Uranium - Fueling the Nuclear Renaissance
Now let’s look at uranium and its role in generating electricity.
A unique, radioactive metal, uranium is found throughout the world, including trace amounts in our food and bodies. It’s about 500 times more common than gold; 35 times more common than silver. It’s even found in seawater!
Uranium varies in concentrations from low-grade ore found in the western United States, for example - to high-grade ore in northern Saskatchewan, Canada.
Right now, Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan produce over half the world’s supply.
In addition to fueling reactors, uranium is essential in other fields such as medicine, food safety, and space exploration.
Unfortunately, it is also associated with weapons.
So how does uranium produce electrical power?
During fission, the metal’s nucleus splits and releases energy. A controlled chain reaction occurs, generating even more power.
A pellet of enriched uranium is equal to over 1,700 pounds of coal! One pound of yellowcake, which is concentrated uranium, is equal to about 12 pellets - or 10 tons of coal!
Here’s a look at the uranium cycle - from mining and processing, to enrichment, fuel, and waste management.
Uranium is mined in three main ways: open pit, underground, and in-situ recovery - or ISR.
In open pit, the ore is excavated from a surface operation. Underground mining can take place shallow or deep within the earth, where the ore is brought to the surface. The recovered ore is then sent to a milling facility,where it is crushed and processed for solution extraction in a contained and controlled environment.
With in-situ-recovery or ISR, in North America, water and a solution similar to carbonated water are injected into the ground to dissolve the uranium, which is highly soluble. The slurry is pumped to the surface through recovery wells and processed.
Ultimately, the uranium is concentrated and dried into a powder called “yellowcake.”
The yellowcake is shipped to a conversion plant to become uranium hexafluoride gas, enriched to fuel-grade material, converted back to powder, and pressed into pellets.
The pellets are inserted into rods assembled in fuel bundles. Several hundred bundles make up a reactor’s core.
In the core, fission occurs and creates heat, which boils water and produces steam. The steam drives a turbine that in turn powers a generator, supplying grids - and cities and towns - with electricity.
Spent fuel is radioactive and requires long-term care.
Storage in deep, underground repositories is one method used.
Another is storage of spent fuel at reactor sites - in large internal water containers for cooling and monitoring.
Reprocessing is an option that helps reduce quantities. The fuel is separated into its components - and recycled!
Scientists continue to study ways to improve this final and important part of the uranium cycle.
Now let’s explore some key issues in uranium mining.
Although many strides have been made, mining by its nature is disruptive - but this doesn’t mean its environmental impact can’t be minimized!
Prevention is key. By being smart at the front-end of a project - and throughout - many problems can be avoided.
Progressive mining companies understand this!
But achieving this hasn’t been easy. Over the years, hard lessons have been learned.
In the 1950s to the ‘70s, for example, uranium mining in the western United States left serious legacy issues.
Radiation is also a key concern.
Today, the uranium cycle—from mining to nuclear power is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the world.
So how is uranium mining minimizing its footprint? Let’s look at four areas: earth, water, air, and human health.
Earth. Protecting the landscape, including plants, wildlife, livestock and feed is critical.
Water. It is imperative that radioactivity and contaminants from tailings and waste do not seep into surface or groundwater, and runoff is contained and monitored.
Air. Controlling tailings dust and emissions like radon gas is critical.
And finally, human health. Over the years, the mining industry as a whole has improved worker health and safety.
Uranium mining is also more community-focused. Towns and villages near operations can benefit through employment and training and from economic and infrastructure development.
So let’s recap.
We know that burning fossil fuels contributes to air pollution - and that nuclear energy offers a cleaner alternative.
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