Uranium ore was used since the 1st century in Rome to give a yellow glaze to ceramic tiles and then later in the glass making industry. The German scientist Klaproth discovered uranium and recognized it as a new element. Becquerel discovered the radioactive properties in 1896, and Enrico Fermi discovered the fission properties in 1934. Meitner and Frisch invented the term ‘nuclear fission’, and later research helped to establish that sustained fission reaction, with the release of a tremendous amount of energy was possible with uranium.
These discoveries lead to the understanding that the element could be used to develop nuclear weapons. Several countries entered the race to develop nuclear weapons, and the USA was the first and only nation to detonate two nuclear bombs in Japan. One kilogram of uranium has the potential to generate the energy equivalent of 1500 tons of coal. The main difference between the two is that the latent energy of uranium can be released in a single burst, vaporizing everything in the area (Murray and Keith 12). Next sections discuss the socio-economic factors that drive the mining and use of uranium.
Uranium ore deposits are found in a few countries. Deposits are found in undeveloped and emerging countries such as Kazakhstan, Niger, Namibia, Uzbekistan, and China as well as advanced economies such as the USA, Russia, Australia, and Canada. In 2016, global output rose to 62,012 tons. In 2016, Kazakhstan produced the highest quantity of ore, amounting to 24,575 tons, Canada was next with 14,039 tons, and Australia was third with 6,315 tons. These quantities may appear small when compared to iron ore or coal that is extracted in quantities of millions of tons (Nuclear Energy Agency 15).
Societal issues are different in these two groups of nations. Raw uranium ore has trace amounts of radioactive properties. Prolonged exposure to the ore and inhaling radon gas emitted by the ore, causes lung cancer. This illness is seen among mine workers and communities living near these deposits and causes long-term radioactivity poisoning. Milling, a process where the ore is ground to fine particles, and leaching, where these particles are chemically treated to produce uranium, pose high risks to workers.
Other diseases include kidney deformity, lung, renal and blood cancer, chromosome aberrations, birth deformity, etc. Advanced nations provide sufficient safety gear to workers for protection. In poor countries such as Namibia, workers have little protection and incidences of lung cancer and heart problems are very high. A large number of open and abandoned uranium mines are seen in Navajo areas and indigenous people suffer from radioactive poisoning (Voyles 47).
Uranium ore mining, extraction and use see immense political pressure and manipulation. The US formed the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947 with a view to control uranium and production. At the height of the cold war, Soviet Russia and its satellite states made concerted efforts to retain their nuclear power. Uranium ore and processed uranium are tightly controlled and sold only to members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a group of 48 countries that seek to control the production and use of uranium and nuclear weapons. The main problem is that uranium, sold for energy production can be used to make nuclear weapons.
Therefore, NSG authorizes the sale of the mineral only to countries that can demonstrate that the uranium and nuclear power is used for the peaceful purpose. Membership to driven by political pressures. China vetoed against membership for India, and wants the same benefits for Pakistan, a country that sold nuclear secrets to North Korea and Iran. Clearly, power and political blocks are established (Nuclear Suppliers Group).
Cost of uranium ore recovery from assured sources is about $ 260/kgU. International prices fluctuate and the US had even created an artificial scarcity by cornering available sources, leading to the uranium bubble of 2005-7, when uranium price increased to more than $300/kg. As of 2017, there are 437 commercial nuclear reactors in 30 nations, generating of 2,262 Terra Watt Hours (TWh) of electricity. The amount of uranium consumed for weapons is not clear, but requirements for weapons-grade uranium is for 25 times more refined than the one used in the nuclear reactor. The current price of uranium is $26.5/ lb (Nuclear Energy Agency 28).
Across the world, there is a severe criticism against nuclear energy, even though it has a very low emission. While coal and oil powered plants add a significant amount of emissions and carbon to the environment, the carbon footprint of nuclear power plants is negligible. Criticism comes from the inherent dangers of nuclear plants, the vast dangers that a meltdown in these plants can cause, and the potential of using the enriched fissile material to make nuclear bombs.
Many European countries have begun phasing out nuclear power plants. However, alternative energy sources such as solar and wind currently do not have the potential of producing an equivalent amount of power. Therefore, future demand is expected to gradually decline (Trutnevyte 175).
Economics of uranium mining and nuclear power plants is a much-debated issue. Some authors argue that uranium mining and milling add hundreds of jobs to the local economy besides benefits of taxes to the local counties. These benefits are possible, provided all the negative impacts from uranium mining are neutralized. Costs of nuclear plant construction are very high, in the range of $1500-$2000 / kilo watt. These plants take many years to build, they require very large areas for the plant and surrounding areas must be cleared.
Cost of electricity generation depends on the availability of uranium, plant location, distance to distribution points, and other factors. When the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) is considered, in the USA, costs for an advanced nuclear plant are $95.9-$104.3/ Megawatt hours. For a coal fire plant with 30% carbon sequestration, it is $129.9-$196.3 / Megawatt hours, for a Natural Gas-fired Conventional Combined Cycle it is $52.40-83.2/ MWh, for onshore wind it is $43.4-75.6/ MWh, and solar PV is it $58.3-$143/ MWh. Solar and wind energy are more economical, nonpolluting, and they do not pose any dangers.
However, their capacity to generate steady power is low, solar power is available in summer months in desert and tropical areas, and wind power is available for a few months in areas with strong winds. Therefore, the available sources of power are coal, gas, and nuclear power plants (Schröder 6).
Uranium mining presents a number of environmental problems. These include acid mine drainage, surface and ground water toxicity, dewatering effects with pumping water from mines, toxic waste and tailings fallout, general effects of mining caused by damming, rock blasts, excavation, surface and open pit mining, toxic effluents from processing, leaching and milling, radiological effects on humans, aquatic and animal life, poisoning of invertebrates, insects, and other organisms that are a part of the food chain, etc.
When water is contaminated, it will diffuse to major water ways, leach into the soil, and remain radioactive for millions of years. Some of these effects are seen in mining and processing steel, coals, aluminum and other minerals. However, uranium causes radioactive poisoning, and affected person cannot recover. The radioactive strength of refined and enriched uranium isotopes is many times higher. However, people are not exposed to these isotopes since they are found only in nuclear reactor cores or in the fallout after a nuclear plant meltdown.
Danger from nuclear weapons exists and there is a possibility of a rogue nation such as North Korea, Pakistan or Iran using them. There is a consistent danger that terror groups may procure a ‘dirty bomb’, which will kill thousands of exposed citizens, when it is detonated in a crowded city. In any case, environmental dangers from accidental uranium contamination are very high (Committee on Uranium Mining in Virginia).
The paper examined social and economic factors behind uranium mining, processing, and use. Uranium forms the basic raw material from isotopes of uranium are enriched. In its natural, raw state, uranium is not harmful. Prolonged exposure to uranium ore and processes such as milling and leaching can lead to various types of cancer and birth deformities. The numbers of countries that mine uranium are limited.
Uranium sale and consumption see political manipulation, and the mineral sold to only countries that have a record of using it for power generation. The economics of power generation of nuclear plants indicates that nuclear power compares with coal plants, that the cost is less than that of solar and wind power systems. It is possible that if alternative energy systems become more effective, nuclear power plants will be phased out.
Committee on Uranium Mining in Virginia. “Potential Environmental Effects of Uranium Mining, Processing, and Reclamation.” National Research Council, 2011. Web.
Murray, Raymond, and Keith Holbert. Nuclear Energy: An Introduction to the Concepts, Systems, and Applications of Nuclear Processes. Elsevier, 2014
Nuclear Energy Agency. Uranium 2016: Resources, Production and Demand. International Atomic Energy Agency, 2016.
Nuclear Suppliers Group. “About The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).” Nuclear Suppliers Group, 2017. Web.
Schröder, Andreas. Current and Prospective Costs of Electricity Generation until 2050: No. 68. German Institute for Economic Research, 2013.
Trutnevyte, Evelina. “Synergies and Trade-Offs between Governance and Costs in Electricity System Transition.” Energy Policy, vol. 85, 2015, pp. 170-181.
Voyles Traci. Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country. University of Minnesota Press, 2015.