Reducing the environmental effects of uranium mining

Uranium is an element used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants. It generates significant amounts of electricity with life-cycle carbon emissions that are as low as other renewable energy sources. However, the mining of this energy commodity continues to be controversial. This is due in part to the environmental and health impacts associated with the early years of uranium mining. Today, much of the regulation geared toward this industry is directed towards radiation protection. In addition, there are many myths, fears and misconceptions surrounding uranium production.

Key components include establishing an appropriate regulatory framework, planning for closure before the mine begins production, and requiring financial assurance from companies that they will cover the costs of closure and remediation, as well as the application of leading practices in order to minimize the radiation exposure of workers as well as the public.

Protection of water resources and the safe, long-term disposal of tailings and problematic waste rock also need to be addressed. Public consultation and information sharing, as well as environmental impact assessment and environmental monitoring throughout the life cycle of the mine, have also shown to be crucial components.

The NRC regulates and licenses uranium recovery facilities, including conventional mills and ISL operations. It has a long-standing practice of conducting regulatory responsibilities in an open manner so that the public is kept informed of its activities. The National Mining Association also holds meetings that are open to the public as well as an outreach strategy for federally recognized Indian tribes that may be interested in or affected by mining operations.

An environmental impact assessment is a process used to predict and minimize environmental effects of proposed initiatives before they are fully planned or undertaken. It is a planning and decision-making tool that is used to inform and engage members of the public and other interested parties as it provides all stakeholders with an overview of the project and details specific measures proposed to mitigate or minimize potential environmental impacts or effects that could arise if the project is to proceed. It determines if the baseline environmental data is sufficient and also identifies what key areas of the environment must be protected, as well as the adverse effects that must be avoided and what follow-up environmental monitoring programs must be put in place in order to assess the project. Some measures or goals to assess the effectiveness of the proposed controls or mitigation are also a recommended. This includes identifying the regulatory controls or oversight that will be required to ensure that the project satisfies all of the overall recommendations.

Monitoring wells are installed as dictated by geologic and hydrogeologic parameters. They are sampled biweekly for chloride, alkalinity, and conductivity and any samples that have more than two indicators at prescribed levels must be placed on excursion status and regulatory authorities notified by the uranium mining company within 24 hours. They are then monitored every seven days until the indicators return to non-excursion levels. The applicant would modify operations, as necessary, in order to correct the problem.

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