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Talk to Terrie: Conversation with a Uranium Miner

June 23, 2021

June 23, 2021

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With the current push to expand and reform the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), I realized that I knew very little about uranium mining.  I reached out to Ron Pene, a former uranium miner and a fellow advocate.  He was happy to share his knowledge and experience.

Mr. Pene began his mining career in 1956 at the tender age of 9 years old.  Yes, you read that right.  He was 9 years old!  His father owned a uranium mine.  Family-owned uranium mines was quite common during that era.  The father taught his twin sons how to prepare the caps and fuses that were necessary to blast the rock to uncover the vein uranium ore.

After graduating high school in 1964, Mr. Pene tried working at other jobs not related to uranium mining.  He was not happy and not making enough money.  As he explained, “I just love it [uranium mining].  Mining gets in your blood.”

He went on to say that, back then, there was no loyalty to a specific mine or company.  “I didn’t work with one company for long.  If the mine across the street or across the canyon was paying ten cents an hour more, I picked up my diggers and hard hat and went to work for them.”

Mr. Pene worked strictly in underground uranium mines.  He said a lot of work was done just to get ready to mine the uranium.  His mining experience was with the stope and pillar method and he relayed that at one mine where he worked, the shaft from ground level where the mining would take place was 2400 feet straight down. What fascinated me was his description that the miners would use the hoist bucket and be lowered down the shaft.  He also said that they communicated with the surface by using bells and buzzers.  For instance, the signal of one bell, followed by two bells, and ending with one bell meant that a bucket of “muck” was coming out.

Possible physical hazards, exposure pathways, and contamination associated with uranium mine sites.  Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy Legacy Management.

He was a miner until around 1980.  I asked him about what types of personal protective equipment (PPE) was available to him.  He chuckled.  “We didn’t get safety glasses until 1968.  Truck drivers were the first to get respirators, around 1970.  Until that time all we had was our hard hats.”

We discussed the proposed RECA legislation to extend coverage for uranium workers beyond 1971.  Mr. Pene said, “I would love that.  I know some of those workers are suffering real bad right now.”  He went on to explain that the methods, lack of PPE, and equipment didn’t change between 1971 and 1990.

He expressed his gratitude that he qualified under RECA.  Several years ago, he developed two separate lung cancers and a cancer on his vocal cords.  Because he was approved under RECA, he automatically became eligible for medical benefits as well as financial benefits for his whole- body impairment under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program (EEOICP).  He hopes that Congress will see the need to expand and extend the RECA program to help other uranium workers and quickly pass the legislation.