Nuclear Energy: Uranium Mining in Colorado

Colorado has a long and controversial history with uranium mining. While uranium did not get into extremely high demand until the early 1950s due to the Cold War and the development of nuclear weapons, Colorado began similar mining with radium in the 1910s and vanadium in the 1930s, which were popular for more commercial uses like paints and clays. Both radium and vanadium are indicator minerals for uranium, hence why their mining and extraction are so interrelated.

The first uraninite, also known as pitchblende, found in the United States was found near Central City, Colorado. While most the uranium used for nuclear weapons, specifically the Manhattan Project, came from Congo and Canada, Colorado, through the Uravan mining district, produced about 850 tons of uranium ore for weapons testing. Prospecting and mining continued to expand after World War II as the largest uranium deposit to be found in Colorado was discovered in the late 1940s. Due to recession, the scaling down of the Cold War, and uranium being released from weapon stockpiles, uranium mining decreased dramatically in the 1980s due to a large decrease in price. During the boom of uranium mining in Colorado (1948-1978), it is estimated that Uravan belt had over 1,200 mines and mined 63 million pounds of uranium.

Currently, Colorado ranks third for the most known uranium reserves in the United States, just behind Wyoming and New Mexico. Since 2009, there has been no major uranium mining in the state of Colorado, and there are currently no active mines. However, there are 31 permitted projects in Colorado.

While uranium mining has the potential to be a very lucrative industry in the future, especially if nuclear energy becomes more popular, it does come with externalities to the environment and public health. When it comes to describing nuclear waste, it is generally described in two tiers: low-level waste and high level waste, which refer to their level of radioactivity. Uranium mining, which produce mill tailings, is the source of low-level waste, while high-level waste refers mostly to used reactor fuel after the uranium has been used to generate electricity. According to the Energy Information Administration, “by volume, most of the waste related to the nuclear power industry has a relatively low-level of radioactivity”, meaning most of the waste comes from the extraction of uranium.

Mill tailings from uranium mining, which has the presence of its indicator mineral radium, will break down into radon, which is a radioactive gas that can collect in the atmosphere if special precautions are not taken. Furthermore environmental contamination can occur from the tools used if special precautions also are not taken.

While it is important to keep in mind the externalities of uranium mining when discussing nuclear energy, we must remember that these kinds of trade-offs exist almost anywhere in energy production. Wind and solar energy, as well as hybrid and electric cars, fluorescent lightbulbs, and Ipods, have very similar externalities to nuclear power as they use rare earth elements like lanthanum, cerium, scandium, terbium, and several others. When comparing the externalities of uranium mining to the externalities of other rare earth element mining, the risks are almost identical.

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