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Renewable Energy

Uranium: Mining to Power to Weapons

by Michelle Simon 20 Mar 2012
Uranium: Mining to Power to Weapons

Uranium ore via Shutterstock

Uranium is a remarkable mineral; it has played a central role with other naturally occurring radioactive elements in the movement of the Earth's plates. The heat produced during the radioactive decay of uranium, thorium and potassium yields convection in the mantle causing the plates to move. Uranium is found in most rocks. Its role as nature intended it to be is invaluable. Its misuse in the hands of humans however has created lasting detrimental impacts.

Humans have over time assigned specific economic value to the Earth's minerals, based on its ability to generate wealth (gold), status (diamonds), energy (coal, fossil-gas, uranium) and weapons (uranium) in either its raw form or its altered half-life isotope as is the case with uranium use. These uranium isotopes are used in power generation and the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Humans have taken a natural element and used it to create some of the most lethal environmental health consequences known to humankind, from the Chernobyl disaster to Hiroshima to Fukushima, uranium use now signifies high environmental alert from the mining impacts to nuclear disasters.

Nuclear Energy

While nuclear energy is regarded as the lesser of the two evils when compared at an emission level to the burning of fossil-fuels, it may trump on the containment of the heat process, which burns in a contained nuclear reactor through an in-ward heat-chemical reaction called fission, but nuclear energy production is a chain from uranium mining to the toxic waste disposal and therefore as an entire process is an equally high risk environmental option. Once heated up, the process is the same as that used in coal-fired power stations; the 'burn' is used to produce steam which in turn powers up the turbines that generates electricity. The dependency of nuclear energy is high with the US-nuclear dependency of approximately 20% and France around 75% followed closely by other European countries.

nuclear energy generation 2010

Source: World Nuclear Association

Besides nuclear energy and weapons manufacturing, uranium is also used in the production of radioisotopes which are used in everyday life from nuking and genetically modifying our food to medicine. Radiation has been introduced into society in high unnatural proportions and modified forms the ecosystem.

Nuclear Emissions

While nuclear proponents use the green house gas debate to promote nuclear energy, nuclear energy production does entail emissions, very toxic emissions at that.

"In the case of nuclear plants air emissions are released to the air in the form of iodine cloud and cesium-137. According to the EPA (2011):

- Like all radionuclides, exposure to radiation from cesium-137 results in increased risk of cancer. Everyone is exposed to very small amounts of cesium-137 in soil and water as a result of atmospheric fallout. Exposure to waste materials, from contaminated sites, or from nuclear accidents can result in cancer risks much higher than typical environmental exposures. If exposures are very high, serious burns, and even death, can result. Instances of such exposure are very rare. One example of a highexposure situation would be the mishandling a strong industrial cesium-137 source. The magnitude of the health risk depends on exposure conditions.

- Radioactive iodine can cause thyroid problems, and help diagnose and treat thyroid problems. Long-term (chronic) exposure to radioactive iodine can cause nodules, or cancer of the thyroid. However, once thyroid cancer occurs, treatment with high doses of I-131 may be used to treat it. Doctors also use lower doses of I-131 to treat overactive thyroids. Low doses can reduce activity of the thyroid gland, lowering hormone production in the gland. Doctors must maintain the fine balance between the risks and benefits of using radioactive iodine. On one hand, this small, additional exposure may tip the balance in favour of cancer formation. On the other, this small additional exposure can restore health by slowing an overactive thyroid and improve health conditions.

- Strontium-90 is chemically similar to calcium, and tends to deposit in bone and blood-forming tissue (bone marrow). Thus, strontium-90 is referred to as a "bone seeker." Internal exposure to Sr-90 is linked to bone cancer, cancer of the soft tissue near the bone, and leukaemia. Risk of cancer increases with increased exposure to Sr-90. The risk depends on the concentration of Sr-90 in the environment, and on the exposure conditions." - (M Simon, The Earth Times, 2011)

Uranium Mining

Uranium occurs within the layers of the crust and is mined out either through open case or deep mining. Once retrieved, uranium ore is crushed, dissolved chemically in an acid solution and extracted. There are many complicated steps, in the nuclear energy process to make it transform it into a fuel-source, once the raw material is acquired. Top uranium mining countries supplying the raw material in this chain are Kazakhstan, Canada and Australia. Mine workers are constantly exposed to radioactive gas and dust particles, easily inhaled. At a general level the lungs of mineworkers are compromised by working in high risk occupational conditions, add radioactive particles to the equation and their lungs, immune system and other organs are compromised irrevocably. The tailings dams are also high in radioactive content, remaining as toxic ponds that leach into the environment, causing acid leaching into the soil, surface and groundwater. Pollution knows no boundary, it will move across the three mediums of transfer in an instance, from air to soil to water, and reversibly so. So, all the dust and liquid tailings affect not only the boundary-line of the mines but the entire community and beyond.

Nuclear Waste Production and Disposal

While radioactive waste comes from all sectors in-use from low level hospital waste to the high level produced by energy reactions, weapons production and industrial usage; low does not mean non-toxic or low-toxic, radioactive waste-streams are extremely hazardous.

"Nuclear waste remains radioactive for thousands of years and the nuclear industry has not come up with a technological process to deal with this highly toxic waste and similarly as toxic chemical industry dump their waste in the ground, so does the nuclear industry. Assessing hazardous waste in general must include the risks involved in handling, containing, transport and storage of radioactive nuclear waste, the greatest risks being posed to the floor workers, the public and the natural environment - (M Simon, The Earth Times, 2011)."

In the entire unnatural nuclear cycle of production, radioactive waste produced in the reactors and fuel rods are at their most deadly. The most preferred method of 'landfilling' nuclear waste is 1 640 ft (500m) down under. This lethal 'corpse' introduced into the earth's layers gives nuclear waste proponent's peace of mind and the 'Out-of sight! Out of mind!' mentality infects society at large, accepting their energy without a thought to the dangerous process they are not only buying into but demanding from suppliers. While the endless triple-sealing containment and geologically-stable argument is used to dilute the debate of the greenies, if there is one things humans have not learnt is that the forces within the Earth cannot be rated with predictions; plate movements, seismic activity and new fault lines may arise without expectation and then what will come of the faith in the containment and arrogant confidence "our safe guaranteed disposal presents zero risk to the environment". I feel so safe, don't you!

And while abundant and easily accessible natural energy supply options exists without all these toxic worries, governments proceed, unabated with promoting more nuclear energy options.

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