The beginning of the end

Right at the beginning of uranium process, the most far-reaching environmental impacts are caused.

Published: 03. Aug. 2019
Story told by:

Bettie Yazzie

The husband of the 80 year old Navajo lady, Bettie Yazzie, died in 1974 from lung cancer after more than 10 years of working in the Union Carbide Corporation uranium mine in Colorado. Years later the U.S. government finally admitted and apologised for not having told them how dangerous uranium mining is.

Like other metals uranium is found as ore mineral in rock. However, the actual uranium content in the ore amounts to only 0.5%. Historically, uranium has primarily been mined underground or in open pit mines.

More recently, however, solution-based “leaching” of uranium has gained importance. In the “liquid” process, sulphuric acid or sodium hydroxide is directly channelled into underground reservoirs and the uranium containing solution is pumped to the surface. The most economically important uranium mines are located in Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, Brazil, India and more recently in Africa. For years, the quantities produced have not always covered the amount of uranium needed worlwide. This shortfall in the uranium market is primarily met through existing stockpiles, old nuclearweapons and reprocessed fuel elements.

Toxic tailings The production of the yellow uranium concentrate, or “yellowcake”, is done in processing plants near the mines. Sulphuric acid or alkali and large amounts of water are used to dissolve the uranium from the rock. The separation process leaves ever accumulating quantities of remainder rock and rubble – also known as tailings. These tailings are pumped into reservoirs in spite of containing many health damaging substances such as thorium, radium and heavy metals (including arsenic). The tailings continue to release 85% of their original radioactivity, only decreasing to a less dangerous level over a few hundred thousand years.

Contamination of humans and nature Radioactive dust is released in both the mining and milling of uranium. If this dust reaches a human body, radioactive material attacks the cells. Uranium miners are therefore exposed to a highly increased risk of cancer. Additionally, in the areas surrounding the mines, cancer rates in the local populations are higher-than-average. Numerous leaks and crevasses in the mine can cause radioactive waste from the tailing basin to enter the water cycle and contaminate ground and drinking water, lakes, rivers and even the air we breathe. The wind blows radioactive dust from the dried tailings all over the landscape. Radon gas will also escape and if it is inhaled, it can cause lung cancer. Animals in the vicinity of Australian mines exhibit significantly increased sterility and mutation rates. Since most uranium mines are located in arid regions, the high water consumption used in the mining also promotes the desertification of these regions.

At the expense of indigenous peoples The people who are most affected by uranium mining are indigenous peoples including the Native Americans (Navajo, Laguna, Acoma, and other tribes) in North America, the Tuareg in Niger, the Adivasi in India, and the Aboriginal people in Australia. About 70% of the uranium development areas are on indigenous peoples’ lands. Since their way of life is strongly rooted in local ecosystems, the radioactive contamination essentially means the annihilation of their livelihoods and cultures. Again and again ancestral populations have had to move, established communities have been destroyed and traditions have been disrupted. Often, the development of new uranium mines is accomplished through undemocratic processes. For example, the Australian Government has overridden their environmental laws, including their Water Act, along with the law supporting the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples, in order to support the Olympic Dam mining company.

The husband of the 80 year old Navajo lady, Bettie Yazzie, died in 1974 from lung cancer after more than 10 years of working in the Union Carbide Corporation uranium mine in Colorado. Years later the U.S. government finally admitted and apologised for not having told them how dangerous uranium mining is.