy at its Finest

iron mine-wind turbine

I’m sure you’ve seen anti-uranium mining propaganda displaying unsavory images of “dirty” uranium mines and the strip-mined wasteland they leave behind. It’s a favorite tactic of anti-industrial activists: show people how sausage is made, and they’ll hopefully never eat the stuff again. And they’ll fight tooth-and-nail to block any sausage factory from ever being built anywhere near where they live.

The tactic exploits our basic human fear of the unfamiliar and evokes an instant emotional reaction, but provides zero information. If you’ve never seen a mine before (or a sausage-making factory) you will be disgusted by the first sight of one. But most people have no idea what they’re looking at and have no way of contextualizing what they’re seeing. All they see is a gaping hole in the ground, scarred earth and puddles of presumably toxic water all around.

With no information or context, most people recoil at such images, and rightfully so. They’re not pretty. And because they don’t look pretty, you’re supposed to assume that they’re toxic, dangerous and threatening to your health.

The anti-uranium crowd in Virginia particularly loves this tactic, and never shies away from an opportunity to show you images of a dirty, open-pit uranium mine. Who would ever want something so vile and repulsive anywhere near where they live?!?

But let’s face it, industrial operations aren’t pretty. But just because you wouldn’t want images of most industrial operations as the centerpiece of your living room décor doesn’t mean they’re unsafe, or environmentally hazardous, or that they’re not completely necessary for all the amenities and comforts of modern life.

So let’s conduct a little experiment and see how the anti-uranium crowd likes the taste of their own shameless fear mongering.

Environmentalists love wind turbines, right? They’re so healthy and good for the environment, so pretty, innocent, clean. Environmentalists love peddling heartwarming images of wind farms basking under sunny blue skies and nestled in the bucolic embrace of verdant hills. People picnic under them, children skip and shout for joy at the sight of them!

But what environmentalists don’t show you is how wind turbines are made. So I will. Here goes: wind turbines are predominantly made of steel, and steel is predominantly made of iron. Manufacturing wind turbines requires extensive mining of iron ore, which means mountains and valleys get ripped to shreds. Not to mention all the other metals such as copper, nickel and  titanium that have to be dug out of ground to build every wind turbine displayed in those heartwarming images.

How do you feel about those pretty wind turbines now? Are they still clean? Are they still green? Are they still heartwarming and bucolic? Hardly. (I could also show you images of carbon-spewing cement factories that produce the cement bases for offshore wind turbines, or steel factories that actually turn iron ore into steel but I’ll save that for another occasion.)

My point isn’t that iron mining is dangerous, toxic or a threat to human civilization. My point is that when anti-uranium zealots bemoan the evils of mining and then make genuflections to a wind turbine, they’re not being straight with you. The fact is that pretty much everything we use in modern life — including every form of renewable energy you can think of — requires the extensive mining of raw materials from the earth. And mining isn’t pretty. But that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe or a threat to your existence. That’s why we have science, technology and smart engineers.

If environmentalists aren’t willing to parade around with images of iron mining (or steel and cement factories) then they shouldn’t be so frivolous with those uranium mining images either.

Don’t Base Public Policy on Worst-Case Scenarios

Bridges Collapsing

Opposition to uranium mining in Virginia has been largely based on the wildly improbable worst-case scenario of a catastrophic uranium tailings release into Hampton Roads’ water supply 150 miles downstream from Coles Hill.

This “worst-case scenario fear” was based on a 2010 Va Beach study, and has surfaced in the opposition of numerous Hampton Roads localities, countless elected officials, and members of the public, who never actually read or understood the study.

The study didn’t conclude that this worst-case scenario was likely or even remotely possible, as most uranium opponents and the media have come to believe. Rather, it assumed that the worst-case scenario would happen with certainty and then measured what would happen when (not if) the catastrophe occurred.

This wasn’t an accident. It was deliberate. The study was engineered by an anti-uranium zealot, Va Beach Public Utilities Director Tom Leahy, to assume Virginia Uranium would use the most outdated and dangerous practices possible – practices VUI has publicly stated it will not use and that legislation proposed by Senator Watkins would prohibit, and even some that violate NRC rules. It also assumed a confluence of the most absurdly improbable, even unprecedented, natural circumstances – all at the same time – in order to produce the most alarming result possible and scare the crap out of unsuspecting politicians and residents.

So, let’s take a look at what unrealistic assumptions made the worst-case scenario so improbable:

  1. Use  of dam failure data that ignores modern siting and design standards imposed by the NRC
  2. Above-ground tailings storage (prohibited by Senator Watkin’s legislation)
  3. Tailings placed directly next to Bannister River tributary (prohibited by NRC)
  4. A precipitation event of unparalleled strength in Virginia history, equivalent to a category 5 hurricane, which Virginia has never experienced.
  5. No tailings-carrying floodwater exits the river, despite catastrophic flooding everywhere.
  6. Most severe drought in Va history draws down Lake Gaston levels to unprecedented levels resulting in elevated uranium concentration levels (highly improbable; and infinitely more improbable that it would happen concurrently with the other improbable scenarios)

In 2010 Virginia Uranium asked an engineering firm with extensive experience in probabilistic risk assessment to quantify the probability of the scenario occurring. What did they find?

One-in-ten million.

As in, it will never happen. Kind of like the probability of all the bridges in Hampton Roads collapsing at the same time.

Imagine if the next time a major bridge is proposed in Hampton Roads, some dissolute anti-development character produced a study measuring the impact of this catastrophe and then used the blood-chilling results to derail the important bridge project. If that seems silly to you, so should the use of the uranium tailings worst-case scenario.

Basing public policy on worst-case scenarios peddled by cynical alarmists is wrong-headed. The people of Virginia deserve a more honest, realistic assessment of the risk of uranium mining. They will get that if the moratorium is lifted and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission conducts a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement. It’s the mother of all environmental impact studies, and it isn’t conducted by biased cynics with a hidden agenda; it’s conducted by serious scientists and engineers with real-world experience and no agenda other than protecting the health, safety and environment of the public.

A Lot Has Changed Since The 1950s

A Lot Has Changed

A lot has changed since the 1950’s.

Back then cars didn’t have seat belts, air bags, anti-lock brakes, impact-absorbing frames, shatter-proof glass – all the features that make cars far safer today than they were 60 years ago.

The same is true for uranium mining.

Back in the 1950’s mines had no groundwater monitoring, no liners for tailings, no leak detection or collection systems, no ventilation in mines, no air monitoring, and miners smoked cigarettes in mines. Tailings weren’t guarded or covered, so locals used them to build houses, driveways and concrete structures. There was no EPA, no NRC, no MSHA, no OSHA, no Clean Water Act, no Safe Drinking Water Act – the list goes on and on.

Today you will never find any of these antiquated, unsafe practices. They have been banned for decades, and the outcomes speak for themselves. The only evidence anti-nuclear activists can produce to smear uranium mining is half-century old. There were problems back then, but we fixed them through smart regulation and advanced technologies.

We can’t use errors of the past to condemn modern uranium mining. That’s like saying it’s unsafe to drive an automobile in 2013 because cars in the 1950s were “unsafe at any speed,” as Ralph Nader famously claimed.

If the logic doesn’t make sense for cars, it shouldn’t make sense for uranium mining either.

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