In the last 60 years, uranium has become one of the world’s most important energy minerals. While uranium is almost entirely used for generating electricity, a small proportion is used for the production of medical isotopes.
What is Uranium?
Uranium is a naturally occurring element with an average concentration of 2.8 parts per million in the Earth’s crust. It is a very heavy metal which can be used as a great source of energy. Uranium is composed of different isotopes, those of which are radioactive, and can be very dangerous to mine.
Uranium resources can be extracted from the ground by open pit mining and underground mining.
Open Pit Mining
Also known as strip mining, it is the removal of surface soils and rock to get at the ore below. However, this type of mining is only possible if the uranium ore is less than 400 feet below the surface. An example of an open pit mine is the Jackpile Mine on Laguna Pueblo, which was once the world’s largest open-pit mine.
Underground mining is used to get at higher concentrations of uranium that are too deep into Earth’s surface for open pit mining. The uranium ore is drilled, then blasted to create debris which is then transported to the surface and onto a mill. Although underground mining restricts certain health issues, it’s extremely expensive and has the potential to damage aquifers.
Uranium provides nuclear fuel used to generate electricity in nuclear power stations. It’s also the major material from which other synthetic transuranium elements are made. The military also uses uranium to power nuclear submarines and nuclear weapons.
However, there’s a form of uranium called depleted uranium. Depleted uranium has much less uranium-235 than natural uranium, which makes it considerably less radioactive than natural uranium. Therefore, it can be used as ballast for ships, counterweights for aircraft, ammunition, and armor.
Despite its many uses, there are plenty of drawbacks associated with mining for uranium. The processes used for uranium mining can have pretty dire consequences.
Open-pit mining leaves a large footprint in the wilderness. As a result, waste rock piles can stack upon each other and grow, which may be uneconomic-friendly to effectively mine and once exposed to the atmosphere, they become hazardous to the environment. The required remediation can be extremely costly and time consuming, as well as groundwater restoration. To the miners’, their health can suffer due to dust and radon exposure. Not only the miners’ are affected, however. Nearby communities also suffer negative health effects due to dust, noise, and other issues such as drainage ponds breaking.
Underground mining is extremely expensive, after all, having to drill all that way underground can be very costly. It has the potential to seriously damage local aquifers and is expensive to remediate. Dust, radon, and diesel fumes are also a serious threat to miners’ health because of poor ventilation.
An improvement to these problems, mainly those for the miners’ and communities surrounding the mine, is to create a better and more efficient ventilation system that won’t trap dust, radon, and other fumes that would otherwise damage their health. More cost-efficient processes are being developed to provide better mining techniques, while being cost-friendly.