Minding Mines: The Imperative for Making Nuclear Energy Cleaner

On December 20, 1951, the United States switched on the first peaceful nuclear power reactor the world had ever seen: Experimental Breeder Reactor-I.­­ The reactor provided just enough energy to power four 200-watt lightbulbs, proving that a nuclear power reactor could be used to generate electricity. By the next day, the scientists had the reactor powering the entire building. Over the ensuing decades, nuclear power steadily gained popularity, heralded as a low-polluting, cheap, and efficient method of generating electricity. However, the key ingredient that powers the nuclear power plants, uranium, has a dark history. Uranium mining is fraught with danger, and causes major negative health and environmental impacts in the areas where it is extracted. In many cases, it causes irreparable damage to the land surrounding mining and milling sites, proving particularly devastating to local Native American communities. However, new technologies and mining techniques have come to light in recent years that could help to alleviate the problematic aspects of the practice. America needs to implement more modern and advanced uranium mining methods to curb the damage being done to both Native American populations and the environment.

Nuclear energy depends on uranium’s enormous energy potential. To harness it, reactors take advantage of the fact that one of uranium’s isotopes, U-235, has an unstable, easily-split nucleus. Splitting one atom of U-235 releases massive amounts of heat energy and sends its neutrons flying into the nuclei of surrounding uranium atoms. These atoms split, too, creating a cascade that provides heat energy until the uranium is depleted over the course of months or even years. The heat energy released from the process is used to make steam, which is then used to spin a turbine generator to create electricity. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, “One uranium fuel pellet creates as much energy as one ton of coal or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas.”

This efficiency, however, comes at a steep cost. While naturally mined uranium ore is relatively harmless if it stays outside the body, the mining process causes the release of fine particles of uranium and radon – one of its byproducts – creating a radioactive gas dangerous to miners when inhaled. Radon has been proved to cause bronchial and lung cancer, a fact known since the 1920s. The second component uranium is highly toxic when ingested in fine particles and can cause birth defects in fetuses and infants, harm to the kidneys and other inner organs, and a heightened risk of leukemia. Unfortunately, however, the harmful effects do not stop here. In order to extract uranium from the uranium ore, it must be processed in a uranium mill located near a mining site. Conventional uranium milling leaves behind a toxic and radioactive sludge of chemicals after uranium is extracted from the mined ore. This sludge is known to contaminate groundwater and spread harmful substances to surrounding wells, rivers, and bodies of water. Additionally, wind erosion can carry radioactive uranium and radon particles miles away from the mining and milling sites.

Uranium mining is fraught with danger, and causes major negative health and environmental impacts in the areas where it is extracted from the earth

In the United States, as is often the case, the negative environmental consequences are disproportionately felt by a vulnerable minority group: Native Americans. In the nineteenth century, uranium deposits were discovered in large quantities on or around Native American land. These discoveries prompted the mass-mining of uranium in close proximity to native communities. According to a 2015 study, 90 percent of uranium milling took place on or just outside of the boundaries of Native American lands. Though mining companies surely brought jobs to these communities, they hid the harmful effects of uranium extraction and milling from the workers and community leaders. Out of the 150 Navajo uranium miners who worked in a mine in Shiprock, New Mexico until the 1970s, 133 died of lung cancer or fibrosis – both linked to uranium mining – by 1980. Furthermore, when mining sharply decreased in the 70s and 80s and thousands of mines were abandoned, the mining companies did little to nothing to seal them, leaving them to continue to wreak their harmful effects on the surrounding areas.

Despite the many horrifying effects that uranium mining inflicts, it still occurs today. In 2016, seven mines and one mill were still operating in the United States, with many still located near Native American lands. Yet modern innovations may preserve the potential of nuclear power while also offsetting the health and environmental hazards once thought to be endemic to the industry. One unique and valuable aspect of nuclear energy is that the waste is recyclable. Spent fuel can be treated in a recycling plant and then reused in another reactor. In fact, typical reactors only extract a small percentage of the energy in their fuel. Reutilizing these fuels could provide a huge supply of new energy while more effectively managing the demand for uranium. Indeed, every US home could be run solely off the energy from recycled nuclear waste for nearly 12 years. Additionally, once recycled waste has been reused in a reactor, the final recycled waste decays within a few hundred years, as opposed to the roughly one-million-year period that standard nuclear waste takes to decompose.

In the United States, as is often the case, the weight of the effects of uranium mining and milling have been and are disproportionately felt by a vulnerable minority group: Native Americans

While this may sound like a far-off hope or a science fiction plot, nuclear waste recycling has already been implemented around the world. France has successfully refined and utilized this process on a large scale: The French protocols have been so effective that nuclear energy accounts for 80 percent of the country’s electricity. In contrast, the United States put a ban on nuclear waste reprocessing in 1977 due to concerns about the possibility that repurposed nuclear waste could be used to create weapons of mass destruction. Since then, the United States has spent decades storing its nuclear waste under Yucca Mountain, a desolate repository in the desert of Nevada. But these concerns raised decades ago have proved groundless; under the strict scrutiny of the International Atomic Energy Agency, multiple other countries – such as France – have utilized nuclear waste recycling with no proliferation-related incidents. Appropriate oversight and safety precautions make this calculus against waste recycling obsolete, and the time has come for the United States to reconsider this outdated policy.

In addition to getting the most out of the uranium in reactors, responsible mining policies are necessary for making nuclear energy a truly clean resource. In recent years, a new and exciting method of uranium extraction has come into the realm of possibility: seawater mining. The oceans of the world contain over four billion tons of uranium, which, according to estimates by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), is enough to power the entire globe for over 10,000 years. For decades, scientists have puzzled over how to extract this uranium. PNNL has finally found the solution: coated polyethylene fibers that bind to uranium dioxide. Essentially, fibers are attached to the ocean floor, where they bind to uranium dioxide for about a month, at which point they become fully saturated. A wireless signal from a boat can then release the fibers so that they float to the surface and the uranium they hold can be collected. Additionally, because underwater rocks containing uranium continue to leech more uranium dioxide to maintain a constant concentration in the sea, seawater harvesting turns nuclear energy into a renewable energy source, all while simultaneously removing the burden of harm from vulnerable Native American populations.

There is, however, the potential to utilize less harmful methods to fuel America’s nuclear power plants

For these programs to take off, however, the United States government needs to take an active role in the process. Instead of making deals with nuclear energy companies to ship their waste away to be buried under Yucca Mountain, it should give subsidies and tax breaks to corporations to cover the startup costs of nuclear waste reprocessing systems. France has been able to implement recycling systems while only adding six percent to their total costs. Combined with the emerging seawater mining techniques, these two methods could completely halt all uranium mining near or on Native American land and make nuclear energy a clean and viable fuel alternative. It’s time for the United States to change its nuclear policy and make this renewable resource sustainable not just for the planet, but for all of its inhabitants.