The Uranium Pathway
From out of the Ground to a Legacy of Waste
In 1789, Heinrich Klaproth isolated a new element from a mineral called pitchblende. He called it uranium after the planet Uranus. It is an unstable, radioactive heavy metal with the atomic number 92. The Nuclear Age started in 1938 when nuclear fission was discovered. Uranium became the raw material for nuclear bombs and nuclear energy.
Uranium can be found in different uranium minerals. Uranium ore consists of these minerals and the surrounding rock. To extract the ore, varying amounts of material - the spoil - need to be removed, depending on the location. Uranium concentration in the ore varies significantly. For a “normal” uranium content of 0.1 percent for example, 1,000 tonnes of ore need to be extracted for one ton of uranium. For a long time, uranium was extracted exclusively using either the underground or open pit mining methods. Starting in the 1980s, in-situ leaching has been the preferred process.
With conventional extraction, the ore is mechanically broken up, ground down and the uranium is then extracted by chemical leaching. This produces uranium oxide U3O8 with 99.284 weight percent of non-fissile uranium-238 and only 0.711 weight percent of fissile uranium-235. The yellowcake that is produced contains up to 75 percent uranium. The resulting toxic sludge, the so called tailings, are permanently stored in huge ponds above ground.
THE MINING HERITAGE
As much as 99.9 percent of the uranium ore is left behind in the tailings ponds. Even after a mine closes, the tailings are the reason that mining areas remain radioactively contaminated. In the USA, these regions have been termed a “National Sacrifice Area”. They are mostly located on the lands of Indigenous peoples.
In conversion plants, yellowcake is first converted into uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) and then uranium hexafluoride (UF6) required for uranium enrichment.
There are 13 uranium enrichment plants operating worldwide. Globally, 38 fuel-rod factories produce fuel for the world’s nuclear plants. Even though Germany is abandoning nuclear power, it remains an indefinite part of the uranium economy with an enrichment plant and a nuclear fuel factory.
Uranium-235 enriched to three to five percent, is used for the production of fuel rods for nuclear power plants in 31 countries. More than 70 % of nuclear energy worldwide is produced in the United States, France, China, Russia and South Korea.
Auf über 90 Prozent angereichertes Uran-235 wird für Kernwaffen benutzt. Bei der Zündung einer Atombombe wird das spaltbare Material (Uran-235 oder Plutonium) zur kritischen Masse vereinigt. Es
kommt zu einer nuklearen Kettenreaktion und damit zur Atomexplosion
A DANGEROUS BY-PRODUCT
Depleted uranium (DU) mostly contains uranium-238 and only 0.2 to 0.3 weight percent of uranium-235. This extremely dense heavy metal is essentially nuclear waste, but is categorized as raw material and is used for armor-piercing ammunition.
In reprocessing plants in China, France, India, Pakistan and Russia, plutonium is extracted from spent fuel rods. This multiplies the overall amount of nuclear waste by a factor of ten.
At every stage, from uranium mining to reprocessing, radioactive waste is produced. Worldwide there are approximately 350,000 tonnes of highly radioactive waste awaiting safe storage – not including the waste dumps at the uranium mines. No country on Earth has yet opened a storage site for these radioactive waste deposits.
The initial task of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria, was to promote and establish the civilian use of nuclear energy in UN members states. Today, while still promoting nuclear power, it also focuses on deterring the spread of enriched uranium and plutonium.
Many people living in nuclear states around the world are actively opposed to uranium mining. Resistance is even growing in the countries where uranium is mined. At least 70 percent of the uranium in circulation worldwide is mined on the land of Indigenous communities and tribal peoples. On every continent, Indigenous representatives are demanding: Leave uranium in the ground! The Australian rainbow serpent has become a symbol for the worldwide movement: According to an Aboriginal warning, the serpent is sleeping below ground and must not be awakened, because mankind cannot tame her powers.