Burdensome regulation, politics, and bad policy hamper access to
available energy resources in the United States. The nation can now
add uranium to the list of energy resources that local, state, and
federal bureaucrats have deemed off-limits, which includes oil in
the Arctic, off-shore natural gas, coastal wind, and cellulosic
The nation's largest known uranium deposit was discovered in the
1980s on a farm in southern Virginia. The owner of that land has
recently explored the possibility of mining the approximately $10
billion worth of uranium believed to be on the site. Despite the
fact that uranium has been mined safely around the world for
decades, including in New Mexico, Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming,
Virginia bureaucrats have decided to prohibit land owners from even
studying the viability of mining.
As the only proven power source that affordably provides large
amounts of primarily domestic energy without atmospheric emissions,
nuclear energy is a logical choice for a nation struggling to
reconcile its energy policy with its economic, environmental, and
security objectives. Like other large power generators, nuclear
power plants need fuel. In the U.S., that fuel is uranium. As
nuclear power expands, it will be critical that uranium resources
are accessible when mining can be done in a safe and economical
Uranium: A Must-Have for Nuclear
To produce the same amount of electricity, nuclear power
requires far less fuel than does coal, natural gas, petroleum and
other energy sources. Still, some fuel is required.
Uranium is found throughout the world, but quantities sufficient
to be mined economically are limited to a few known regions. Canada
has the highest grade uranium while Australia has the most.
Kazakhstan, South Africa, Niger, Namibia, and Brazil also have
significant deposits. The U.S. has about 3 percent-4 percent of the
world's known uranium and produces about 4.3 percent of the world's
supply despite operating about one-quarter of the world's
commercial power reactors.
Natural uranium is critical in the production of electricity
through nuclear power. In its natural state, uranium consists of
several isotopes. The isotope needed to conduct fission--the
process that creates the heat necessary to produce power--is
uranium-235 (U-235) and makes up 0.7 percent of naturally occurring
uranium. The remainder is primarily uranium-238 (U-238).
However, for fission to be sustained in U.S. light water
reactors, the uranium fuel must consist of approximately 3
percent-5 percent U-235. To reach this level, natural uranium must
be enriched. Once the correct level of U-235 is attained, the
uranium is manufactured into small pellets about the size of a
pencil eraser. Each uranium pellet contains as much energy as 150
gallons of oil.
Increasing Demand for Uranium
Increasing production of nuclear power and higher production
efficiency (which results in more fuel usage)
inevitably mean a higher demand for uranium. Uranium production
from mines eclipsed 39,000 tons in 2006. According to the World
Nuclear Association, uranium requirements for fuel reactors could
surpass 100,000 tons by 2020. Given that more than half of
the world's uranium production comes from three countries, the U.S.
faces substantial incentives to increase access to domestic uranium
A nuclear renaissance is emerging worldwide. Countries like the
United Kingdom, China, India, and Russia are planning significant
expansions of nuclear energy; other nations are also planning new
reactors. Indeed, some 35 reactors are under construction today
throughout the world. U.S companies are planning to build up to 30
new reactors--though none have actually started
Building all of these reactors would likely put substantial
pressure on current uranium supplies. This is one reason why the
United States must consider tapping more of its own uranium
reserves. One place where that could happen is in Pittsylvania
County, Virginia, where a 200-acre farm sits on an estimated 110
million pounds of uranium. This could fuel each of America's 104
nuclear reactors, which provide the U.S. with 20 percent of its
electricity, for two years. Regrettably, Virginia banned uranium mining
in 1982 and exhibits little inclination to reconsider this needless
Despite rising energy prices, government at all levels continues
to deny Americans access to significant portions of the nation's
energy resources. These legislative, bureaucratic, and procedural
barriers are even more bizarre considering growing calls for energy
independence. This affects uranium mining as well as Alaskan oil
drilling, off-shore gas exploration, and wind farms.
Ironically, Virginia has a rich history of supporting nuclear
power and continues to depend on it today. Its ban on uranium
mining demonstrates the impact that anti-nuclear propaganda has had
on the population. Virginia gets 38 percent of its electricity from
four nuclear reactors and will likely be among the first to build a
new reactor in the United States. Beyond that, Virginia hosts a
variety of other nuclear-related industries, including the nuclear
qualified Newport News naval shipyard, which is one of the nation's
only two with that capability.
Virginia will surely not be the only place in the U.S. that
attempts to prohibit access to uranium reserves as rising demand
spurs exploration activities. Three decades of anti-nuclear
propaganda continues to influence the public perception of nuclear
Mining is Expanding Around the
As noted, uranium is mined safely all over the world, including
in several U.S. states. Although existing stocks are meeting
current demand along with secondary sources, the uranium market
could tighten significantly unless additional mines are explored.
As new power plants are brought on-line, the U.S. could play a key
role in meeting future demand with state and federal policies that
allow entrepreneurs to invest in accessing uranium reserves. Of
course, federal oversight agencies would still play an important
role in protecting public safety.
In 2006, more than half of the world's uranium supply came from
Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan, with Canada supplying one-fourth
on its own. The U.S. accounted for only 4.24 percent of all uranium
production. A decade ago, U.S. mines produced 2,400
tons of uranium and provided 1,100 jobs for American workers; these
numbers dropped to as low as 1,100 tons and 321 jobs in 2003.
Although production has steadily increased since then, the extent
of proven reserves, especially in Wyoming and New Mexico, indicates
that the U.S. could greatly contribute significantly to the
forthcoming increase in demand for uranium.
Ultimately, estimates of the world's proven reserves are not
100-percent accurate, but figures indicate that Australia (35
percent) and Canada (13 percent) have considerably higher
percentages of total world reserves than the United States (3-4
percent). According to the World Nuclear Association, most of the
uranium in the United States is categorized as low-cost mining,
which is an assessment based on the ease with which it can be mined
and the quality of the ore.
Other former uranium mining countries are also considering the
possibility of reentering the market; for instance, Finland, which
has not mined the ore in 45 years. Finland currently receives
28 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and has a new
plant under construction. The country is also implementing a
comprehensive program to support its nuclear activities.
Uranium is mined in one of three ways. Deposits up to 100 meters
below the surface are generally mined through open-pit mining.
Deeper reserves are normally accessed through underground mining.
These underground mines are heavily ventilated to protect workers
from radiation exposure. When the ore is of a high enough grade, it
is sometimes partially processed underground to further protect
workers from radiation exposure.
When conditions are right, a third method called in-situ
leaching (ISL) can be very advantageous. This is the method most
often used in the U.S. ISL entails dissolving the below-surface
uranium into a low-acidic solution and then pumping it to the
surface. This permits the extraction of uranium with minimal
ground-level disturbance. Groundwater is then cleanly restored
after the removal of uranium. Even as the U.S. imports
approximately 80 percent of its uranium requirements, technological
advancements in ISL have substantially lowered the costs of
Once the ore is mined, it must be milled: the process by which
the uranium is separated from other substances. These facilities
are sometimes located near the mines.
The milling process depends on the state of the uranium when it
is removed from the ground. Unless it was already leached, the ore
must be crushed and treated with an acid solution to separate out
the uranium. It is then further purified through a number of
chemical processes. The resulting uranium-rich liquid is then dried
into a powder called uranium oxide concentrate (U3O8), also known
as yellow-cake. After further refinement, the yellow-cake is ready
for the next steps in the fuel production process, which are
separate from the mining/milling processes.
Safety is and should be a paramount concern with uranium mining,
especially in densely populated areas like Pittsylvania County. The
reality is that the impact of uranium mining is not much different
from the impact of other mining. For one thing, natural uranium is
about as radioactive as granite. While there is often more
dangerous radium or radon with uranium, these elements are safely
managed to protect workers and the environment.
The two global leaders in uranium mining, Australia and Canada,
have set the standard in workers' safety. Both countries have
implemented strict regulations to control dust, minimize radiation
exposure, and control for any significant radon exposure. Radiation
doses are well below regulatory limits, according to the World
Radiation dose records compiled by mining companies under the
scrutiny of regulatory authorities have shown consistently that
mining company employees are not exposed to radiation doses in
excess of the limits. The maximum dose received is about half of
the 20 mSv/yr limit and the average is about one tenth of it.
In the U.S., most environmental and operational oversight is
conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission. These agencies have found that both mining
and ISL operations pose a low risk to the public.
Mill tailings, the byproduct of the mining/milling process,
are often the focus of safety concerns despite stringent
regulation. Like uranium ore itself, the tailings differ with
regard to radioactivity. During operations, the tailings are
usually stored underwater to protect the environment from danger.
Upon the cessation of mining activities, the tailings are safely
managed through a number of proven methods, which usually involves
returning them underground. Regardless of the method, the outcome
is that surface radiation is returned to pre-mining levels. Studies
have demonstrated that the impact of tailings on humans is
Another point of contention is the environmental footprint that
uranium mining can leave. The waste from conventional open-cut
mining and milling creates radioactive solid products that could
pose a danger. However, these byproducts are managed in a safe and
reasonable way that protects public health and the environment.
Regardless of the mining method, the sites are restored and
revegitated. In the case of ISL, because the only surface
disturbance is bore-hole drilling, the site is easily restored to
its original condition.
Nuclear energy is becoming globally recognized as a safe,
affordable, clean source of energy. Uranium is an important and
necessary component of nuclear energy, and firms choosing to pursue
uranium mining should not be unnecessarily burdened by fear and
government overreach. Uranium mining occurs all over the world, and
the United States should realize its potential to increase
America's share of the uranium mining sector. It has proven to be
safe for workers, the public, and the environment and is critical
to the ability of the U.S. to enjoy all of the advantages that
accrue from expansion of nuclear power.
Jack Spencer is Research
Fellow in Nuclear Energy, and Nicolas Loris is a Research
Assistant, in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy
Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Efficiency in this case is in reference to
capacity factor, which is a measurement of a reactor's actual power
production versus its theoretical maximum capacity.
"World Uranium Mining, Nuclear Issues
Briefing Paper 41," Australian Uranium Association, July 2007 at
www.uic.com.au/nip41.htm (March 19,
Global Nuclear Fuel Market: Supply and Demand 2005-2030," World
Nuclear Association, p. 8, 2005.
addition to freshly mined uranium, U.S. reactors also run on what
are known as secondary fuel sources. This usually consists of
highly enriched uranium from Russian warheads that has been diluted
to low-enriched levels through a process called downblending. This
downblended uranium has provided about one-half of America's
nuclear fuel, or 10 percent of all electricity produced, in recent
Australian Uranium Association, "World Uranium
Mining," Nuclear Issues Briefing Paper 41, July 2007, at www.uic.com.au/nip41.htm (March 19,
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Jack Spencer, "Finland's Rational Approach to
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and Challenges and a Proposed Center for In-situ Uranium Production
Enhancement and Restoration (CIUPER)," PowerPoint Presentation ,
Environmental Engineering Texas A&M University-Kingsville,
September 21, 2006, at www.stei.org/Presentations/ISL%20Mining%20Tech%20Advances%
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H. Stager, "Long Term Population Dose Due to Radon from Uranium
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