The fuel used in a nuclear power plant is uranium, which is extracted from the ground. While the impact of uranium quarrying operations on the environment regularly evokes discussion, it is less often noted that since uranium has a very high energy density, the required amount of uranium to be quarried is quite small. Consequently, the impact of the associated operations remains small as well.
Previously, we noted that uranium and fuel produced from uranium are in no manner dangerous or even extraordinary materials – apart from the fact that their energy density is millions of times higher than that of fossil fuels.
However, mining – and quarrying in particular – is, almost without exception, more or less dirty work. Humankind has been dependent on large-scale mining industry since the industrial revolution, and this is not expected to change in the foreseeable future.
In the West, the quarrying of uranium draws particular attention on a regular basis. This has led to a situation where uranium production is a strictly regulated business in almost every part of the world.
There are two factors behind the environmental impact of mining operations
As regards environmental impact, the actual mineral being produced plays a relatively small role. There are two main factors that determine the extent of negative impacts of mining operations: the first one is the quality of the operations, meaning the production processes applied and the scale of production, and the second one is the quality of the associated regulation activities and the monitoring thereof.
Due to the high energy density of uranium, the required amount to be quarried is quite small. The world’s total annual production of uranium amounts to approximately 56,000 metric tons. On a global scale, this is not very much. Finland alone produces an equal amount of processed metal products in a few days. In turn, the low production volumes facilitate the regulation of the operations, which decreases the probability of negligence in the industry.
About half of the uranium produced worldwide is extracted directly from the ground through a process called in-situ leaching (ISL) [i]. In this case, little is required in terms of above-ground operations, apart from the construction of a few pipelines and access roads. At these sites, damage to the environment remains minor. Approximately a tenth of the uranium is produced as a by-product of other mining operations, and a little less than half is produced in traditional open quarries or underground mines.
Mining industry keeps developing
In the early days of the mining industry, with environmental legislation non-existent or in its infancy at best, mining operations had sometimes disastrous consequences for the environment. Since then, the industry has adopted tools such as environmental impact assessment and monitoring, as well as various environmental restoration measures to be carried out after the cessation of mining operations.
While the miners involved in early uranium quarrying operations may have been exposed to significant radiation doses due to uranium decay products such as radon and radium, the situation today is completely different. For example, in Australia, one of the leading producers of uranium, the additional dose received by uranium miners averages only half of the additional dose received by airplane pilots at work [ii]. This has been achieved through ventilation of mine shafts, preventing the spread of dust, a high level of personal hygiene, and continuous measurement of radiation levels.
China is the leading producer of many rare earth metals. The local environmental regulation and monitoring activities are often heavily underdeveloped. The situation resembles the post-WWII years in many Western countries. Nearly a third of the production of rare earth metals – which are essential to the manufacture of many high-technology products, such as solar panels and other equipment required for clean energy production – takes place illegally and without any regulation.
The resulting damage to both the environment and people is vast; it is estimated that the costs of the clean-up operations required in the future will exceed the current proceeds from the sale of minerals [iii]. Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding South American lithium production have recently raised some concern as the production pressure mounts, driven in part by the increasing popularity of electric cars.
[i] Among other sources, more information on uranium production is available on the following website: http://wvww.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/mining-of-uranium/uranium-mining-overview.aspx
[ii] Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency 2016
[iii] Packey, DJ & Kingsnorth, D 2016, “The impact of unregulated ionic clay rare earth mining in China”, Resources Policy, vol. 48, pp. 112–116