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Nuclear Energy

Uranium Mining and Milling

Pro   Con

The general procedures for radiation protection associated with uranium mining and milling can prevent potential health problems.1


Radioactive radon gases emitted from uranium operations present occupational and public health dangers. Huge mill tailing piles have not been stabilized, enabling radioactive material to become airborne and spread.2

AMA Commentary

Every nuclear reactor in the world is fueled by uranium-235, a rare component of uranium ore that occurs at the level of .7 percent (with the other 99.3 percent consisting of uranium-238). To produce the uranium-235 used to fuel nuclear reactors, uranium ore is mined and then milled -- crushed, ground, and chemically concentrated into yellowcake.3 Yellowcake is shipped to processing plants where it is converted into uranium hexafluoride gas. At enrichment facilities, the concentration of uranium-235 in the gas in increased from .7 percent to the approximately 3 percent needed to fuel nuclear reactors.4 (For a complete outline of the nuclear fuel cycle, click here.)

Currently, the major world producers of uranium in the west are Canada, the United States, South Africa, and Australia. Various African countries account for the remainder of the western world's uranium production. The major uranium consumers through the year 2000 will be the United States, Western Europe, and Asia.5

Although the exact amount varies, it takes approximately one ton of uranium ore to produce one to five pounds of fuel-grade uranium. The bulk of residual, unused ore is referred to as tailings. Tailings contain a variety of toxic and radioactive elements -- the most dangerous being radium, which decays into radon gas, a carcinogen.6 By volume, uranium mill tailings constitute the largest category of wastes associated with the production of nuclear fuel.7

The first states of uranium excavation -- exploration and mining -- create both known and unknown occupational and environmental risks. During the exploration stage, bore holes used to collect ore samples penetrate seams of uranium ore and underground aquifers, greatly increasing the chances of groundwater contamination by dissolved radioisotopes. This type of contamination has occurred in British Columbia, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Minnesota.8 Water pollution from mining operations also occurs when groundwater or rainwater accumulates in an underground or surface mine, passes through loose rock, and picks up both radioactive and toxic contaminants.9 There are also risks (the extent of which are unknown) associated with the release of airborne radiation, in the form of radon gases, during the exploration and excavation processes.10

The most severe health problems associated with uranium mining have resulted from occupational exposure. During the 1950's and 1960's, insufficient regulatory control existed over radiation levels during uranium mining for defense-related purposes. Two epidemiological studies of these workers, ore from 1981 and one from 1982, found that approximately 50 percent died from lung cancer, and many others developed an increased prevalence of chronic respiratory diseases.11

While dangers to the general public are less than to mine and mill workers, public exposure to radiological hazards has been increased by the tons of unstabilized mill tailings which are subject to dissemination through wind and groundwater.12 In addition, the milling process generates low-level radioactive wastes which can become airborne.13

Up until the early 1970's, mining companies gave mill tailings to communities to use as building materials and landfills,14 and large quantities of tailings were allowed to accumulate at milling sites.15 A 1978 House of Representatives report said, "As a result of being for all practical purposes a perpetual hazard, uranium mill tailings present the major threat of the nuclear fuel cycle."16

In 1978, Congress passed the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act (UMTRCA). UMTRCA made mill owners responsible for decommissioning, reclamation, and long-term monitoring of uranium mills and mill tailing disposal sites. It also required the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to establish regulations guaranteeing that reclamation would be carried out and paid for by mill operators before their mills' operating license expired, with the reclaimed mill site released to state or federal ownership.17

Since UMTRCA was passed, a wide range of administrative, legal, and economic actions have prevented the implementation of the minimum national mill tailing cleanup requirements it legislated.18 Questions about where the clean-up funds should come from, and what role states and administrative agencies should play in the regulatory process, remain unresolved.19

1 OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, The Economics of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, Paris, 1985, p. 25.
2 Ralph Nader and John Abbotts, The Menace of Atomic Energy, (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1979), pp. 84-85.
3 League of Women Voters, A Nuclear Power Primer: Issues for Citizens, (Washington, D.C.: League of Women Voters, 1982)
4 U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Managing the Nation's Commercial High-Level Radioactive Waste, Washington, D.C., OTA-O-171, March 1985, p. 24.
5 B.C.J. Lloyd and K.G. Robb, "Uranium Nuclear Metals," Mining Annual Review - 1985, p. 109.
6 John McGee, "The Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act of 1978," Ecology Law Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 725, 1980, p. 801.
7 Chris Shuey, Paul Robinson and Lynda Taylor, "The 'Costs' of Uranium: Who's Paying with Lives, Lands, and Dollars," The Workbook.
8 Elizabeth Scott, "Unfinished Business: The Regulation of Uranium Mining and Milling," University of Richmond Law Review, Vol. 18, No. 615, 1984, pp. 617-618.
9 Ibid., p. 621.
10 Ibid, and Peter C. Monson, "Radioactive Air Pollution From Uranium Mining: Regulatory Abdication in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty," Environmental Law, Vol. 13, No. 517, 1983, p. 550.
11 Scott, op. cit., p. 622.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid., p. 622-3.
14 Monson, op. cit., p. 548.
15 McGee, op. cit., p. 801.
16 Scott, op. cit., p. 622.
17 Shuey, et al., op. cit.
18 Ibid., p. 110.
19 Scott, op. cit., pp. 625-653.