Uranium Mining and Fuel
What is Uranium?
Uranium is a heavy metal that is used as the fuel source for nuclear power plants. It is more commonly found on the earth than elements like gold or silver. One single pound of uranium has as much energy stored in it as three million pounds of coal, but this energy density comes with a cost, uranium is radioactive.
Uranium occurs naturally as three different isotopes, U-238, U-235, and U-234. Uranium-238 is the most plentiful isotope accounting for 99.27% of all uranium found on earth, while U-234 accounts for only .0059%. U-235 accounts for just .72% of all isotopes in naturally occurring uranium, yet it is the ideal isotope for the nuclear fission process because it is the only uranium isotope that splits and achieves fission. This is why U-235 is used in nuclear power plants to create the energy used to produce electricity.
Due to the rarity of U-235, uranium must go through an enrichment process to increase the percentage of U-235 present before it can be used as fuel in atomic reactors. In short, enrichment works by isolating the desired isotopes from the undesirable isotopes and removing them. Depending on how much the uranium is enriched it could be used for a nuclear power plant or if it is highly enriched to 93% then it is used to create a nuclear weapon.
The Mining Process:
There are three main methods of mining uranium, or any mineral for that matter. The first is open pit mining, also known as strip mining. It is a cheap mining method and also an extremely environmentally damaging process, as large swaths of earth are stripped away to reveal the mineral deposits. It is mostly used if the mineral deposits are within 400-feet of the surface. The grade of the desired mineral that is recovered is relatively low compared to other mining processes, meaning more ore needs to be mined and refined in a process called milling in order to achieve the same yields as other mining method. Strip mining is often used to mine coal or lignite, sometimes referred to as brown coal, as well as uranium.
When you think of the mining process, you most likely think of dark labyrinth of winding tunnels, this method is referred to as underground mining and while it's surface imprint is not as noticeable as strip mining, don't be fooled into thinking it has little environmental impact. There is a serious risk of polluting underground aquifers and groundwater reservoirs, which are almost impossible to remediate. Miners also are at risk from being exposed to fine dust, radon, radiation, and diesel fuel fumes from machines, which can lead to serious and deadly health conditions like cancers and pneumoconiosis, which causes scarring of the lungs. Miners also face other dangers such as cave-ins. You can learn more about the risks posed to miners here.
The preferred method of mining uranium is called In-situ Recover (ISR) because it is the cheapest method of uranium mining and it has a smaller footprint than the previous methods. ISR involves pumping an oxygen rich solution into a uranium deposit. The oxygen oxidizes and dissolves the uranium trapped in porous formations. The uranium-enriched solution is then pumped back to the surface where the uranium is removed from the solution. Workers are exposed to less radiation in ISR than other methods, but it is still possible to contaminate groundwater and aquifers with the uranium solution.
There are several other mining methods, but these three represent the methods most often used for uranium mining. Each method has certain advantages, but none are without their own disadvantages and significant environmental risk. The price for uranium has fallen quite a bit in recent years coming from a high of $136/lbs. to just around $23/lbs. making uranium mining a much less lucrative operation than it once was. It is important to remember that while Nuclear Power Plants don't release CO2 directly into the atmosphere during their operation, there is still a considerable amount released over the course of each nuclear plant’s life from secondary sources like during the power plants construction and uranium mining processes.
Is uranium plentiful and does mining it produce dangerous waste?
When uranium is discovered in the earth’s crust, normally the ore is 99.9% dirt and 0.1% Uranium. Remember that the total uranium in the dirt (U-238 and 235) contains only 0.7% of all the uranium mined. In other words, when 1,000,000 pounds of dirt is mined, only 1000 pounds will contain uranium (0.1%). The uranium must be removed from the dirt by using strong acids yielding only 7-pounds of that as U-235. So, mining one million pounds of earth will yield only 7-pounds of U-235. Each nuclear reactor consumes hundreds of pounds of U-235 yearly, so mining enough uranium for the worlds’ 450 nuclear reactors is a huge endeavor.
Once the raw uranium has been removed, the waste material left behind is called “mill tailings”. This leftover dirt is both acidic and radioactive, containing a mix of heavy metals and radium, and it presents its own safety risks. As the radium decays over thousands of years, tailings produce the radioactive gas radon. The tailings are left in piles often in trenches or in former pit mines that fit the NRCs standards.
More than 93-million tons of mill tailings caused an earthen dam to collapse at Church Rock New Mexico in 1979, which continues to contaminate land below that is more than 80-miles away. At another old mill tailing site at Moab, Utah, disposal of mill tails will cost the US government more than $1 Billion, far in excess of the value of the uranium that was removed, and it is an expense that will now be absorbed by all U.S. taxpayers and not the corporations that created the uranium waste.
Health and Safety:
Uranium mining is known to have seriously negative effects on the people who live in the nearby communities as well as those who worked in the mines, but its effects aren’t necessarily immediate as cancers and other diseases can take awhile to develop. Groundwater has become contaminated, but because radioactivity is not visible, like in an oil spill, nearby residents are accidentally contaminating themselves and their farm animals or pets for years via the water they drink and the air they breathe.
The Uranium Mining industry takes a similar stance to the fracking industry, claiming their procedures are entirely safe and that no one in the surrounding communities are at risk from the mine operations. This is compounded by the fact that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) only talks about the risks in difficult to understand terminology that makes it almost impossible to see how toxic and dangerous leftover mine waste is.
What we've seen in some of these heavily fracked and mined communities do not fit the industry's line, citizens are getting seriously ill from drinking their tap water. To see the effects that Uranium mines can have on these communities, we encourage you to watch the documentary Hot Water, by Lizbeth Rogers, in which the filmmakers travel to "South Dakota following a story of uranium contamination- only to discover that the problem flows much farther and runs much deeper than they could have imagined." Watch the trailer below.
To see Fairewinds' reports and videos about uranium mining fuel click on the button below