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The Ranger Uranium Mine in Australia.


Uranium mining is the process of extraction of uranium ore from the ground. As uranium ore is mostly present at relatively low concentrations, most uranium mining is very volume-intensive, and thus tends to be undertaken as open-pit mining. It is also undertaken in only a small number of countries of the world, as the resource is rare.

The worldwide production of uranium in 2008 amounted to 43,853 tonnes, of which 20% was mined in Canadamarker. Canada, Kazakhstanmarker, and Australia are the top three producers and together account for 59% of world uranium production. Other important uranium producing countries in excess of 1000 tonnes per year are Namibiamarker, Russiamarker, Nigermarker, Uzbekistanmarker, and the United Statesmarker.

A prominent use of uranium from mining is as fuel for nuclear power plants. As of 2008, known uranium ore resources which can be mined at about current costs are estimated to be sufficient to produce fuel for about a century, based on current consumption rates.

After mining uranium ores, they are normally processed by grinding the ore materials to a uniform particle size and then treating the ore to extract the uranium by chemical leaching. The milling process commonly yields dry powder-form material consisting of natural uranium, "yellowcake," which is sold on the uranium market as U3O8.

History

Uranium minerals were noticed by miners for a long time prior to the discovery of uranium in 1789. The uranium mineral pitchblende, also known as uraninite, was reported from the Erzgebirge Ore Mountainsmarker, Saxonymarker, as early as 1565. Other early reports of pitchblende date from 1727 in Joachimsthalmarker and 1763 in Schwarzwaldmarker.

In the early 1800s, uranium ore was recovered as a by-product of mining in Saxonymarker, Bohemia, and Cornwallmarker. The first deliberate mining of radioactive ores took place in Jáchymovmarker, also known by its German name Joachimsthalmarker, a silver-mining city in what is now the Czech Republicmarker. Marie Curie used pitchblende ore from Jáchymov to isolate the element radium, a decay product of uranium; her death was from aplastic anemia, almost certainly due to exposure to radioactivity. Until World War II uranium mining was done primarily for the radium content. Sources for radium, contained in the uranium ore, were sought for use as luminous paint for watch dials and other instruments, as well as for health-related applications, some of which in retrospect were incredibly unhealthy. The byproduct uranium was used mostly as a yellow pigment.

In the United Statesmarker, the first radium/uranium ore was discovered in 1871 in gold mines near Central City, Coloradomarker. This district produced about 50 tons of high grade ore between 1871 and 1895. However, most American uranium ore before World War II came from vanadium deposits on the Colorado Plateau of Utahmarker and Coloradomarker.

In Cornwallmarker, the South Terras Mine near St. Stephen opened for uranium production in 1873, and produced about 175 tons of ore before 1900. Other early uranium mining occurred in Autunois in France's Massif Centralmarker, Oberpfalz in Bavariamarker, and Billingenmarker in Swedenmarker.

The Shinkolobwemarker deposit in Katangamarker, Belgian Congo now Shaba Provincemarker, Zairemarker was discovered in 1913, and exploited by the Union Minière du Haut Katanga. Other important early deposits include Port Radium, near Great Bear Lakemarker, Canada discovered in 1931, along with Beira Province, Portugal; Tyuya Muyun, Uzbekistanmarker, and Radium Hillmarker, Australia.

Because of the need for the uranium for bomb research during World War II, the Manhattan Project used a variety of sources for the element. The Manhattan Project initially purchased uranium ore from the Belgian Congo, through the Union Minière du Haut Katanga. Later the project contracted with vanadium mining companies in the American Southwest. Purchases were also made from the Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited company in Canada. This company had large stocks of uranium as waste from its radium refining activities.

American uranium ores mined in Colorado were mixed ores of vanadium and uranium, but because of wartime secrecy the Manhattan Project would only publicly admit to purchasing the vanadium, and did not pay the uranium miners for the uranium content. In a much later lawsuit, many miners were able to reclaim lost profits from the U.S. government. American ores had much lower uranium concentrations than the ore from the Belgian Congo, but they were pursued vigorously to ensure nuclear self-sufficiency.

Similar efforts were undertaken in the Soviet Unionmarker, which did not have native stocks of uranium when it started developing its own atomic weapons program.

Intensive exploration for uranium started after the end of World War II as a result of the military and civilian demand for uranium. There were three separate periods of uranium exploration or "booms." These were from 1956 to 1960, 1967 to 1971, and from 1976 to 1982 .

In the 20th century the United States was the world's largest uranium producer. Grants Uranium District in northwestern New Mexico was the largest United States uranium producer. The Gas Hills Uranium District, was the second largest uranium producer. The famous Lucky Mc Mine is located in the Gas Hills near Riverton, Wyoming. Canada has since surpassed the United States as the cumulative largest producer in the world.

By territory

2007 uranium mining, by nationality.
Data is taken from [1].


Oceania

Australia

Production in Australia rose significantly to 10,115 tU3O8 (22.3 million pounds) in 2007 from 19.7 million pounds in 2006, securing its position as the second largest uranium producing country, most of the production gain coming from increased operational performance and an increase in the grade of the ore mined.

Australia has the world's largest uranium reserves - 24 percent of the planet's known reserves. The majority of these reserves are located in South Australia with other important deposits in Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Almost all the uranium is exported under strict International Atomic Energy Agencymarker safeguards to satisfy the Australian people and government that none of the uranium is used in nuclear weapons. Australian uranium is used strictly for electricity production.

The Olympic Dam operation run by BHP Billiton in South Australiamarker is combined with mining of copper, gold, and silver, and has reserves of global significance. There are currently three operating uranium mines in Australia, and several more have been proposed. The expansion of Australia's uranium mines is supported by the Federal Australian Labor Party (ALP) Government headed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The ALP abandoned its long-standing and controversial "no new uranium mines" policy in April 2007. One of the more controversial proposals was Jabilukamarker, to be built surrounded by the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Parkmarker. The existing Ranger Uranium Minemarker is also surrounded by the National Park as the mine area was not included in the original listing of the Park.

Uranium mining and export and related nuclear issues have often been the subject of public debate, and the anti-nuclear movement in Australia has a long history.

North America

Canada

Canada is the largest exporter of uranium ore, with the largest mines located in Athabasca Basin in northern Saskatchewanmarker.

Canada's first uranium discovery was in the Alona Bay area, south of Lake Superior Provincial Parkmarker in Ontario, by Dr. John Le Conte in 1847. But the Canadian uranium industry really began with the 1932 discovery of pitchblende at Port Radium, Northwest Territories. The deposit was mined from 1933 to 1940, for radium, silver, copper, and cobalt. The mine shut down in 1940, but was reopened in 1942 by Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited to supply uranium to the Manhattan Project. The Canadian government expropriated the Port Radium mine and banned private claimstaking and mining of radioactive minerals.

In 1947 the government lifted the ban on private uranium mining, and the industry boomed through the 1950s, spurred by high prices due to the nuclear weapons programs. Production peaked in 1959, when 23 mines in five different districts made uranium Canada's number-one export. That same year, however, Great Britain and the United States announced their intention to halt uranium purchases in 1963. By 1963, seven mines were left operating, a number that shrank to only three in 1972.

A price rise caused uranium to boom again in 1975 and 2005.

Despite overall country production falling some 4% to 11,158 t (24.6 million pounds) U3O8, Canada is again the world's largest uranium producing country, accounting for 23% of world production in 2007. Production was led by Cameco's majority-owned McArthur River/Key Lake JV which yielded a total of 8,482 t (18.7 million pounds) U3O8 in 2007, which was the same level as in 2006. Cameco's 100%-owned Rabbit Lake minemarker produced 1,814 t (4.0 million pounds) U3O8, which was a 21.7% decline from production of 5.1 million pounds (2,300 t) in 2006.

Northwest Territories
Ontario
In 1948, prospector Robert Campbell discovered pitchblende at Theano Point, in the area of Alona Bay, Ontario, and staked 30 claims. By November 1948 a rush had begun, and in the next three years, 5,000 claims would be staked in the area. A shaft and headframe were constructed, but abandoned before operations could begin; the mine proved unprofitable after uranium discoveries at Elliot Lakemarker, Ontario.

The uranium-bearing pegmatite of Bancroft, Ontariomarker began mining in 1952.

Uranium was discovered at Blind Rivermarker-Elliot Lakemarker area in 1949, and production began in 1955. The deposits are in Precambrian quartz-pebble conglomerate, similar to uranium deposits in Brazilmarker and South Africa.

Saskatchewan
size
Pitchblende veins were discovered near Beaverlodge Lake, Saskatchewanmarker in 1935, and uranium mining started in 1953.

Today the Athabasca Basin in northern Saskatchewanmarker hosts the largest high-grade uranium mines and deposits. Cameco, the world's largest low-cost uranium producer, which accounts for 18% of the world's uranium production, operates three mines and one dedicated mill in the region. Among the major mines are Cameco's flagship McArthur River minemarker, the developing Cigar Lake minemarker, the Rabbit Lake minemarker and mill complex, and the world's largest uranium mill at Key Lakemarker. French-owned uranium syndicate Areva also operates the McClean Lake mill. Most of these mines are joint ventures between Cameco, Areva, and various other joint venture shareholders. Future mines currently in early development stages include Areva's Midwest Project (near McClean Lake), and Cameco's Millennium Project (near Key Lake). As of 2007, with uranium spot market prices well over the $100 USD/lb mark, Saskatchewan has become a hotbed of uranium exploration, with many junior exploration companies rushing to explore the highly valuable Athabasca basin.

United States



Most uranium ore in the United States comes from deposits in sandstone, which tend to be of lower grade than those of Australia and Canada. Because of the lower grade, many uranium deposits in the United States became uneconomic when the price of uranium declined sharply in the 1980s.

Regular production of uranium-bearing ore in the United States began in 1898 with the mining of carnotite-bearing sandstones of the Colorado Plateau in Coloradomarker and Utahmarker, for their vanadium content. The discovery of radium by Marie Curie, also in 1898, soon made the ore also valuable for radium. Uranium was a by-product. By 1913, the Colorado Plateau uranium-vanadium province was supplying about half the world supply of radium. Production declined sharply after 1923, when low-cost competition from radium from the Belgian Congo and vanadium from Perumarker made the Colorado Plateau ores uneconomic.

Mining revived in the 1930s with higher prices for vanadium. American uranium ores were in very high demand by the Manhattan Project during World War II, although the mining companies did not know that the by-product uranium was suddenly valuable. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw a boom in uranium mining in the western US, spurred by the fortunes made by prospectors such as Charlie Steen.

Uranium mining declined with the last open pit mine (Shirley Basin, Wyoming) shutting down in 1992. United States production occurred in the following states (in descending order): New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Texas, Arizona, Florida, Washington, and South Dakota. The collapse of uranium prices caused all conventional mining to cease by 1992. In-situ leach mining has continued primarily in Wyoming and adjacent Nebraska as well has recently restarted in Texas. Rising uranium prices since 2003 have increased interest in uranium mining in the United States.

Arizona
On Wednesday 25 June 2008 the House Natural Resources Committee voted overwhelmingly to enact emergency protections from uranium mining for of public lands around Grand Canyonmarker National Park. This will mean the Secretary of the Interior has an obligation to protect public lands near the Grand Canyon from uranium extraction for three years. The Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, and the Grand Canyon Trust recently won a court order against the Kaibab National Forestmarker stopping uranium drilling near the national park until a thorough environmental analysis is conducted..

The Grand Canyon Watersheds Protection Act has been proposed. This is a bill that would permanently ban uranium mining in the area.The impacts of uranium development have raised concerns of scientists and government officials alike. Due to increasing demand, uranium projects have been on the increaseposing a threat to water, public health, and fragile desert ecosystems.

CIS

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstanmarker produced some 7847 tU3O8 (17.3 million pounds in 2007), much more than in 2006. Kazatomprom's four 100%-owned ISR mining groups (LLP Kazatomprom) combined produced half of the total output.

Russia

The World Nuclear Association states that Russia has known uranium deposits of 500,000 tonnes and plans to mine 11,000 to 12,000 tonnes per year from deposits in the South Urals, Western Siberia, and Siberia east of Lake Baikalmarker, by 2010.

The Russian nuclear industry has been undergoing an overall restructuring process during 2007. The production was high as almost 4 000 tU3O8 (8.8 million pounds) from three operating mines in 2007. Atomredmetzoloto reported that the Priargunsky mine yielded 7.8 million pounds in 2007, a slight decline from the 8.2 million pounds reported by TVEL in 2006. At the Dalur (Dolmatovskoye) and Khiagda ISR mines, production of 910 000 pounds and 68 000 pounds, respectively, was reached in 2007. Both ISR projects are expected to increase production steadily through 2015.

Ukraine

Ukraine's VostGOK produced almost 1000 tU3O8 (2.2 million pounds) from the Zhovti Vodymarker mill in 2007, which was similar to the 2.1 million pounds produced in 2006.

Uzbekistan

In Uzbekistanmarker, the Navoi Mining & Metallurgy Combinat reportedly produced 2,721 tonnes U3O8 or tU3O8 (6 million pounds) from its Nurabad, Uchkudukmarker and Zafarabad in-situ recovery facilities.

Europe

European uranium mining supplied just below 3% of the total EU needs, coming from the Czech Republic and Romania (a total of 526 tU). Production in the Rožňa mine was to be terminated in 2008, but the Czech Government decided in May 2007 to continue mining and extended the lifetime without time limit as long as it remains profitable.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria shut down its facilities for environmental reasons in 1992; terrains were recultivated but recently, there has been certaing interest in resuming activities. Industrial mining first started in 1938 and was resumed after 1944 by a joint Soviet-Bulgarian mining company, reorganized in 1956 into the Redki Metali (Rare Metals) government-owned concern. At its peak, it had 13,000 employees, operated 48 uranium mines and two enrichment plants at Buhovo outside Sofiamarker and Eleshnitsa near Banskomarker. Yearly production was estimated at 645 t that met about 55% of the needs of Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plantmarker, which had six reactors with a total output of over 3600 MWe at its peak. [281358]

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic is the birthplace of industrial scale uranium mining. Uranium mining at Jáchymovmarker (at that time named Joachimsthal and belonging to Austria-Hungary) started in the 1890s on an industrial scale, after the silver and cobalt production of the deposit went down. Uranium was first used to produce mainly yellow colours for glass and porcelain manufacture. After the Curies in France discovered the Polonium and Radium in tailings from Jáchymov, the town became the first place in the world for commercial radium production from uranium ore. Radioactive water from the mines was also used to set up a health resort still exisiting today for radon-treatments. Pre-Cold War production is estimated to be around 1,000 t of uranium. From 1947 on the Czech Republic started producing uranium for the Soviet Union. Early mining sites like Jáchymov, Horní Slavkovmarker and Příbrammarker became infamously known as parts of the "Czech Gulag". In the whole, the Czech Republic produced 110.000 t of uranium to 1992 from 64 uranium deposits. The largest deposit Příbram (vein style) produced about 50.000 t of uranium and was mined to a depth of over 1,800 m.

Today, the Rožnámarker underground facility 55 km northwest of Brnomarker is Europe's only operating uranium mine, continuously operating since 1957. It produces about 300 t of uranium annualy. Since 2007, the Australian company Uran Ltd. is interested to participate in the operations at Rožná, as well as seeking permits with the Czech Ministry of Trade and Resources to open mines in the Czech Republic at other known locations, like Brzkovmarker, Jamnémarker, Polnámarker and Věžnice, through its Czech partner Timex Zdice and since 2008 through its subsidiary Urania Mining.

Estonia

During 1946–1952, the Dictyonema argillite (claystone) was mined and used for uranium production in Sillamäemarker.

Finland

In Uusimaamarker, Kareliamarker and Laplandmarker in Finland, presently (2009) uranium deposits are investigated

Germany

Search for uranium ore intensified during the cold war, but only in East Germanymarker was an extensive uranium mining industry established. Uranium was mined from 1947 to 1990 from mines in Saxonymarker and Thuringiamarker by the SDAG Wismut. All the uranium mines were closed after the German reunification for economic and environmental reasons. Total production in East Germany was 230.400 t of uranium making it the third largest producer in history behind the USA and Canada. A minor production still takes place at the Königstein mine southeast of Dresdenmarker from cleaning of mine water. This production has been 38 t of uranium in 2007.

Hungary

In Hungary uranium mining began in the 1950s around Pécsmarker to supply the country's first atomic plantmarker in Paksmarker. After the fall of communism, uranium mining was gradually given up because of the high production costs. That caused serious economic problems and a rise of unemployment in Pécs.

Romania

Romaniamarker produced in 2008 around 250 tonnes of uranium., see SovRoms, Crucea - Botusana mine and Băiţa mine.

Slovakia

A mine is proposed for near the towns of Jahodnámarker and Košicemarker.

Sweden

In Sweden, uranium production took place at Ranstadsverket between 1965 and 1969 by mining of alum shale (kind of oil shale) deposits. The goal was to make Sweden self-supplying with uranium. The high operating costs of the pilot plant (heap leaching) due to the low concentration of uranium in the shale and the, at that time, availability of comparatively cheap uranium on the world market, caused the mine to be closed, although a much cheaper and more efficient leaching process, using sulfur-consuming bacteria, had by then been developed. Since 2005 there have been investigations on opening new uranium mines in Sweden.

United Kingdom

The South Terras Mine in Cornwall was mined for uranium from 1873 to 1903.

Substantial uranium deposits were found on Orkneymarker in the 1970s, When Margaret Thatcher proposed a uranium mine on Orkney a campaign followed which successfully argued that uranium mining would mean irreversible environmental, social and psychological damage.

Africa

Namibia

Namibiamarker produces uranium at Rossingmarker deposit, where an igneous deposit is mined from one of the world's largest open pit mines. The mine is owned by a subsidiary of the Rio Tinto Group. The Langer Heinrich calcrete uranium deposit was discovered in 1973 and the open pit mine was officially opened in 2007.

Niger

Niger is Africa's leading uranium-producing nation. Uranium is produced from mines at Arlitmarker owned by Areva NC.

In 2007, production in Niger had a total output of 3720 tonnes U3O8 (8.2 million pounds) coming mainly from the Akouta (Cominak) and the Arlit (Somair) mines.

Niger's uranium came to world attention before the US invasion of Iraq, when it was asserted that Iraq had attempted to buy uranium from Niger (see Niger uranium forgeries).

South Africa

South Africa produces uranium from deposits in Precambrian quartz-pebble conglomerate of the Witwatersrand Basin, at Brakpanmarker and Krugersdorp, Gautengmarker.

Asia

China

China mined in 2007 636 tonnes of U3O8, a decrease of 17% of its production in 2006.

India

In Nalgonda District, the Rajiv Gandhi Tiger Reserve (the only tiger project in Andhra Pradeshmarker) has been forced to surrender over 1,000 sq. kilometres to uranium mining following a directive from the Central Ministry of Environment and Forests.

In 2007, India was able to extract 229 tonnes of U3O8 from its soil.

Jordan

Jordan, the only Middle East country with confirmed uranium, is estimated to have around 140,000 tonnes in its uranium reserves plus a further 59,000 tonnes in phosphate deposits. Although no uranium has been mined yet, it was announced in 2008 that the Jordanian Government signed an agreement with the French Company AREVA to explore for uranium. This will benefit them on building a future nuclear plant in Jordan.

Exploration

Uranium prospecting is similar to other forms of mineral exploration with the exception of some specialized instruments for detecting the presence of radioactive isotopes.

The Geiger counter was the original radiation detector, recording the total count rate from all energy levels of radiation. Ionization chambers and Geiger counters were first adapted for field use in the 1930s. The first transportable Geiger–Müller counter (weighing 25 kg) was constructed at the University of British Columbiamarker in 1932. H.V. Ellsworth of the GSC built a lighter weight, more practical unit in 1934. Subsequent models were the principal instruments used for uranium prospecting for many years, until geiger counters were replaced by scintillation counters.

The use of airborne detectors to prospect for radioactive minerals was first proposed by G.C. Ridland, a geophysicist working at Port Radium in 1943. In 1947, the earliest recorded trial of airborne radiation detector (ionization chambers and Geiger counters) was conducted by Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited. (a Canadian Crown Corporation since sold to become Cameco Corporation). The first patent for a portable gamma-ray spectrometer was filed by Professors Pringle, Roulston & Brownell of the University of Manitobamarker in 1949, the same year as they tested the first portable scintillation counter on the ground and in the air in northern Saskatchewanmarker.

Airborne gamma-ray spectrometry is now the accepted leading technique for uranium prospecting with worldwide applications for geological mapping, mineral exploration & environmental monitoring.

A deposit of uranium, discovered by geophysical techniques, is evaluated and sampled to determine the amounts of uranium materials that are extractable at specified costs from the deposit. Uranium reserves are the amounts of ore that are estimated to be recoverable at stated costs.

Types of uranium deposits

Many different types of uranium deposits have been discovered and mined.

Uranium deposits in sedimentary rock

Uranium deposits in sedimentary rocks include those in sandstone (in Canada and the western US),Precambrian unconformities (in Canada),phosphate,Precambrian quartz-pebble conglomerate, collapse breccia pipes (see Arizona Breccia Pipe Uranium Mineralization),and calcrete.

Sandstone uranium deposits are generally of two types. Roll-front type deposits occur at the boundary between the up dip and oxidized part of a sandstone body and the deeper down dip reduced part of a sandstone body. Peneconcordant sandstone uranium deposits, also called Colorado Plateau-type deposits, most often occur within generally oxidized sandstone bodies, often in localized reduced zones, such as in association with carbonized wood in the sandstone.

Precambrian quartz-pebble conglomerate-type uranium deposits occur only in rocks older than two billion years old. The conglomerates also contain pyrite. These deposits have been mined in the Blind Rivermarker-Elliot Lakemarker district of Ontario, Canada, and from the gold-bearing Witwatersrandmarker conglomerates of South Africa.

Igneous or hydrothermal uranium deposits

Hydrothermal uranium deposits encompass the vein-type uranium ores. Igneous deposits include nepheline syenite intrusives at Ilimaussaq, Greenlandmarker; the disseminated uranium deposit at Rossingmarker, Namibia; and uranium-bearing pegmatites. Disseminated deposits are also found in the states of Washington and Alaska in the US.

Mining techniques

As with other types of hard rock mining there are several methods of extraction. The main methods of mining are box cut mining, open pit mining and in situ leaching (ISL).

Open pit

In open pit mining, overburden is removed by drilling and blasting to expose the ore body, which is then mined by blasting and excavation using loaders and dump trucks. Workers spend much time in enclosed cabins thus limiting exposure to radiation. Water is extensively used to suppress airborne dust levels.

Underground uranium mining

If the uranium is too far below the surface for open pit mining, an underground mine might be used with tunnels and shafts dug to access and remove uranium ore. There is less waste material removed from underground mines than open pit mines, however this type of mining exposes underground workers to the highest levels of radon gas.

Underground uranium mining is in principle no different to any other hard rock mining and other ores are often mined in association (eg copper, gold, silver). Once the ore body has been identified a shaft is sunk in the vicinity of the ore veins, and crosscuts are driven horizontally to the veins at various levels, usually every 100 to 150 metres. Similar tunnels, known as drifts, are driven along the ore veins from the crosscut. To extract the ore, the next step is to drive tunnels, known as raises when driven upwards and winzes when driven downwards through the deposit from level to level. Raises are subsequently used to develop the stopes where the ore is mined from the veins.

The stope, which is the workshop of the mine, is the excavation from which the ore is extracted. Two methods of stope mining are commonly used. In the "cut and fill" or open stoping method, the space remaining following removal of ore after blasting is filled with waste rock and cement. In the "shrinkage" method, only sufficient broken ore is removed via the chutes below to allow miners working from the top of the pile to drill and blast the next layer to be broken off, eventually leaving a large hole. Another method, known as room and pillar, is used for thinner, flatter ore bodies. In this method the ore body is first divided into blocks by intersecting drives, removing ore while so doing, and then systematically removing the blocks, leaving enough ore for roof support.

Heap leaching

Waste rock is produced during open pit mining when overburden is removed, and during underground mining when driving tunnels through non-ore zones.

Piles of these tailings often contain elevated concentrations of radioisotopes compared to normal rock. Other waste piles consist of ore with too low a grade for processing. The difference between waste rock and ore depends on technical and economic feasibility criteria, principally market price for ore. All these piles threaten people and the environment after shut down of the mine due to their release of radon gas and seepage water containing radioactive and toxic materials.

In some cases uranium has been removed from this low-grade ore by heap leaching. This may be done if uranium content is too low for the ore to be economically processed in a uranium mill. The leaching liquid (often sulfuric acid) is introduced on the top of the pile and percolates down until it reaches a liner below the pile, where it is caught and pumped to a processing plant. Due to the potential for extreme damage to the surrounding environment, this practice is no longer in use.

Heap leaching using carbonate is seen as an environmentally responsible way to extract uranium because the only leaching reagent is sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and is currently being tested for use at Ranger uranium in the Northern Territory of Australia, at Trekkopje in Namibia, at Wiluna in Western Australia, and at Letlhakane in Botswana.

In-situ leaching

In-situ leaching (ISL), sometimes referred to as in-situ recovery (ISR) or solution mining, is performed by pumping liquids (weak acid or weak alkaline depending on the calcium concentration in the ore) down through injection wells placed on one side of the deposit of uranium, through the deposit, and up through recovery wells on the opposing side of the deposit - recovering ore by leaching. ISL is also used on other types of metal extraction such as copper. ISL is often cost-effective because it avoids excavation costs, and may be implemented more quickly than conventional mining. However, it is not suitable to all uranium deposits, as the host rock must be permeable to the liquids (as is often the case in sandstone), making it possible to contaminate nearby aquifers with leaching chemicals. Evironmental impact studies are performed when evaluating ISL, because ground water can be affected. In-situ leaching is the only type of uranium mining currently being done in the United States (2006).

Recovery from seawater

The uranium concentration of sea water is low, approximately 3.3 mg per cubic meter of seawater (3.3 ppb). But the quantity of this resource is gigantic and some scientists believe this resource is practically limitless with respect to world-wide demand. That is to say, if even a portion of the uranium in seawater could be used the entire world's nuclear power generation fuel could be provided over a long time period. Some anti-nuclear proponents claim this statistic is exaggerated. Although research and development for recovery of this low-concentration element by inorganic adsorbents such as titanium oxide compounds, has occurred since the 1960s in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan, this research was halted due to low recovery efficiency.

At the Takasaki Radiation Chemistry Research Establishment of the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute (JAERI Takasaki Research Establishment), research and development has continued culminating in the production of adsorbent by irradiation of polymer fiber. Adsorbents have been synthesized that have a functional group (amidoxime group) that selectively adsorbs heavy metals, and the performance of such adsorbents has been improved. Uranium adsorption capacity of the polymer fiber adsorbent is high, approximately tenfold greater in comparison to the conventional titanium oxide adsorbent.

One method of extracting uranium from seawater is using a uranium-specific nonwoven fabric as an absorbent. The total amount of uranium recovered from three collection boxes containing 350 kg of fabric was >1 kg of yellowcake after 240 days of submersion in the ocean. According to the OECD, uranium may be extracted from seawater using this method for about $300/kg-U. The experiment by Seko et al. was repeated by Tamada et al. in 2006. They found that the cost varied from ¥15,000 to ¥88,000 (Yen) depending on assumptions and "The lowest cost attainable now is ¥25,000 with 4g-U/kg-adsorbent used in the sea area of Okinawa, with 18 repetitionuses [sic]." With the May, 2008 exchange rate, this was about $240/kg-U.

Rise, stagnation, renaissance and opposition to uranium mining

In the beginning of the Cold War, to ensure adequate supplies of uranium for national defense, the United States Congress passed the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1946, creating the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) which had the power to withdraw prospective uranium mining land from public purchase, and also to manipulate the price of uranium to meet national needs. By setting a high price for uranium ore, the AEC created a uranium "boom" in the early 1950s, which attracted many prospectors to the four corners region of the country. Moab, Utahmarker became known as the Uranium-capital of the world, when geologist Charles Steen discovered such an ore in 1952, even though American ore sources were considerably less potent than those in the Belgian Congo or South Africa.

At the height of the nuclear energy euphoria in the 1950s methods for extracting diluted uranium and thorium, found in abundance in granite or seawater, were pursued. Scientists promised that, used in a breeder reactor, these materials would potentially provide limitless source of energy.

American military requirements declined in the 1960s, and the government completed its uranium procurement program by the end of 1970. Simultaneously, a new market emerged: commercial nuclear power plants. However, in the U.S. this market virtually collapsed by the end of the 1970s as a result of industrial strains caused by the energy crisis, popular opposition, and finally the Three Mile Island nuclear accidentmarker in 1979, all of which led to a de facto moratorium on the development of new nuclear reactor power stations.

In Europe a mixed situation exists. Considerable nuclear power capacities have been developed, notably in Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. In many countries development of nuclear power has been stopped and phased out by legal actions. In Italy the use of nuclear power was barred by a referendum in 1987, however this is now under revision. Ireland also has no plans to change its non-nuclear stance and pursue nuclear power in the future.

Opposition to uranium mining has been considerable in Australia, where notable anti-uranium activists have included Kevin Buzzacott, Jacqui Katona, Yvonne Margarula, and Jillian Marsh. Other notable anti-uranium activists include Manuel Pinto (USA), JoAnn Tall (USA), and Sun Xiaodi (China).

Since 1981 uranium prices and quantities in the US are reported by the Department of Energy.The import price dropped from 32.90 US$/lb-U3O8 in 1981 down to 12.55 in 1990 and to below 10 US$/lb-U3O8 in the year 2000. Prices paid for uranium during the 1970s were higher, 43 US$/lb-U3O8 is reported as the selling price for Australian uranium in 1978 by the Nuclear Information Centre.

Uranium prices reached an all-time low in 2001, costing US$7/lb, but has since rebounded strongly. In April 2007 the price of Uranium on the spot market rose to US$113.00/lb, This is very close to the all time high (adjusted for inflation) in 1977. a high point of the uranium bubble of 2007. The higher price has spurred expansion of current mines, construction of new mines and reopening of old mines as well as new prospecting.

Health risks of uranium mining

Because uranium ore emits radon gas, uranium mining can be more dangerous than other underground mining, unless adequate ventilation systems are installed. During the 1950s, many Navajos in the U.S. became uranium miners, as many uranium deposits were discovered on Navajo reservations. A statistically significant subset of these early miners later developed small cell carcinoma after exposure to uranium ore. Radon-222, a natural decay product of uranium, has been shown to be the cancer-causing agent. Some American survivors and their descendants received compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990.

In January 2008 Areva was nominated for an Anti Oscar Award. The French state-owned company mines uranium in northern Niger where mine workers are not informed about health risks, and analysis shows radioactive contamination of air, water and soil. The local organization that represents the mine workers, spoke of "suspicious deaths among the workers, caused by radioactive dust and contaminated groundwater."

Clean Up Efforts

Despite efforts made in cleaning up uranium sites, significant problems stemming from the legacy of uranium development still exist today on the Navajo Nation and in the states of Utahmarker, Coloradomarker, New Mexicomarker, and Arizonamarker. Hundreds of abandoned mines have not been cleaned up and present environmental and health risks in many communities. [281359] At the request of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in October 2007, and in consultation with the Navajo Nation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Indian Health Service (IHS), developed a coordinated Five-Year Plan to address uranium contamination. [281360] Similar interagency coordination efforts are beginning in the State of New Mexico as well.

Further reading



See also



References

  1. Franz J. Dahlkamp (1993) Uranium ore deposits Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 460 p. ISBN 3-540-53264-1.
  2. Australia's anti-nuclear movement: a short history(26 August 1998)By Jim Green, Green Left
  3. Nuffield, E. W., 1955, Geology of the Montreal River Area; Ontario Department of Mines, Volume LXIV, Part 3, Sixty-Fourth Annual Report.
  4. Carlie F. Banks (1976) Uranium and the Uranium Industry in Canada, Richardson, Tex.: Suntech Inc., p. 36–37.
  5. Chisholm, B., and Gutsche, A., Superior, Under the Shadow of the Gods, Lynx Images, 1998, p. 45.
  6. J. B. Mawdsley (1958) The radioactive pegmatities of Saskatchewan, in Proceedings of the Second United Nations International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, p. 484–490.
  7. Robert J. Wright and Donald L. Everhart (1960) Uranium, in Mineral Resources of Colorado First Sequel, Denver: Colorado Mineral Resources Board, p. 329–365.
  8. New uranium mining halted at Canyon - Interior Dept. questions order issued by House committeeGinger D. Richardson,The Arizona Republic(Jun. 26, 2008)
  9. See article in Czech: :cs:Koncentrační tábory při československých uranových dolech.
  10. Uranium Mining in Finland: Fighting Prospectors in the Nuclear Age - URANIUM MINING IN FINLAND By Renate Nimtz-Köster(05/29/2007)SPIEGEL ONLINE
  11. About UsUranium National Company S.A.
  12. Košice does not want uranium mines(27 Feb 2006) - The Slovak Spectator
  13. Cornwall Calling: South Terras Mine, Cornwall
  14. George J. Coakley (2004) Namibia, in Minerals Yearbook, Area Reports: International 2002, Africa and the Middle East, U.S. Geological Survey, p. 24.2.
  15. Langer Heinrich mine
  16. Thomas R. Yager (2004) Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger, in Minerals Yearbook, Area Reports: International 2002, Africa and the Middle East, U.S. Geological Survey, p. 6.2.
  17. 2007 Annual report of the Euratom Supply Agency
  18. Google translate: Symposium on nuclear reactors in the "atomic energy"
  19. Aborigines count cost of mine(25 May, 2004) By Phil Mercer, BBC correspondent in Darwin, BBC NEWS / ASIA-PACIFIC
  20. Anti-uranium demos in Australia(5 April, 1998)BBC World Service
  21. Anti-nuke protests(16 July 1997)By Jennifer Thompson, Green Left Weekly


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