“Managing Environmental and Health Impacts of Uranium Mining” – a plain-language report for stakeholders #uranium
Learning from mining’s past
18 September 2014
Public perception of uranium mining is largely based on the poor, unregulated practices of the industry’s earliest days. But the industry has learned from its past, and modern practices and regulatory regimes have transformed uranium mining into one of the most highly regulated and safest forms of mining in the world today, writes Robert Vance.
Although prospects for the global growth of nuclear generating capacity have declined somewhat since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident in 2011, overall they remain good. New uranium mines will thus be needed to meet the increased demand for the uranium that accompanies such growth. However, in many countries, negative perceptions of uranium mining based on the legacies of past practices linger, and a lack of awareness of present-day mining practices and the management of mining impact can hinder the development of additional mines.
These are the considerations behind the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency’s Managing Environmental and Health Impacts of Uranium Mining, a plain-language report for stakeholders, enabling them to assess mine development proposals based on technical information about the uranium industry today. Lessons learned from decades of experience and development from the industry’s legacy issues were the driving force behind the move toward today’s regulated industry where all impacts of uranium mining are considered and managed across the full life cycle of a mine. A recently published summary of the report, Perceptions and Realities in Modern Uranium Mining, sets out long-term goals for any country considering hosting uranium mining for the first time.
Discovered in 1789 in the mineral pitchblende, by the mid-1800s uranium was valued for the brilliant yellow colour and green fluorescence it gave to glass, and confirmation of its radioactive properties in 1895 stimulated further interest. It was first mined in large quantities to meet strategic military requirements following World War II.
By the early 1970s, the impacts of early uranium mining operations on the health of workers, the environment and local communities became increasingly evident. Societal pressure, typically driven by the unions representing miners, led to a number of investigation boards, commissions of enquiry and health studies that outlined the extent and impact of historic mining operations, which lacked proper operational and waste management practices. From these investigations and associated research, modern mining and milling practices were born.
For example, the practices of the early strategic mining era allowed for tailings and waste rock to simply be placed in low-lying areas, such as streams or lakes convenient to the processing facility, with no consideration given to proper containment of the waste, the chemical composition of the material or the effects on water quality in and around the mine site. Instead of operations with virtually no waste management planning, today leading practice mining involves multistage effluent treatment processes with engineered, purpose-built waste management systems.
Workers with no training, working in crowded, chaotic conditions with no ventilation in the early uranium mines suffered from high radiation exposure with serious long-term health impacts, as well as high rates of injury and mortality. Today, in contrast, a well-trained workforce operates within a geotechnical and structurally designed, well-ventilated and monitored working environment with qualified mine engineers and dedicated safety supervisors to monitor and oversee operations.
These changes have built on the lessons learned over several decades, and have ultimately led to the emergence of stronger regulatory/government oversight and inspections, including increasing consequences via the force of law for poor performance or non-compliance. Today’s leading practice uranium mine and mill sites, and other types of nuclear facilities, are regulated by an independent agency that reports to the head of state or parliament and its elected officials and ideally operates under a judicial or quasi-judicial process, making decisions in an open and transparent manner.
Successful companies have developed strategies to handle both the positive and negative impacts of mining and processing on communities and the environment. This has occurred with the close cooperation, communication and participation of local communities. Dialogue between the community, the company and the government is vital, with the end goal of ensuring that no additional legacy mining and milling sites, or health and environmental issues, are created. Although many legacy sites have been remediated, typically at great expense, work remains to be done in some countries. Experience shows that planning for closure before opening a mine greatly reduces remediation costs.
Countries beginning uranium mining for the first time have the opportunity to benefit from past experience in other countries, but it will take time to develop the capacity required to promote the development of leading practice mining. Developing, staffing and maintaining a leading practice mine regulator requires both time and resources.
The report outlines five life cycle phases of a uranium mine: design, construction, production, rehabilitation and final handover of the property back to the authorities. For each operation, there are a range of issues to address in order to minimise health, safety and environmental impacts to acceptable standards. The report divides operational challenges into key historic challenges and modern life cycle parameters. It underlines that any approach must be tailored to the individual situation of the operation in question as generic approaches are not universally appropriate.
As the regulatory regime evolved and the industry adapted and developed innovations to meet emerging requirements and issues, a number of parameters have been introduced into leading practice operations that were seldom, if ever, used or even considered during the mine life cycle in the early stages of the industry. These additional aspects of mine development, operation and closure are today considered crucial to effectively managing the potential health, safety and environmental impacts of the operations. With the implementation of these mine life cycle parameters and regulatory requirements, leading practice uranium mining has become a forerunner in safety and environmental management.
Public consultation is currently a key parameter. Early military era mining operations were conducted with a degree of secrecy, with stakeholders rarely, if ever, informed of mining plans, development and related issues. Today, an effective public consultation process is an important part of leading practice uranium mining, keeping all stakeholders informed throughout the mine life cycle but also providing an opportunity for stakeholders to engage in a dialogue with producers and regulators. A knowledgeable and supportive public will facilitate the timely review and licensing of new mines. Public fear and resistance will do just the opposite.
Environmental planning and monitoring throughout the life cycle of the mine ensures that the planned life cycle performance is achieved through to the post-decommissioning period, minimising the environmental effects to acceptable standards and avoiding impacts on local populations.
These greatly improved modern mining practices are the combined result of learning from past practices, implementing stringent regulatory requirements to achieve societal expectations and successfully applying innovative approaches developed by companies to meet, and in many cases exceed, these regulatory requirements.
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Robert Vance is a senior expert in the Nuclear Development Division of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.
The opinions expressed and arguments employed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the OECD/NEA or of the governments of its member countries.
The full report Managing Environmental and Health Impacts of Uranium Mining (2014) is available at: http://oe.cd/GT