Published on
the Ottawa Citizen

Nuclear Radiation Is Forever

Helen Caldicott and Dale Dewar

Like most Ontario towns, Port Hope, on the shores of Lake Ontario, has a water treatment plant supplying its drinking water. Incredibly, adjacent to this plant is a huge factory now owned by Cameco. The factory hovers over this picturesque town, emitting uranium gas and dust into the air and Lake Ontario as it manufactures uranium fuel rods for export.

Port Hope is the deep dark underbelly of the Canadian nuclear industry, representing dangers that so far, have escaped sufficient scrutiny and cleanup.

Eighty years ago, Port Hope was introduced to the nuclear age when the Labine brothers began refining radium from pitchblend mined at Great Bear Lake. Radium is a radioactive decay product of uranium and this process produced much radioactive waste over the years.

In the early 1940s, the federal government co-opted the refinery-- renamed Eldorado -- on the shores of Lake Ontario to produce uranium for the first nuclear weapons made by the U.S. Port Hope continued supplying uranium for U.S. weapons until 1957.

The facility was then used to refine uranium for fuel rods in nuclear reactors around the world.

Hundreds of thousands of tons of waste containing many radioactive carcinogenic elements -- including uranium, radium, radon, and polonium which accrued at the factory site, were randomly dispersed throughout the town in ravines and playing fields and used as landfill and building materials in foundations for schools and other public buildings.

When St. Mary's School was discovered to be highly polluted with radon gas in 1975, it was promptly closed. Such an outcry followed that the federal government excavated 200,000 tons of severely contaminated soil from 400 properties and exported it to Chalk River. However two million to 3.5 million cubic metres still remain in the town in huge radioactive dumps, under buildings, on the beach and in the fishing harbour. Other towns were asked to take this material but all declined -- so it will be excavated yet again over 10 years and moved a short distance to a dump within town boundaries which drains into the lake and is adjacent to Highway 401. Nuclear waste can never be re-mediated, just moved.

Contrary to statements provided by federal government agencies and Cameco, no level of radiation is safe and it is cumulative -- each dose adds to the risk of cancer. Children are 10 to 20 times more radiosensitive than adults, and fetuses are extremely sensitive.

Uranium waste is radioactive for billions of years, decaying sequentially to radioactive elements ( "daughters"), all of which can induce cancer or genetic diseases when entering the human body as hot spots or "internal emitters."

Two of the most dangerous are:

1. Radon gas which seeps continuously from uranium-contaminated soil into houses, playing fields, schools etc. When inhaled, radon emits alpha particles delivering high-level radiation to surrounding cells -- possibly inducing cancer decades later. The incubation period for cancer is long -- between five to 60 years.

2. Radium, an alpha emitter, is also a uranium daughter whose toxicity lasts for 16,000 years, and concentrates thousands of times in the food chain, including fish, fruit and vegetables. It is absorbed from the gut, and, like calcium, deposits in bone where it can induce bone cancer or leukemia.

Many uranium daughters also emit gamma radiation like X-rays-- which can induce cancer or genetic mutations in the sperm and eggs to be transferred to future generations causing diseases such as diabetes, mental retardation or cystic fibrosis.

No long-term scientific peer-reviewed epidemiological studies of Port Hope have ever been conducted. However a number of partial studies suggest an increased incidence of cancer including lung cancer in women, brain cancer in women and children, childhood leukemia, arterio-vascular disease in women, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, nasopharyngeal cancer and others. The population has never been tested for radium or uranium excretion in their urine.

At the beginning of the nuclear age, the relationship between radiation and genes was little understood. Subsequently the "acceptable safe levels of exposure" have been substantially decreased seven times. In the 1950s, the World Health Organization recognized the potential risk but, remarkably, was prevented from conducting research into the human health effects of radiation by a 1959 agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Incredibly, relevant research simply has not been done to date. Port Hope stands today as the canary in the coal mine and our generation has been turning its back on a potentially deadly threat to the human species. Nuclear waste is forever radioactive, and forever is a very long time. Action must be taken before it's too late.

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Helen Caldicott is founding president Physicians for Social Responsibility. Dale Dewar is executive director of Physicians for Global Survival.

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