Why Should You Care About Uranium?

With oil prices skyrocketing, and supplies dwindling, the time for fossil fuel seems to be running out; what alternatives will we turn to? For a long time, solar and wind energy were the primary competitors to oil, even if they could not compete with the affordability of fossil fuels. In addition, the search for new, clean fuels has yielded biofuel, biomass, solar heating, clean coal and natural gas as attractive alternatives to fossil fuel. Amid all the desire for new energy sources, one old competitor has resurfaced: nuclear power. On the surface, it seems like a good idea; nuclear fuel is energy-rich, fairly plentiful, and the technology to utilize it is already in place. Many argue that nuclear power is unsafe, but the more pressing issue is waste removal. Nuclear power may seem like a great resource, but the long-term consequences of uranium use negate its advantages. Alternative, and truly clean energy sources such as wind, solar and hydrothermal should be our primary focus.

Why Nuclear Power is Inherently Dangerous

Some people argue that nuclear power is safe. Although uranium is stable and plentiful in the earth, uranium still contains a massive amount of energy, and must be handled carefully. In the history of nuclear power, two events have garnered international attention; Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island.

Chernobyl, a series of nuclear power plants in Russia, experienced a massive explosion on April 26, 1986 that released 400 times more radiation than that released by the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Stone 1-2). The nearby town of Pripyat had to be evacuated of 50,000 inhabitants, and it is still unsafe to enter the wreckage of Chernobyl today. It has been called “a fire that can’t be put out in our lifetimes” (Stone 1-2).

The infamous incident at Three Mile Island on March 28, 1979 was, thankfully, much less deadly. As a result of what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission referred to as “equipment malfunctions, design related problems and worker errors,” (“Fact Sheet” par. 1) a portion of the reactor at Three Mile Island melted, releasing a significant amount of radiation. No one was harmed, but the necessary cleanup efforts and potential for harm to the public were shocking. This is what happens when nuclear power goes wrong, and is an unnecessary risk considering the many other energy options.

Where Uranium Comes From

Uranium starts as ore deep underground, and three methods exist to remove it from the ground. Shaft drilling minimizes environmental damage, but increases health hazard to miners from radon gas. Open-pit mining reduces this exposure, but leaves a large hole in its wake. In-situ leaching involves pumping a chemical into the ground to extract the uranium, and while this has almost no hazard to workers it does potentially contaminate groundwater with no easy way to restore its purity (“Impacts” par. 22). Open-pit and shaft mining leave behind tailings, which are piles of unusable rock. These piles emit deadly gas and radiation, and water near tailings repositories has been shown to have radiation levels hundreds of times the legal limit (“Uranium” par. 8). Mines in the United States largely rely on in-situ mining, however many mines in smaller countries use traditional shaft mining despite the fact that miners are often exposed to uranium dust and deadly radon gas (“Environmental” par. 42). Sadly, one third of America’s tailings have been deposited on Navajo lands, and many Native Americans have suffered as a result of their exposure to radioactive waste (“Uranium” par. 9). Furthermore, the French mining company Areva failed to inform workers in their mines in Niger about the many health risks they are in danger of (“Public Eye” par. 3)

What People Think

Following the cold war, the general consensus was that nuclear power is inherently dangerous. This resulted in coal power being the primary energy source for the United States. However, recently nuclear power has been discussed as a non-polluting alternative to coal. Here’s what some college students had to say:

  • One person responded that they would “rather see solar or wind powered electrical production” over nuclear, but preferred “nuclear power over coal or oil powered electrical plants.”

  • One person felt that we did not take adequate measures to deal with radioactive waste, as “we simply bury it.”

  • One respondent mentioned that, regarding nuclear power, “we should use it more, [but] the waste needs to be properly disposed of, but it pollutes less than fossil fuel.”

  • It was mentioned in a questionnaire that someone felt that nuclear power “is our second best resource of energy next to wind” but was worried that “it will turn us into mutants.”

  • Regarding waste, one participant mentioned that nuclear waste is typically “dumped in a mountain conseled [sic] in concrete” and that adequate measures were not taken with nuclear waste because “its just kind of shoved asside [sic].”

  • One respondent stated that nuclear power “is still unsafe and not worth the risks.”

  • Regarding recycling spent nuclear fuel, one participant stated that “it seems to be working elsewhere to recycle, and the US needs to do something with it.”

  • Most respondents did not know how long spent nuclear fuel was radioactive, and one participant even stated “I hope not too long.”

A shocking number of people know little to nothing about nuclear power. The majority of college students know very little about the dangers of nuclear power. If you vote, you determine policy, and it is important that you know the facts.

Where the Fuel Goes

In the ground, uranium is stable and gives off very little radiation. On the other hand, spent nuclear fuel is highly radioactive and retains its deadly levels of radiation for 10,000 years. One would think that the United States government would have sufficient nuclear repositories, yet continued efforts to find a single, safe location for the storage of nuclear waste have failed. The one viable permanent repository, Yucca Mountain, has cost $6.7 million, is proposed to cost an additional $49.3 million, and has been delayed numerous times (“Analysis” 1). However, it’s likely that the amount of nuclear waste generated by an increased reliance on nuclear power would be staggering, and would quickly exceed Yucca Mountain’s capacity. Further storage locations are unlikely to be on-line soon. It is possible to recycle nuclear power, and this is common in France, however the United States does not have the necessary facilities for this (Fairley par. 5).

What Should Be Done?

With nuclear power, the issue is not the safety of nuclear power, but the safety of obtaining uranium and disposing of spent nuclear fuel. Solar, wind, and hydrothermal power have come a long way in the past decade, and while the investment required today may seem high, the price will drop in time. In addition, expanding our renewable energy resources will create jobs and reduce dependence on foreign oil. The mining process takes a heavy toll on people, and the spent fuel will be incredibly dangerous for upwards of 10,000 years. America’s hopes for dealing with this dangerous waste are resting on a repository that is over-budget and behind schedule. Few college students know of the many risks associated with nuclear power, which is especially concerning since this generation is now voting and determining U.S. policy. The hazards of nuclear power are not being addressed, and effort should be made to explore alternatives rather than wasting money and time trying to make nuclear power (an inherently unsafe power source) safe.

(Header image created by Kristin Richey.)

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Uranium and You by Steve Richey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

This post was originally submitted for a class on writing.