Hope is the last thing to die

Cameco uranium processing plant, Port Hope, Ontario, Canada

The environmental impact of radium remains even today. The legacy of radio-luminescent paints, radium therapy needles, mining and processing and associated contamination has long been pursued in France, Belgium, Canada, the USA and other countries. The management of these tasks provides a rich and fascinating history as well as successes and lessons learned* in environmental remediation.”

I've written a lot on this blog about the similarities in the social and political responses to the radioactive contamination of Fukushima and Chernobyl. After initial denial, the government orders evacuations of the worst affected areas, but compensation is miserly and there is a great effort to define a limited area and a limited number of people who are officially affected. Among the residents there is intense controversy over the fairness of the compensation and the safety of contaminated areas that officials have decided are not in need of compensated evacuation. There is disagreement also about how long the evacuations should last, as some believe that decontamination efforts will prove to be a waste of precious resources. Because the contamination is intangible to human senses and its effects are stochastic and far into the future, people with economic and emotional investments in the area are inclined to discount the danger. It’s just human nature to discount the future and think that the 10% who get cancer will be other people. Painful divisions open between generations because they are affected in completely opposite ways. The young are more vulnerable to radiation, they are less invested in the area and are more able to relocate and start their lives elsewhere. The old are less vulnerable to radiation, invested in mortgages, careers and social connections, and they are much less likely to establish themselves successfully in a new location and a new career. A very hostile relationship can develop between these opposing sides when they each feel that the other is threatening either one's life or one's economic interests.
Some people think that there was something unique about the Soviet system, or about the culture and psychology of Japanese, which made these tragedies play out so painfully in unique ways. But, in fact, nuclear contamination causes pretty much the same social upheaval wherever it happens.
A case in point is the little known, slow motion disaster that has been unfolding in Port Hope, Ontario since the 1930s. Shame on me for having written so much about Fukushima while I had no idea about the largest cleanup of radioactive waste in Canadian history, happening just an hour’s drive from the streets where I grew up.
Canada's nuclear history doesn't get much attention in the international debate over nuclear safety, as its heavy water reactors are relatively safer than the light water reactors that use enriched uranium. The dark spot in the history is the role Canada has played in producing uranium for the first atomic weapons, and later in mining and refining fuel for both domestic use and export. Much of the refining happened at Eldorado Nuclear in Port Hope, which later became the mining firm Cameco.
A reportfrom 2011 in the Toronto Star summarized the nuclear history of Port Hope:

Radiation in Port Hope: A timeline

1930s: Crown corporation Eldorado Nuclear Ltd. begins refining radium, used for treating cancer, and uranium that helps the Manhattan Project develop the first atomic bombs.
1940s-1960s: Low-level radioactive byproducts and other toxins from the plant enter the environment through use of contaminated fill, and to some extent through sloppy transport, and water and wind erosion in storage areas.
1970s: New concerns prompt the Atomic Energy Control Board to scour the town in search of hot spots. Cleanups are undertaken in dozens of locations.
1988: Eldorado is sold to the private sector and becomes Cameco.
1990s: Worried about health effects, citizens begin taking an active part in nuclear license reviews of Cameco and ask the federal government to study the effects of radioactive waste in the town.
2001: Ottawa pledges $260 million for cleanup. An estimated 1.2 million cubic meters of soil contaminated with low-level radioactive waste and industrial toxins will be dug up and trucked to a new storage facility north of the town.
2002: A federal study finds that death rates, including cancer deaths, are no higher in Port Hope than elsewhere in Ontario.
2004: Families Against Radioactive Exposure (FARE) is formed to counter Cameco's plan to produce a more potent fuel known as enriched uranium. It demands an environmental assessment of the proposal by a review panel, but the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission says a screening is sufficient.
2005: Dr. Asaf Durakovic, research director of the Uranium Medical Research Center in Washington, D.C., agrees to carry out a study of Port Hope residents for evidence of illness resulting from exposure to radioactive materials.
2007: The study finds small levels of radioactive elements in the urine of four of the nine people tested, including a child younger than 14. More calls follow to put the town under a health microscope.
2009: In spring, the nuclear safety commission reiterates that no adverse health effects have occurred in Port Hope, and that its cancer rates are comparable to other Ontario towns.
2010: In fall, the cleanup begins with a trial dig in a backyard.
November 2010: Acclaimed anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott calls the presence of contamination in Port Hope “a disaster” and says the only solution is to relocate the 16,000 residents.
2011: A full-scale cleanup will begin later this year, lasting a decade and costing at least $260 million. The final scope and price tag are unknown. [In early 2012, the federal government announced that it was going to cost a little more: $1.2 billion! – and it was being touted by local conservative member of parliament Rick Norlock as a fantastic job creator. The cost amounts to $75,000 for every person living in Port Hope. Furthermore, by a strange coincidence, this $1.2 B is the approximately the same figure that has been budgeted for the new sarcophagus being built over the ruins of the Chernobyl reactor - an amount which, collectively, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and all first world nations put together had trouble coughing up.]

Highlights from various news reports on the present cleanup initiative reveal a story that is familiar to anyone who has followed the tragicomic disaster experienced by residents of the towns inside the Fukushima exclusion zone. A farmer in Port Hope who saw his cows keel over in the field with leukemia and other diseases spends his life fighting for full health studies to be conducted, fair compensation, and a proper cleanup, while governments and industry say the issue has been settled, and half the residents in town want him to stop tarnishing the town’s reputation and harming the local economy and property values.
From 1930 to 1970, controls on the contaminated soils were so lax that once the danger to livestock was understood, the soil was removed and used for fill on residential and municipal properties throughout the town. When that problem was recognized in the 1970s, some cleanup was done until the government said simply that its disposal site was full and no other place to take the contaminated soil could be found. Interest in finishing the job waned until two decades later when residents became concerned about new hotspots found on a school ground. Yvonne Berg, writing for The Toronto Star, described the contamination as “… pitting economic and social interests against health concerns. Friends have become foes. Tourism has taken a beating. Real estate deals have fallen through. Threats have become commonplace.”
The antinuclear farmer said, “Most of the time when we found them [cows], they'd just be keeled over. It was a pretty vicious death and it was a mystery. The same thing was happening on neighbors’ farms.” Soon enough they learned that Eldorado had used a nearby stream as a dumpsite. In contrast, a lucky resident whose property was among the first to be decontaminated in the new initiative spoke of the “wonderful federal government’s handling of the problem… I refuse to be alarmist about it.” Berg describes her as “a lawyer who doesn’t spend much time at home.” Considering the boom in Toronto real estate values that has spread eastward along Lake Ontario as an urban hunger for resort properties, one can speculate about what motivates a busy lawyer not be alarmist about it.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission claims to have reviewed the results of over 40 studies on contamination in Port Hope, and it concludes that no ill effects have been found in residents or former workers at Cameco. Meanwhile, critics have always claimed that the health studies never asked the right questions and were done by biased researchers with connections to government and industry. For me, the give-away in this controversy is found on page 24 of the 2009 government report Understanding Health Risks and Risk Assessments Conducted in the Port Hope Community from the 1950s to Present:

"... uranium has never caused any health effects in humans even following high exposures. Uranium has low radioactivity so it is only considered for its heavy metal properties. Uranium toxicity will have a more pronounced effect on the kidneys."

It is bad enough that this government backed meta-study neglects sixty years of research that disagrees with the finding that uranium has never caused any health effects in humans, but this report contradicts itself within these two sentences by saying that uranium is both harmless and toxic, and there is more contradiction in the following pages as the toxic effects on the lungs and kidneys are described.
I know people who know people who worked at Cameco in the 1970s, and so I know anecdotes about workers who got contaminated and were told to take a few days off, drink a lot of beer, and "wash it out of the system." It sounded like an exaggerated tale, but now that I have read this government report, I realize that this is basically the official policy. The government's conclusion is that toxic effects are temporary, uranium is flushed from the body and no long-term health effects have ever been observed.
But this is more of the willful ignorance of many pro and anti-nuclear arguments. Like the proverbial drunk who has lost his keys in the dark, many advocates search only under the street lamp. In this case, the government studies willfully ignore numerous studies of uranium and depleted uranium toxicity done in recent years that have concluded the opposite of the optimistic assessment. Apparently, government scientists cannot find or comprehend these studies, but any amateur such as myself can find these studies and understand their import. Examples to get readers started:

Stearns, D. M. et. al. Uranyl acetate induces hprt mutations and uranium–DNA adducts in Chinese hamster ovary EM9 cells. Mutagenesis vol. 20 no. 6 pp. 417–423, 2005 doi:10.1093/mutage/gei056 Advance Access Publication 29 September 2005.
Busby, C. The Health Effects of Exposure to Uranium and Uranium Weapons Fallout. Documents of the ECRR 2010 No 2 Brussels, 2010

Further suspicion of the official position arises if we ask the logical question: if this low-level waste poses no danger, why spend $1.2 billion cleaning it up? That amount would buy an awful lot of ice rinks and tennis courts for a town like Port Hope. Would it be too much to suggest that the nuclear industry and the government know something they don't want to tell the public about the real danger posed by the "low level waste"?
The official answer is that there “…will be a better socio-economic and natural environment for future generations… For the individual resident, the benefit will be peace of mind, achieved through the removal of questions and potential concerns regarding low-level radioactive waste and contaminated soils on their property or elsewhere, and the knowledge that the material is being managed safely for many generations.” In other words, the scientists know it’s all unnecessary, but politics requires them to appease and comfort an ignorant and emotional public with the theatrics of what will at least be a grand make-work program. It’s just part of the price to pay for the "clean, carbon-free energy" that supplies over half of Ontario’s electricity needs. Additional evidence of this patronizing attitude is seen in the fact that it is impossible to find quantitative data on the contamination in the Port Hope area. Reporters have failed to ask about it, and the contamination is always referred to only as “low-level waste.” Government scientists seem to think that the public could never interpret what measurements imply about health consequences, so it is best not to confuse them with all that talk of sieverts, curies, becquerels and rads. Additionally, the public is not told the inventory of radionuclides and chemical toxins that are in the soil.
And speaking of questions not asked, it’s curious that journalists don't comment on or ask questions about the fact that the federal government, not Cameco, is paying the $1.2 billion cleanup tab. The mining industry's history of walking away from its messes is so well established that we no longer even expect it to be held accountable. It’s beyond the pall to think about it. Instead, Cameco shamelessly boasts about its annual voluntary contribution of $600,000 to community projects in Port Hope. This is equal to the annual salaries of a few engineers, and it would be a tax write-off for a corporation, but somehow many of the residents accept the notion that this is the way to "give back to the community." This method of paying off the locals was a key part of the strategy used by TEPCO and other Japanese futilities in order to defeat local opposition to the construction of nuclear reactors.
One positive thing that can be said for the cleanup effort in Port Hope is that because it is just one town of 16,000 people dealing with a problem that has been around for a long time, the government has been able to be somewhat professional in its protocols for how decontamination work should be done. The government promises:

"… procedures such as routine radiation monitoring, strict waste handling procedures, dust suppression, covered trucks and controlled site access protect both people and the environment. Measures to reduce dust include watering excavation areas (water to be captured and treated), minimizing disturbed ground, installing fencing or other barriers, suspending operations during certain weather conditions and covering exposed construction areas at the end of each day. The supervised crews are trained in specialized waste management methods. Trucks will be inspected for loose contamination and cleaned as required prior to departure from the remediation sites and the long-term waste management site. The natural environment and air quality will be continuously monitored to ensure safety and minimize disruption."

If only the residents of Fukushima had received such respect. Unfortunately, in this case it has been a large-scale emergency and vast contamination. The residents themselves have been told to go out and clean it up with power washers and scrub brushes, without much in the way of protective clothing. A traumatized, bumbling and fumbling nation had no clue how to proceed. This translation of a Japanese government decontamination manual provides a stark contrast with the carefully planned operation in Port Hope:
"… one should use a brush to decontaminate the roof and rain gutters. If the dirt doesn't come off easily, one may wet the surface a little with water with baking soda or with vinegar and scrub. Cleanser is effective on rusty parts."

As Lady Gaga said, pray for Japan.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article on Port Hope, I had no idea this cleanup was happening.