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Impacts of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Concerns about nuclear power often center on the radioactive waste created by nuclear power plants. There are, however, additional dangers. Before a reactor can even be operated, nuclear power requires the mining, milling and enrichment of uranium for fuel. All of these processes cause widespread environmental contamination along with serious health and safety hazards.

The mining process is conducted in open pits, underground mines or through the injection of sulfuric acid solutions into underground deposits to dissolve uranium (known as in situ leach mining). All of these processes have resulted in the contamination of groundwater with radioactive and heavy metals. In open-pit and underground mining, exposure to uranium dust and various radioactive gases has also caused high numbers of underground miners to suffer from lung and bone cancer.

Following mining, uranium is separated from the rock by crushing the ore and chemically treating it in a process known as milling. Milled uranium, referred to as yellow-cake, contains more than 80% uranium. This process creates a significant volume of long-lived radioactive rock – known as tailings - which release radon and pollute groundwater. The milling process also results in dangerously radioactive acid milling liquids (called liquor). In-situ leach mining - recently pushed as a safer mining method because it does not result in tailings and eliminates worker exposure - produces even larger amounts of similarly hazardous liquid waste which is temporarily stored in a retention pond, and later disposed of in a nearby aquifer or left to evaporate leaving a solid waste. These waste containment methods are not reliable. Containments of liquid waste have failed with disastrous consequences, such as the 1979 tailing dam burst in Churchrock, NM, which sent eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill wastes and ninety million gallons of contaminated liquid into the Rio Puerco River.

The final process - enrichment - increases the concentration of fissile uranium in the material that comes from milling. Uranium is composed of two major isotopes; fissionable U-235 constitutes around less than 1% of uranium and non-fissionable U-238 makes up the rest. Enrichment raises the concentration of fissionable U-235 uranium to 3-5 percent. This process creates large amounts of toxic hydrogen fluoride and depleted uranium.

Depleted uranium has devastating effects on human health causing reactive airway disease, neurological abnormalities, kidney stones and chronic kidney pain, rashes, vision degradation and night vision losses, gum tissue problems, lymphoma, various forms of skin and organ cancer, neuro-psychological disorders, uranium in semen, sexual dysfunction, and birth defects in offspring. These symptoms of uranium exposure have recently been experienced by employees at uranium manufacturing plants, residents in areas near uranium enrichment plants or depleted uranium/waste disposal sites, and military personnel who’s equipment is often made up of depleted uranium.

Additional Resource:

Uranium: The Dirty Fuel of Nuclear Power

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