Uranium Mining: Hazards for the Environment
As you can imagine, uranium mining requires physically manipulating the ground in some way.
So how do companies and governments ensure mining practices don't negatively affect local ecosystems and wildlife? How do businesses and citizens share public land, especially if it's a natural landmark such as the Grand Canyon?
The environmental effects of uranium mining remain a controversial talking point. Tailings, which are leftover pieces of ore and byproducts from mills, can contain radon, radium, thorium, polonium and sometimes arsenic.
Perhaps the most serious concern is water quality. U.S. mines abandoned before the mid-1970s are deemed the most dangerous because tailings were left on site and were never properly disposed of [source: EPA]. There's also the risk of toxic and radioactive material being carried by rain and wind.
Both the mining process and abandoned mines have had negative effects on the health and land quality of nearby communities, particularly throughout Navajo lands in the United States [sources: Frosch; Amundson].
Balancing human and environmental interests lies at the heart of the uranium mining debate. On average, uranium mining sites last roughly 30 years, providing locals with jobs and economic opportunity. Individual mines last approximately seven years before becoming depleted [source: Deery].
The short-term economic benefits of mining for small towns become apparent as well.
"It brings 35 and 40 people into town with above average salaries," said Rick Deery, a geologist and mining law leader at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "They're going to buy stuff ... they're going to support indirect jobs."
Other people don't think the long-term effects on the environment justify uranium mining, while supporters of the practice say uranium represents a cleaner form of energy than coal or oil [source: Hunter].
Still, tighter regulations and Superfund projects have sought to clean up uranium mines. Companies usually commit to reclamation bonds, or a type of collateral that ensures enough money will be put toward to cleanup efforts after the mining process ends [source: Office of Service Mining Reclamation and Enforcement]. Remediation typically involves cleaning up waste from a site, while reclamation seeks to restore the area back to its natural state.
Violating land management rules established by the government can result in a hefty fine -- upward of $200,000. "For the most part, the mining industry has got too much invested in these operations to screw up," said Deery " ... If they get put out of business, nobody's ever going to hire them again."
Prospectors and novices alike: Check out the resources below for more on uranium mining.
More Great Links
- Amundson, Michael. "History of Uranium Mining." Personal Interview. Nov. 2, 2011.
- Amundson, Michael. "Mining the Grand Canyon to Save It: The Orphan Lode Uranium Mine and National Security." The Western Historical Quarterly. Vol. 32, no. 3. 2001.
- Argonne National Laboratory. "Chemical Forms of Uranium." Depleted UF6. (Nov. 5, 2011) http://web.ead.anl.gov/uranium/guide/ucompound/forms/index.cfm
- Argonne National Laboratory. "Uranium." Human Health Fact Sheet. August 2005. (Oct. 27, 2011) http://www.ead.anl.gov/pub/doc/Uranium.pdf
- Athabasca Catering. "Site Locations." (Nov. 9, 2011) http://www.athabascacatering.com/sites.htm
- Australian Government. "Uranium Fact Sheet." Australian Atlas of Minerals Resources, Mines & Processing Centres. (Nov. 2, 2011) http://www.australianminesatlas.gov.au/education/fact_sheets/uranium.jsp
- British Columbia Crown Land Administration Division. "Mineral Exploration." Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management Economic Development Branch. March 2003. (Nov. 4, 2011) http://www.al.gov.bc.ca/clad/strategic_land/blocks/cabinet/mineral_exploration.pdf
- Canadian Nuclear Association. "History of Uranium." Canada's Nuclear History. (Oct. 27, 2011) http://www.cna.ca/curriculum/cna_can_nuc_hist/uranium_hist-eng.asp?bc=History%20of%20Uranium&pid=History%20of%20Uranium
- Deery, Rick. "Uranium Mining; Bureau of Land Management." Personal interview. Nov. 4, 2011.
- FactCheck.org. "Bush's 16 Words on Iraq & Uranium: He May Have Been Wrong, But He Wasn't Lying." Aug. 23, 2004. (Nov. 5, 2011) http://www.factcheck.org/bushs_16_words_on_iraq_uranium.html
- Frosch, Dan. "Uranium Contamination Haunts Navajo Country." The New York Times. July 26, 2009. (Oct. 27, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/27/us/27navajo.html
- Gordon, Julie. "Factbox: Top Global Producers of Uranium." Reuters. March 14, 2011. (Oct. 27, 2011) http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/14/japan-quake-uranium-idUSN1418047020110314
- Hunter, Erik. "Uranium Mining." Personal interview. Nov. 2, 2011.
- Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Glossary of Nuclear Science Terms." Nov. 18, 2004. (Nov. 4, 2011) http://www.lbl.gov/abc/Glossary.html
- National Mining Association. "Annual Mining Wages Vs. All Industries, 2010." September 2011. (Nov. 9, 2011) http://www.nma.org/pdf/m_wages.pdf
- Newfoundland Labrador DNR. "A Prospector's Guide to Uranium Deposits in Newfoundland and Labrador." Geological Survey of Newfoundland and Labrador. September 2007. (Nov. 2, 2011) http://www.nr.gov.nl.ca/nr/mines/prospector/matty_mitchell/pdf/prospecting_for_uranium.pdf
- New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. "Radium, Radon, and Uranium: Health Information Summary." Environmental Fact Sheet. 2007. (Oct. 27, 2011). http://des.nh.gov/organization/commissioner/pip/factsheets/ard/documents/ard-ehp-22.pdf
- Nuclear Energy Agency. "Latest Data Shows Long-Term Security of Uranium Supply." July 20, 2010. (Nov. 5, 2011) http://www.oecd-nea.org/press/2010/2010-03.html
- Nuclear Energy Institute. "Nuclear Power Plant Fuel." (Nov. 5, 2011) http://www.nei.org/howitworks/nuclearpowerplantfuel/
- Nuclear Energy Institute. "Radon Safety Measures in Uranium Mining." February 2010. (Nov. 2, 2011) http://www.nei.org/resourcesandstats/documentlibrary/safetyandsecurity/factsheet/radon-safety-measures-in-uranium-mining/
- Nuclear Energy Institute. "World Statistics." (Nov. 9, 2011) http://www.nei.org/resourcesandstats/nuclear_statistics/worldstatistics/
- Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. "Performance Bonds." July 20, 2011. (Nov. 5, 2011) http://www.osmre.gov/topic/bonds/BondsOverview.shtm
- Parker, Hayley. "Uranium Mining in San Juan County, Utah." Utah State. Historical Society. (Nov. 9, 2011) http://history.utah.gov/historical_society/history_fair/documents/ALLOFTHEHISTORYPAPER.pdf
- United States Enrichment Cooperation. "Megatons to Megawatts" Sept. 30, 2011. (Nov. 5, 2011) http://usec.com/megatonstomegawatts.htm
- United States Environmental Protection Agency. "Uranium Mines." RadTown USA. (Oct. 28, 2011) http://www.epa.gov/radtown/docs/uranium-mines.pdf
- United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Uranium Conversion." March 31, 2011. (Nov. 2, 2011) http://www.nrc.gov/materials/fuel-cycle-fac/ur-conversion.html
- U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. "Legislative History of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946." 1965. (Nov. 5, 2011) http://www.osti.gov/atomicenergyact.pdf
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Uravan Uranium Project (Union Carbide)." Superfund Program. June 15, 2011. (Nov. 5, 2011) http://www.epa.gov/region08/superfund/co/uravan/
- U.S. Natural Resources Committee. "Witnesses Testify on Importance of American Uranium Production." Nov. 3, 2011. (Nov. 10, 2011) http://naturalresources.house.gov/News/DocumentSingle.aspx?DocumentID=267554
- Wilson, Joseph. "What I didn't Find in Africa." The New York Times. July 6, 2003. (Oct. 27, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/06/opinion/what-i-didn-t-find-in-africa.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
- World Nuclear Association. "Australia's Uranium Mines." November 2011. (Nov. 10, 2011) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/australia_mines/emines.html
- World Nuclear Association. "Radioisotopes and Medicine." October 2011. (Nov. 9, 2011) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf55.html
- World Nuclear Association. "What is uranium? How does it work?" February 2011. (Oct. 27, 2011) http://www.world-nuclear.org/education/uran.htm