Uranium is a naturally-occurring radioactive element mined and used for its chemical properties for hundreds of years. It is now used mainly as fuel for nuclear power plants, making electricity by turning uranium into a radioactive isotope in a reactor.
Digging Deeper into the Extraction Types
American uranium can be extracted in two ways: mining the ore or dissolving it from the ground and bringing it to the surface via pumping.
Let’s look at these methods more closely:
- Mining: When uranium is found near the surface, miners dig the uranium-bearing rock out of open pits. These rock cuts are known as open-pit mines because most of the topsoil and gravel above the uranium ore are removed from the site.
If American uranium is found deep underground, the ore must be mined below the surface. The rock is removed through underground tunnels, which can soon become unstable if an unsupported rock falls in and causes cave-ins.
- In Situ Leaching: Latin for “in place,” the in situ leaching method is used to dissolve uranium in porous rocks. This method is used in areas saturated by groundwater so that conventional mining is not necessary. After the chemicals are placed in the ground, the liquid containing uranium is pumped to the surface through wells to be processed to recover American uranium.
You Are in for More
Once American uranium ore is extracted from the Earth, it must be processed to get the uranium from the ore. A few different processes are available to recover the element:
- Heap Leaching: Like how hot water dissolves the flavor from coffee beans and leaves grounds behind, chemicals dissolve chemical elements from rocks and leave behind a chemical-rich liquid. This liquid needs further processing to recover the elements. This method is currently not used in the United States for American uranium, but it is for gold.
- Milling: After the ore containing uranium has been removed from the Earth through an open pit or underground mining, it is taken to a mill. The ore is crushed and ground up before chemicals are added to dissolve the element. Then, American uranium is separated from the chemical solution, solidified, and dried. Finally, it is packaged and ready to use.
While mining American uranium results in a usable energy source for nuclear power plants that churns out electricity, these processes also yield radioactive waste.
For example, the solid radioactive materials left over from the milling processes are called tailings, and the liquid wastes from the extraction process are called raffinates. Tailings are stored in impoundments made especially for this purpose, and raffinates remain radioactive and contain hazardous chemicals from the extraction process.
American uranium eventually decays to radium, which decomposes to release a radioactive gas called radon. Open-pit and in situ mines do not pose a significant radon risk to the public or miners because the radon disperses into the atmosphere. In the past, the waste rock produced by underground and open-pit mines was piled up outside the mine. On Navajo lands, this has caused problems, including radon in populated areas, water contamination, and contaminated surface groundwater.
Underground uranium mines can present a radiation hazard to miners. Without proper air ventilation, radon can collect in the mineshafts and be inhaled by miners. Because of this, miners sometimes must wear respirators that protect their lungs from radon gas.
While American uranium is undoubtedly crucial to powering commercial and industrial establishments, a few risk factors need to be considered. Do not engage in uranium mining or milling without the proper equipment, certification, and know-how, so you prevent the desolation of nearby communities and natural habitats.
Learn more about handling American uranium properly by contacting enCore Energy Corp.! We are the most diversified U.S. domestic uranium developer focused on In-Situ Recovery (ISR) technology, a lower-cost and environment-friendly way of extracting uranium at its Texas facilities. Contact us now to know more!