Canada and the rest of the world are slowly, if reluctantly, coming to terms with the energy problems that we face. Oil & gas are limited resources whose usage continues to ramp up year after year. Green energy sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines have their own problems, not only as intermittent methods of power generation, but as systems that require increasingly rare and toxic materials for their construction. There seems to be no escaping this; wind turbines, for example, employ an electric generator whose capacity is directly dependent on the quality of its magnets. Neodymium (atomic number 60) is a critical element in the strongest known type of permanent magnet, the neodymium magnet (Nd2Fe14B), and finds its way into a wide variety of applications, including computer hard disks, electric cars, and wind turbines. It is also a rare-earth element (though, luckily not one of the rare, rare-earth elements) and is almost exclusively mined in China. In 2011, the US Department of Energy pointed out a looming shortage of this particular element and four of its cousins; among other things, their report suggested emphasizing hybrid designs (which do not rely nearly so much on permanent magnets [PM]) for next-generation turbines.
Here in Canada, there is a lot of media attention on the oil & gas industry, its shale fracking practices and the eyesore & internationally embarrassing oil sands projects. Not so widely reported are the practices of the uranium industry, which has been in operation in northern Saskatchewan for decades. With the recent announcement that the state of Virginia is now considering developing their own uranium mine, a move that has the potential to bring lots of jobs back to a quiet part of the state, it is time to take a look at this industry once again. I am not going to dispute the necessity of mining in general, but it has never been a clean industry. Our whole economy, our very lives depend on the products of mining activities, and much as environmentalists (myself included) lament the resurgence in nuclear proposals after a thirty year hiatus, it is likely to become a part of the solution for our boundless energy cravings in the coming decades, as well as a permanent, throbbing migraine for just about everything else.
Canada sits atop one of the richest uranium reserves in the world, not only in terms of quantity (most recently estimated at 383,000 tonnes) but in terms of quality. Saskatchewan’s Cigar Lake mine, when it begins operations in mid-2013, will produce ore containing some 18-20% U3O8 (triuranium octoxide), the second purest uranium ore in the world. Even for Saskatchewan, Cigar Lake is unusual, as only one other mine there tops a grade of 3% U3O8. By contrast, the Virginia proposal is looking at mining grades of 0.06%. They’ll have to dig up 300 times as much rock to bear out the same amount of uranium as Cigar Lake. The entire US has less than one third the reserves of Canada, and imports 95% of the fuel used in its nuclear reactors. If energy independence is the goal, the US won’t be able to achieve it through nuclear power… unless they annex Canada… but I’m not going there…. Besides, the only time the US took us on, we burned down the White House. I think they learned their lesson.
When people think of nuclear waste, it’s usually in terms of what we do with spent fuel rods, which even the most deluded science fiction fans will know are bad news. We don’t tend to think in terms of what happens before the uranium arrives at the plant. Just like the oil sands projects, the uranium mining industry relies on a hell of a lot of water and a cocktail of poisons, carcinogens and other nasty chemicals to retrieve the desired elements. Extracted rock must be broken, ground down, and chemically processed to remove the uranium, and then… what? Well, the waste rock (rock that does not contain enough uranium to be worth processing) is generally stored in above ground pits in which the newly exposed materials are free to leach into the local environment. The tailings are the slurry that is left over from uranium processing, a mixture of water, fine-grained solids and chemical residuals. In a proper libertarian world, we’d still be dumping both the waste rock and tailings directly into the local lakes and rivers, but Canada enacted a series of regulations to prevent this from recurring. Instead, we have taken to transforming existing lakes into impoundments, barricaded above-ground areas that allow the toxic mess to settle underwater. Forever. In areas of up to 50 hectares. That will (must) never leak into local streams, underground water supplies, or affect local flora or fauna.
Aside from pits or tailings ponds, ocean disposal and back-filling are options, of a sort. While potential remains for back-filling to leach loosened chemicals into ground water supplies, it seems a good option for closed mines. At the very least, it does reduce one other hazard; mines, after all, can collapse from time to time, and a filled-in mine is less of a worry than a big, gaping hole. Witness this year’s frack-out in the Louisiana Bayou, or the 1980 Lake Peigneur disaster for a taste of what can happen then.
Bryce, Robert. Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence”, 2008.