A nuclear weapon is mainly built on uranium and plutonium. To make a nuclear weapon you need highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and weapon grade plutonium.
Uranium is the fuel used in nuclear reactors and is also a material for nuclear bombs, such as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Uranium ore from mining has to be processed in order to concentrate the levels of the component U-235 to the 3-5% required for nuclear reactor fuel, or to the 90% or more required for weapons-grade material. While more than half of the world’s uranium reserves lies in Canada and Australia, uranium is mined in a total of 18 countries: Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Namibia, Niger, Uzbekistan, the USA, Ukraine, China, South Africa, Czech Republic, India, Romania, Germany, Pakistan, France, and Brazil.
Environmentally, uranium mining is a very damaging link in the nuclear chain. For every ton of uranium oxide produced there are hundreds of thousands of tons of waste, or tailings. Often the tailings are simply dumped on the land near the mine. One of the major isotopes extracted from uranium mine tailings is thorium, Th-232, which also can be used as nuclear reactor fuel in a different process cycle than U-235. U-238, the prevalent isotope in uranium ore, can be used for bullets and armor. It can also be converted to plutonium, Pu-239 in a breeder reactor. Pu-239 can be used as reactor fuel (MOX) in a breeding cycle, but it is also material for nuclear bombs, such as the one that was dropped on Nagasaki.
Use of depleted uranium, (i. e., what remains after enrichment) in ammunition has been heavily criticized as an environmental hazard in combat areas. There are reports of increased cancer frequencies and genetic effects due to the toxicity and residual radioactivity of uranium.
Wind spreads radon gas and radioactive dust from the tailings over an area of many square miles. Uranium miners are exposed to radioactive radon gas, and consistently suffer increased rates of lung cancer. The lands of indigenous people have been used for uranium mining, as dumps for radioactive waste, and for nuclear tests, resulting in massive radioactive contamination.
The world’s largest and most concentrated known uranium deposits are in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada. Here, contaminated water from uranium mining and milling has routinely — sometimes mistakenly — been left in the open. Large fishing industries have been polluted and the health and livelihood of native people living off what nature offers are severely threatened.
In Niger and Namibia, Africa, by-products from the uranium mines have been left in the desert sand, contaminating the air, food, and drinking water for the nomadic people who inhabit the area.
In the US, waste products from uranium mines have also been left on the lands of Native Americans and have led to health issues for entire populations. The second largest nuclear accident in American history was the spilling of by-products from uranium mining into the Rio Puerco river in New Mexico in the 1980s.
Uranium processing – Yellowcake
Uranium ore is ground into a finegrained powder and then chemically processed to remove other elements to make “yellowcake”. Yellowcake consists of 80% uranium oxide, and can be processed further for use in nuclear power plants or for nuclear weapons.
Uranium mining and processing require huge quantities of water. BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam mine in South Australia, the driest state on the world’s driest continent, uses 33 million liters of water per day. A proposed expansion of the mine would increase this to up to 162 million liters per day (there will however be a desalinization plant). This water becomes radioactive waste, which is dumped into evaporation ponds that are not always adequately secured from leaking and flooding. Contaminated rainwater can and does enter the soil and, eventually, the food chain, becoming a health hazard.
After turning the uranium oxide into gaseous form – uranium hexafluoride – enrichment of U-235 is done in large-scale industrial facilities, which are both costly and energy-intense. The most widely used method today is based on centrifuges that extract the U-235, which is slightly lighter than the U-238 isotope. Uranium enrichment requires large facilities, which are difficult to conceal by states wishing to keep their nuclear programs secret. The same types of centrifuges are used to enrich fuel for both nuclear power reactors and for bombs. It is only a question of intent.
Last update: December 18, 2014