The environmental and human health effects of uranium mining



Uranium (U), element 92, is unusual in many ways. Natural Uranium is a mixture of three isotopes, U234 (0.0054%), U235 (0.72%), and U238 (99.27%). Each of these isotopes is radioactive, i.e., it decays into numerous daughter elements that are also radioactive and remain in the Uranium deposit.

Uranium and its daughter elements continue to decay forming a series of new radionuclides until decay ceases at element 82, lead (Pb). Half-lives of these radionuclides vary from very long, 4.5 billion years for U, to very short, days or less for several of the daughter elements making them extremely dangerous to human health if ingested.

Potentially harmful radiation emitted by these radionuclides may be in the form of alpha particles (containing two protons and two neutrons with a positive charge), beta particles (either an electron or a positron), and gamma radiation (electromagnetic radiation with neither mass nor charge but the ability to travel through air and penetrate the human body). This element mixture is brought to the surface by U mining and must be considered a potential and long lasting environmental and health threat. Tailings from U operations are extremely toxic and will remain so for many tens of thousands of years making effective remediation efforts difficult and expensive.

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