Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that there has been an increase in uranium mining in the U.S. due to a renewed interest in nuclear energy? What are the health and environmental ramifications of this? -- Paul Raffman, New Bedford, MA
The big boom for American uranium mining was in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the U.S. remained the world’s leading producer of the radioactive element for many years until 1980 when U.S. production fell off dramatically due to dropping uranium prices as other countries stepped up mining of their own sources. Today American miners turn out only about 10 percent of what they were producing in 1980.
But that may all change as several deep-pocketed mining interests have turned up the heat on lawmakers to allow them to explore and open up new sources of uranium across the American West and elsewhere. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council reports that the timing is no coincidence since the program that has been supplying a large portion of U.S. uranium needs in recent years—Russia’s surplus weapons uranium stockpile—is ending this year. This restriction of supply is predicted to drive prices up. Mining interests are pushing hard to open up promising sites to their drills while keeping many existing uranium mining sites open but inactive in hopes they get the green light to ramp up extraction.
The dark sides of uranium mining are well documented by now, though workers in the industry during its heyday had no idea how hazardous the element would be. Indeed, uranium miners have experienced high rates of cancer, heart disease and birth defects. Stronger regulations have since been put in place to protect mine workers, but increased cancer rates still remain an issue for current and former mine workers.
As for risk to the public, uranium mining releases radon from the ground into the atmosphere, thus posing a slight risk to surrounding populations. Radon and other pollutants can also make their way into streams, springs and other bodies of water and can contaminate drinking water in surrounding communities. According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), uncontrolled releases as a result of natural disasters like floods, fires or earthquakes can also be an issue for those around uranium mines, with even a single minor incident potentially leading to dramatic and lasting effects.
In addition to its direct human health impacts, uranium mining can jeopardize the health of ecosystems. Radioactive materials can pollute air, water and the soils near a mine. And the waste products produced from uranium mining, known as tailings, remain potentially hazardous for thousands of years and must be disposed of in specially designed, hugely expensive disposal sites. No one can be sure how effective these disposal sites will be after hundreds of years or longer. Meanwhile, decommissioning uranium mining and disposal facilities to make affected areas safe for other activities remains overwhelming; the process can take centuries, is expensive and can be dangerous for workers and the surrounding environment.
The issues surrounding uranium mining underscore the importance of developing cleaner, greener sources of energy. But even though the 2011 tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster in Japan should have served as a wake-up call regarding the dangers of nuclear energy, many of politicians and policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere still push for the expansion of nuclear power—and increased uranium mining. Nuclear may not have the carbon footprint problem of fossil fuels, but it is clearly not the answer to our energy woes.
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