Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Paladin spills Uranium in Karonga

Sunduzwayo Madise

Let me start by some basic nuclear physics to put my argument in context. Uranium contains [high] ionising radiation. Ionising radiation is radiation that can change the composition of living material, It can lead to mutation of genes, which may be genetically passed on to off-springs. Half-life is the time it takes a radioactive material to reduce it to have its strength at the time of counting. The substance does this by decaying. For uranium 238 this is a whooping  4.47 billion years and 704 million for Uranium 235. Uranium 238 comprises 99+% and Uranium 235 comprise under 1% of the naturally occurring uranium. When the uranium decays, it slowly emits alpha particles and it is the alpha particles that 'interfere with your body and living tissue! It is these particles that cause cause your cells to change and mutate. It is these particles that can burn you re sterilize you! In comparison X-rays are low energy radiation. The rays bombard your body and the picture is capture on film. The way your body matter interacts with the x-tays will show what the x-ray has passed through. That is why pregnant women are not allowed to be x-rayed! It is to protect the foetus from the harmful ionising radiation!

There is therefore a reason why Uranium mining is sensitive business. Uranium is used to produce nuclear bombs through a process called fission. This is achieved by splitting the Uranium nucleus into smaller nuclei and in the process releasing a lot of energy. This is usually done through a process of enriching the uranium, making it more potent. The energy released by fission can also be used and harnessed to supply power. the major industries of the world use uranium power power plants. The accident that happened in Chernobyl is a good example of why this invisible stuff is not to be messed with. Decades late, the Chenoboly reactor still lies up in a catacomb and the surrounding town is still a no-go zone, the living tissues therein still reeking radiation!

So the story that mining giant Paladin had a spill of Uranium in Karonga should not be taken lightly. One cannot see or smell Uranium. Therefore it is not good enough to say, the soil around the spill was collected and removed. What else has been done? What has the Environmental Department done? And this raises the question, how safe is the means of transportation of the Uranium from Karonga, in Malawi by road to Walvis Bay in Namibia? And is there any pro-processing of the Uranium ore? If the container can puncture in such a relatively 'small' accident, what about if it was vehicular to vehicular accident or worse? What mechanisms are there to combat any radiation fall-out?

I think it is time to restart the Uranium debate in earnest, and this time the safety of Malawians and those countries where the Uranium passes through must be our focus.

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