Although nuclear is often touted as a clean energy which is many times more environmentally friendly than fossil fuel based power, nuclear power stations come with their own set of problems. One of the greatest of these is the mining process to extract uranium from the Earth. This is one of the most environmentally destructive methods of mining on the planet for a number of reasons. If the mines are located in a well regulated country such as Australia or Canada then they are usually required to follow a lot of environmental regulations[sc:1]. However, many poorer countries don’t have these regulations. This often leads to huge problems due to both the toxicity of uranium and the mining methods used.
According to the World Nuclear Association (WAD) – one of the main controlling bodies in the nuclear industry – emerging uranium producing countries usually have little or no environmental or health and safety rules[sc:2]. This means that despite the best efforts of activists and other people who care about the environment, uranium mining is allowed to go on without being checked.
Another big problem which is especially evident in the nuclear and mining industries is that of transparency. Companies which mine uranium are not transparent. Journalists are prevented from reporting on the problems caused by the mining and purification process, which prevents the issues from being addressed[sc:2].
What are the environmental problems associated with uranium extraction?
As we have already established, uranium mining is an extremely destructive and problematic process. It uses a rage of toxic chemicals, pollutes local water supplies, and results in millions of tonnes of toxic waste every year.
The average nuclear reactor requires 25 tonnes of uranium every year. The production of this involves the following waste products:
- Over half a million tonnes of waste rock
- Over 100,000 tonnes of mill tailings
- 144 tonnes of solid waste
- 1343 cubic meters of liquid waste
In well regulated countries such as the US or Australia, these waste products are placed in regulated dumps which are regularly checked to ensure they aren’t emitting too much radiation. However, in poorer countries – particularly in Africa – these regulations don’t exist. The waste is dumped on empty land, fed into waterways, or placed too close to villages or towns. When this happens, the radioactivity of the waste and the fact that uranium is as toxic as lead mean that environmental health is adversely affected[sc:2].
Even in regulated countries, huge problems still occur. For example, at the Beverley mine in South Australia a leaching process is used to purify the uranium. This finishes with radioactive, acidic wastewater making its way directly into the underground aquifer – which is potentially used by farmers and communities across the state[sc:3].
Although nuclear power is touted as ‘renewable’ and ‘carbon free’, it is not! The uranium extraction and purification process requires huge amounts of energy, most of which come from fossil fuels. This means that uranium extraction actually contributes to global warming and climate change, as well as exposing countless people across the globe to radioactivity and other toxins[sc:4].
Uranium mining is an environmentally destructive and unsustainable process which needs to be either stopped or much, much more heavily regulated by an international organisation. Failing that, we are going to see huge problems in the coming years due to the unregulated pollution and toxic waste dumping.