Radiation in the floor, radiation in the bed -- the invisible hazards of early uranium miners
Imagine living in a radioactive house, or sleeping on a radioactive mattress.
According to Professor Susan Dawson, this was not an uncommon thing in the 1950s, when uranium workers paid little attention to the health hazards related to their jobs.
On Wednesday night,Utah State Professor Gary Madsen spoke with Dawson on their research and findings on the effects of uranium, while a crowded room of USU students sat half-astonished at what little protection was used in the handling of the radioactive materials.
According to Dawson. uranium goes through four stages in the nuclear industry. First comes the mining, where the ore is dug out of the land. Second, a milling process separates the chemical elements from waste material. Third is an enrichment process for the chemicals, and finally there's fuel fabrication. This is the process by which the uranium is turned into actual fissionable material that commonly used as fuel for other power plants and in atomic bombs.
Different than coal mining, uranium mines are shallow and according to Dawson one might dig over a hundred uranium mines in a lifetime. Mines in Utah supplied the uranium used in one of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II.
Today many of these mines still exist and while a few have been properly closed off, many are left wide open. These mines, according to Dawson, pose a physical threat to children who like to play inside of them, as well as livestock who tend to wander in and out. Madsen said these mines are not only physically dangerous, but chemically dangerous as well, as they still contain hazardous material and waste.
Dawson and Madsen presented a slide show along with their findings, and in the slides showed pictures of both the miners, who wore little or no protective covering, or the mines themselves with rooms that had no kind of seal keeping the substance from spreading into other parts of the mine. In fact, the "yellow cake," the powdery substance leftover from the mining process, was put into huge canvas bags and then carried outside.
Madsen noted that several miners quite often took these canvas bags home, and the miners' wives would sew them into mattresses.
Radioactive mattresses, that is.
Dawson was quick to note that today's miners would have worn moonsuits and would have worked in a sealed room with a negative airflow preventing the element from seeping out into other rooms.
The two professors also told a story about a man and his family who were forced to move out of their house after the government discovered the underblock, used in the building of the house, was made out of uranium tailings. And while the government was quick to push them out and even build them a new house right next door, it seemed funny that the old house stood vacant right along side of the new one, and no one bothered to tear it down or remove the source of radiation.
It is no wonder then, why so many of these workers often suffered horrible aftereffects, such as lung cancer or non-malignant respiratory diseases. According to Madsen, "Ninety-eight percent of almost everyone who did that job is dead."
Both Madsen and Dawson have been called to testify to the Senate on a compensation bill, hoping to compensate victims and families who worked in the mines. Thinking it would only take a couple of years, the two were excited to note that the bill passed, but its success was short lived, when they discovered it did not include all uranium workers, such as those driving to and from the mines.
Thus, the two professors continue in what has been an 11-year journey. According to Madsen, uranium," has no smell, no taste," and that makes it almost impossible for you to know if you are contaminated.