While nuclear energy is unique, uranium, its primary fuel, occurs naturally within the earth much like other, better understood energy sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas. In each case, extracting the fuel is an essential first step in the production of power. Despite the similarities, uranium mining can seem dangerous for many. This is due largely to the misperception that natural uranium is highly radioactive and therefore dangerous. As The Heritage Foundation’s new video shows, these are just misperceptions. Uranium mining is safely conducted around the world in countries like Canada and Australia every day.
Nonetheless, many still have questions about uranium mining.
Is uranium mining and milling safe for workers?
In a word, yes.
The fact is that uranium mining is comparable to mining for other elements and the same safety precautions that keep other miners safe also keep uranium miners safe. And, while uranium is radioactive, its very low level of radioactivity is actually on par with some everyday materials like granite. Still, as is the case throughout the nuclear industry, specific precautions are taken given the radioactivity of uranium ore and its toxicity.
Though radioactive substances can be dangerous, they can be safely worked with. Three factors are generally considered in protection against radiation: time, distance and shielding. By reducing the time spent with the material, distancing themselves from the radioactive source, and using protective barriers, mine workers can all but eliminate the effects of radiation, protecting their own health and safety, as well as that of the public. For example, mine workers monitor the amount of time spent in the area and distance themselves from the radioactive materials by the use of remote-controlled machinery. And the waste materials produced during the mining process, called tailings, are contained by placing them in pools where the water acts as an effective barrier.
It is also important to put radiation exposure in context. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the average person on an annual basis is exposed to about 620 millirem (mrem), a unit to measure radiation exposure. About half of this comes from natural sources like space and from within earth, while the other half comes from man-made sources like industrial applications and medical procedures. Each year, the average uranium worker is exposed to between 400 and 500 mrem of radiation. But, keep in mind that a person can be exposed to up to 5,000 mrem without any adverse health effects. For example, a study done in Canada followed uranium workers for 50 years and concluded that uranium workers were generally as healthy as the broader population.
How does uranium become useable nuclear fuel?
After the uranium has been mined, it must be milled to extract the uranium from the rest of the minerals and substances that came out with it. This is accomplished by crushing the uranium and dissolving it into a liquid to create a uranium-rich solution. This solution is then dried out to create a powder called yellow-cake which is sent on to the next phase in nuclear fuel production.
Is it safe for the environment?
In addition to the general environmental regulations for mining operations, uranium mines have additional regulations addressing the waste materials. The waste products from mining and milling, or tailings, are often the concern of environmentalists. During the mining process, the tailings are stored in retention ponds and dams to prevent environmental damage. After the mining there has finished, further remediation efforts are undertaken to ensure that surface radiation is returned to pre-mining levels.
In addition, mining operations make an effort to return the land to its original appearance or adapt it to other uses. For example, a mine site in Queensland, Australia upon the completion of the operation turned the area into a cattle ranch; the project even won an award for engineering excellence.
Learn more about uranium mining and its fundamental role in the fuel cycle of nuclear energy in the new video “Uranium Mining and Milling.” Heritage also explores the science behind nuclear energy and its role in the American energy landscape in the 40-minute film Powering America.