Uranium is a natural radioactive element that has been used for its chemical properties for over a thousand years. It is now primarily used as fuel for nuclear reactors that generate electricity. Uranium can be extracted through conventional rock (ore) mining or by using powerful chemicals to dissolve uranium from the rock underground and pumping it to the surface.
There are three ways to extract uranium resources: open pit, underground, and in-situ leach (ISL).
1. Open Pit Mining
Open-pit mining, also called strip mining, removes surface soils and uneconomic rocks to access the ore below. The uranium ore grades are normally less than 0.5 percent. This type of mining can only be done if the uranium ore is close to the surface (usually less than 400 ft).
The waste rock or overburden (the material removed to get to the ore body) is usually stored near the open pit. Once the ore horizon is exposed, a series of benches or steps are cut into it to make removing the ore easier. Within the pit, depending on the size of the mine, there may be one or more roads cut into the sides for the huge earth/ore haulers to navigate the area. Pumps may be utilized to dewater the pit.
2. Underground Mining
Uranium that is too deep to mine via open-pit methods is mined by underground mining. First, the ore is drilled, then blasted to create debris. The debris is then transported to the surface and finally to a mill. In the mill, uranium is separated by a process called heap leaching.
Mining the ore body can be done with various techniques, including drilling and blasting, trucking, and room-and-pillar mining. Drilling and blasting use explosives to break up the ore rock, which is then transported up to the surface via a truck, conveyor, or compressed air. Truck mining is similar to room-and-pillar mining. A narrow roadway is created and lined with concrete. The area is then blasted, and the ore is removed by truck. The ore is then transported to a mill, where the uranium is extracted.
3. In-situ Recovery (ISR) Mining (In-situ Leaching or ISL)
ISR, or in-situ recovery, is the preferred method of extracting uranium from ore deposits, as it is cheaper and considered more environmentally friendly than traditional mining methods. The ore deposit is placed in wells or cells, which are then filled with water. Uranium is dissolved into the water and removed from the ore deposit.
The uranium-laden water is then pumped to the surface and then to a recovery plant. The uranium is then separated from the water. The water is treated with activated carbon to remove the uranium and then recycled for future use.
The environmental and health impacts of uranium mining are most pronounced during the extraction and refining processes. However, uranium mining leaves a toxic legacy in the form of radioactive tailings impoundments. These uranium tailings impoundments have concentrated radioactive and toxic wastes that remain dangerous to human health and the environment throughout the thousands of years they remain toxic.
The uranium mining industry has a history of poor environmental practices in the United States. Since the 1950s, the U.S. uranium mining industry has experienced numerous uranium extraction-related accidents, spills and leaks that contaminated the land, air and waterways. Today, the U.S. uranium mining industry continues to experience accidents and spills.
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