Uranium mining – Risks for people and the environment

Mining is one of the most environmentally damaging industrial activities there is: Huge mining sites and tailings repositories spoil whole rural areas during and after mining projects. Tailings mixed with chemicals and salts have to be deposited in huge landfills capable of holding many millions of tons. Often seepage containing heavy metals and chemicals and loaded with salt trickles into the groundwater, making any production of drinking water impossible over wide areas for long periods of time. As a result of dam-bursts that still occur today, millions of cubic meters of ore slurry are sometimes carried downstream, turning streams and rivers into toxic sewage waters over many years.

Uranium mining and waste treatment

There are additional burdens associated with uranium mining which exacerbate the above-mentioned problems: Dust contaminated with radon and radioactivity cause radiation in the ambient air. Since the uranium content in the ore is frequently extremely low (approx. 0.03 per cent) there are huge quantities of mining residues – so-called tailings.

Uranium – used as the basis for nuclear fuel production – was mined in Germany up to the early 1990s and is still mined today across the world. From experiences gathered during redevelopment of former uranium mining areas in Eastern Germany, we know today that the accumulation of many million tons of tailing material without a sensible waste concept leads to subsequent costs for the clean-up running to many millions of Euros.

The mining and processing of ore is still causing environmental damage of huge proportions, particularly in newly industrialising and developing countries. The reason for this is often insufficient project planning during which environmental factors do not feature at all or play only a very minor role. Yet the list of environmental problems and health risks associated with this industrial activity is long. For example, radioactive contamination of groundwater and ambient air renders entire areas permanently out of bounds. Other problems include soil contaminated with radiation, sludge and other materials that are often not sufficiently enclosed in landfills and tailings repositories, and contaminated parts of the milling facilities processing the uranium rock that are safely permanently disposed of.

Oeko-Institut’s expertise in this field

Oeko-Institut has been working on the risks of uranium mining for many years. In a number of export reports its researchers have analysed the concepts for subsequent uses of the rehabilitated sites (most notably of Wismut GmbH in Germany) and made suggestions for improving the safe permanent disposal and cover of uranium mine residues. Furthermore the the institute’s researchers have assessed the problems of uranium mining projects worldwide in a number of reports and provided expert support in the form of analyses which stress the importance of suitably skilled management of the waste arising in uranium mining projects.

BUGA 2007: Assessment of radiation exposure at a former uranium mining site

From April to October 2007 the cities of Gera and Ronneburg in the state of Thuringia held the German national garden show (Bundesgartenschau, BUGA). The horticultural exhibition largely took place on the re-cultivated land of a former uranium mining site belonging to Wismut GmbH. And although the repositories with uranium material were removed and the area covered with a metre-high layer of soil, several visitors had misgivings and questions about whether heightened exposure to radiation could still arise in the former core areas of uranium mining in Eastern Germany.

Against this background Wismut GmbH commissioned Oeko-Institut to assess whether and to what extent visiting the BUGA site involved exposure to radiation and whether particular precautionary measures – especially for children or pregnant women – should be taken. Oeko-Institut’s analysis reached the conclusion that the radiation limits applicable in Germany are adhered to – even in the case of permanent residence at the BUGA site. For visitors to BUGA sites who only stayed for a short period of time (i.e. just a few hours), the registered levels were many times lower than the legally set radiation limits.

Subsequent use of mining sites

If a mining site is reclaimed to a high standard and with great effort, the question of whether and how the rehabilitated sites can then be used does not apply to BUGA alone. The question of whether heightened exposure to radiation results and what subsequent uses for the land are compatible also applies to the landfills currently under reclamation in Thuringia and Saxony.

These questions have been addressed by Oeko-Institut in a number of expert reports. These reports have found that with any re-use of the area it has to be ensured that the protective barriers on the radioactive waste are retained or even further supported by the redevelopment. Only then is no significant exposure to radiation likely – either today or in the future. All uses that substantially interfere with these protective barriers or weaken them directly or indirectly are not possible in the long term. It is useful and helpful to take into account the possible subsequent uses of the area within the scope of the redevelopment concept to reduce the additional effort and costs involved.

More care urged in the planning process

Oeko-Institut is calling for more care to be taken in the ore extraction and disposal processes of existing uranium mining projects. Those who want to minimize the negative consequences for people and the environment and receive a more positive sustainability assessment have to make all process steps sustainable at an early stage in project planning – and ultimately implement them. In the permit application, information has to be provided on the most urgent issues, e.g. reduction of radiation exposure for the workers; management of dust contaminated with radioactivity in the ambient area as well as of tailings and seepage; shutdown and mining retreat. Only then can the high costs for subsequent rehabilitation (which can cost billions of Euros) be minimized. This especially applies to countries where the short-term economic success of uranium mining is often prioritized over the interests of public safety, environmental protection and the sustainable use of raw materials.