“Avatar” in Real Life: The BBC’s Uranium Fear Mongering

I give the movie Avatar two thumbs up. It was spectacular in 3-D, and had an entertaining plot featuring noble good guys (native Na’vi, stewards of the environment dedicated to serving the life spirit of their home, the moon Pandora) and evil bad guys (minions of a greedy corporation bent on interstellar vandalism in the search for the precious mineral, unobtainium.) As fiction, it’s great, but if this article about uranium mining in Arizona is any indication, one of the BBC’s reporters saw the movie one too many times. It’s more a reflection of the prevailing ideological narrative at the “objective” BBC than of the real world.

The article, entitled “’Uranium Rush’ Prompts Grand Canyon Fears,” with the signature BBC quotation marks around “Uranium Rush,” is about the possible resumption of uranium mining in Arizona. It would have been more appropriate to put the quotation marks around “Grand Canyon.” According to the article, which appears beneath a lovely picture of the canyon itself,

The Grand Canyon region in the US state of Arizona holds one of the nation’s largest concentrations of high grade uranium, the fuel for nuclear power.

In fact, there is no imminent threat that mining for uranium or any other mineral will occur within the Grand Canyon watershed, because, as the BBC article fails to mention, the entire area was removed from mineral entry by the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984.  In fact, over 55.6% of the total area of the State of Arizona is already withdrawn from mineral exploration and mining.
The article continues,

The US government is currently weighing the costs and benefits of mining, with Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva proposing a ban on mining near the Grand Canyon.

Again, the Beeb is playing fast and loose with the truth. The key word here is “near.” At issue is mining in the Arizona strip near the northern border of the state. The “evil corporation” is the Denison Mines Corporation of Canada, operator of the Arizona 1 mine about 45 miles southwest of the city of Fredonia. You can see exactly what is meant by “near” by starting at this satellite view of the mine location and zooming out until you see the canyon to the south. The “Na’vi” are the Native Americans in the region. According to the article,

…Native American populations living near uranium mines fear exploration could contaminate their drinking water.

Unsurprisingly, the article fails to mention any credible basis for this fear. In fact, as noted in this report, the uranium deposits in the area are in breccia pipes a few hundred feet below the surface and generally about 1,000 feet above the local aquifer. The deposits and the aquifer are separated by the impermeable Supai formation. Hence there is little chance of the water being contaminated. There is little danger of runoff, because the region is in a desert, and the mining property is contained in a lined pond.

The article continues,

On a recent trip into the mine, none of the miners wore masks, and their hands and face were caked with uranium ore. “It washes off,” miner Cody Behuden, 28, told the BBC while licking his ore-caked lips.
Vice-president of US operations Harold Roberts said the miners were under no danger from ingesting uranium.

The implication here, of course, is that there really is a danger from ingesting uranium, and the “evil corporation” doesn’t care. In fact, there is credible evidence that uranium miners can suffer a high incidence of lung cancer from inhaling radon gas. There is very little that demonstrates a correlation between “ingesting” the ore and cancer or any other illness. I am certainly willing to believe that conditions in the mine are dangerous if any credible evidence to that effect is forthcoming. If the BBC has something more convincing than innuendo to make the case, let’s see it. The article continues,

Dr Lee Grier, a biologist at University of California at Riverside, said exposure to uranium can be harmful, and the Navajo Native American reservation nearby is still is grappling with contamination from previous uranium mining and milling done by other companies. Those companies now no longer exist.
“The danger with long term exposure is that people breathe it, ingest it or it seeps through the skin,” he said. “These particles start bombarding tissues and cause wild uncontrolled cell growth like cancer.”

In fact, the local Indians are under no danger of contamination, because the ore will be removed and taken out of state to be milled. However, let’s assume the “evil corporation” ignores our environmental laws and allows some uranium to escape into the environment in Utah where the milling operations will actually take place. What would the radioactive hazard be compared to the alternative? In the US, the alternative is coal, and the radioactive hazard of burning it, without even taking the risk of global warming and cancer causing particulates into account, is vastly greater than the risk of mining uranium. Every year a typical coal plant releases several tons of uranium and thorium, which are natural contaminants of coal, into the atmosphere in the form of particulates, highly dangerous because they are breathed in, coming directly into contact with sensitive lung tissue. Special scrubbers can be used to remove some of this, but in that case the captured ash will be radioactive, just like the uranium mill tailings, and will represent a comparable hazard. Are we to prefer solar or wind energy? They come with their own environmental hazards, such as heavy metal contamination and destruction of the fragile desert environments that would be ideal locations for them. They also don’t work if the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. How are we to make up the slack when they are off line?

The article continues:

The waste from the milling process is 80% more radioactive than yellow cake and has a half-life of 4.7 billion years. Thousands of tonnes of waste are buried in containers lined with 60mm (2.4in) of plastic.

Here, the author simply has no clue what she is talking about. 80% more radioactive than yellow cake? But isn’t yellow cake a uranium compound, and isn’t the ore radioactive to begin with because of the presence of a fraction of one percent of uranium? Yellow cake is more than half pure uranium by weight, and most of the uranium will have been extracted from the waste. How, then, could it conceivably be 80% more radioactive than yellow cake? Presumably by 4.7 billion years she means the half life of uranium 238, which is actually somewhat less than that, but if she’s talking about uranium, how could it be 80% more radioactive than uranium? The sentence is incomprehensible as it stands.

Of course, there is always a “theoretical risk” of anything one could name, and, sure enough,

“Theoretically uranium could get into the water supply,” said Andrea Alpine, senior adviser on the USGS uranium project.

It’s not only “theoretical,” but a fact that natural uranium gets into our food and water regardless, and we each ingest a microgram or two of the stuff every day. What the article fails to describe is a credible explanation of how significant amounts of uranium over and above this natural average would contaminate anyone’s water supply from the Denison mine, and what the risk of such a thing happening really is. The article continues,

When uranium comes into contact with oxygen it becomes soluble in water, which increases the chance of contamination. Radioactive dust can also be blown away by the wind or washed away by rain. This is what Carletta Tilousi of the Havasupai Indian tribe fears most. The Havasupai live on the bottom of the Grand Canyon and derive water from the rim.

What the author means by this is anybody’s guess. Uranium mined in Arizona usually comes in the form of U3O8, an oxide of uranium which has a very low solubility in water, and does not become more soluble on exposure to air. Possibly she’s talking about leaching operations, in which uranium compounds can be made more soluble by introducing oxygen into the leaching liquid. It really makes very little difference. Anti-nuclear ideologues often emphasize the solubility of uranium if it’s a question of telling scary stories about ground water contamination, but can make it insoluble with a wave of their magic wands if they prefer scary stories that require it to stay in place, as in contamination of small geographic locations or organs in the body. Once again, of course, the mine is not in the Grand Canyon watershed. We are not enlightened about why the Havasupai should, nevertheless, be afraid of water washing over the rim.

The article concludes with a perfect “Avatar” ending,

“Mining companies are pursuing uranium for their own profit,” she said. “But the only benefit that we are going to get is a source of contamination. We are concerned about the future of our children, that’s why we fight this.”

Apparently the Beeb is no longer worried that the future of our children is threatened by the emission of greenhouse gases that happen not to come from nuclear plants. I will await with interest their explanation of why they have become global warming deniers.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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