Aborigines and Uranium: Monitoring the Health Hazards

Aborigines and Uranium: Monitoring the Health Hazards Report

AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper

  • Author(s): Colin Tatz, Alan Cass, John Condon, George Tippett
  • Published: 2006
  • Publisher: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies; Native Title Research Unit
  • Volume: AIATSIS Research Publications

Abstract: The Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy Review Draft Report deals with Health and Safety issues (Chapter 6) and with Environmental Impacts (Chapter 7). At p.63, the report states that ‘there are legacy problems associated with the Nuclear industry’, and that ‘protecting the people must be a high priority’. The report notes that ‘there may be incidents at the mines that give rise to non-routine radiation exposure’ and that at Ranger ‘incidents occurred in 1983 and 2004’ (p.71). In this context, the Review raises the complex question of how risk is perceived, and how the public and the experts at times have different perceptions of risk. This paper specifically addresses several of the issues that come within the Review’s terms of reference. It may differ from most of the submissions and consultations to date in that it deals with essentially one critical case study of a definable Aboriginal community living in the vicinity of uranium mining and milling. But it also offers a positive model for the ongoing monitoring of health protection and prevention measures that could be adopted for uranium mining operations elsewhere in Australia. Uranium has been mined and milled in a Northern Territory Aboriginal domain — the Kakadu Region — for the past three decades, ostensibly under ‘strictly controlled conditions’. Have uranium operations adversely affected Aboriginal health in the Region? High doses of radiation are known to cause cancers, foetal damage, congenital malformations and even to retard cognitive development. We know less about the effects of low doses, but any community-protection program must assume some degree of health risk. Radiation can enter the body by ingestion of local food and water, by inhaling radioactive gases and airborne dust, and by irradiation from external sources. Since 1981, three years after mining began, at least 120 ‘mishaps’ and ‘occurrences’ — leakages, spillages of contaminated water, and breaches of regulations — have occurred. The Office of the Supervising Scientist has consistently claimed no harm to either the environment or human health — a claim difficult to substantiate. Since completion of the AIATSIS social impact monitoring report in 1984, there has been no monitoring of the social and physical impact on Aboriginal health and well-being, and no agency has specifically investigated the impacts on Aboriginal health. Exploratory research undertaken in 2005 and 2006 has found a significant overall increase in the incidence of cancer among Aboriginal people in the Kakadu region — some ninety per cent greater than would be expected. We could not determine possible effects on maternal and child health because data on congenital malformations and stillbirths were not available. Existing data sets are not adequate to identify a definitive cause for the increased cancer incidence. There could be reasons for the high cancer rates other than proximity to uranium mining and milling. However, in the light of this lack of knowledge, we submit that there is an urgent need for continued, comprehensive monitoring of health wherever uranium mining occurs, and for at least twenty years after mines cease operation. Our suggested model for ongoing monitoring would cost a few hundred thousand dollars per year. The proposal is neither radical nor expensive. It makes better sense — in human, political, economic and, eventually, legal terms — to monitor and to control potential hazards than to treat the toxic effects of radiation exposure.

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Suggested Citation
Colin Tatz, Alan Cass, John Condon, George Tippett, 2006, Aborigines and Uranium: Monitoring the Health Hazards, Volume:AIATSIS Research Publications, Report, viewed 15 August 2022, https://www.nintione.com.au/?p=3290.

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