Uranium is a naturally occurring radioactive mineral that has been mined and utilized for over a thousand years for its unique chemical characteristics.
It is now used mainly as a fuel source for nuclear reactors that generate energy for various commercial and residential sectors. Uranium ore can be extracted in two ways: Conventional mining of the rock (ore) or through powerful chemicals to dissolve Uranium from the rock, which is then pumped to the surface.
Uranium Extraction Methods
In Situ Leaching
“In situ” is Latin, meaning “on the spot.” The mining method of injecting chemicals into the groundwater to dissolve Uranium in porous rocks is called In Situ Leaching.
In situ leaching is the preferred alternative to conventional mining when Uranium is detected in a groundwater-saturated location. It has also been hailed to have the least environmental impact and most minimal radiation exposure to workers. One major concern of ISL is the potential chemical contamination of groundwater.
How it Works:
A solution, known as lixiviant (usually includes water combined with oxygen or hydrogen peroxide and sodium carbonate or carbon dioxide), is pumped through a succession of wells into the ore body to dissolve the Uranium ore.
The lixiviant is then collected in a succession of recovery wells and piped to a processing plant, where Uranium is removed from the solution using an ion-exchange method.
The uranium extract is then refined, condensed, and dried to create a substance known as “yellowcake,” aptly termed for its distinctive yellow hue.
Finally, the yellowcake is packaged in 55-gallon barrels and shipped to a uranium conversion plant, where it is processed through the nuclear fuel cycle to create fuel for use in nuclear power reactors.
Underground mining is utilized to get higher quantities of Uranium when the depth is too much (deeper than 100 m) for open-pit mining, or the groundwater is insufficient for effective In Situ Leaching. Underground mining is touted for its minimal surface footprint and rock waste. However, start-up costs are inhibitive for most companies.
How It Works:
The first stage is to excavate massive vertical underground shafts reaching the Uranium ore’s depths. Afterwards, horizontal tunnels, ramps, and chambers are created to enable Uranium mining. The ore is drilled, then blasted, resulting in debris brought to the surface and ultimately to a mill.
Open-mining is often the preferred extraction method when Uranium is discovered near the surface, generally less than 100 meters deep. Heavy machinery is used to remove dirt and rock waste, allowing the mineral to be easily transferred into transport vehicles.
Open-pit mining is one of the most traditional forms of mineral extraction and is usually considered for its relatively cheaper start-up cost compared to other methods. However, open pit mining leaves behind a huge wake of rock wastes and other surface footprints. Open-pit mining is also more likely to damage groundwater systems, which can be costly to remediate.
How it Works:
The mines are divided into parts called benches to be mined systematically and securely. Explosives are placed into holes drilled into the benches, which detonate, breaking up the rock and revealing the Uranium. Typically, waste rock or overburden (the material removed from the ore body) is kept near the open pit. Depending on the scale of the mine, there may be one or more roads carved into the pit’s walls to let the massive earth/ore movers navigate the region. After that, the Uranium is loaded onto trucks and transported to a processing plant.
Uranium is the process of extracting Uranium ore from the ground. The most commonly used extraction is the In Situ Leaching chemical method. Other, more conventional mining methods include the open pit and underground extraction.
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