How Uranium Mining Works

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 on the next page for more on uranium mining.

More to Explore