Uranium is a radioactive element which can be found underground and has certain uses today. With the uses of the element of uranium, it has been harvested from the Earth through the process of uranium mining. Through uranium mining, uranium ore is being extracted from under the ground. This uranium ore is then put through processes like grinding and chemical treating so that the uranium can be separated from the other materials in the ore resulting in U3O8 which considered natural uranium and also known as “yellowcake” which is what is being sold in the market for uranium.
The uranium mining industry has become quite big especially after the Second World War when the demand for the radioactive element went up significantly. Uranium has been desired not only in the military for nuclear weapons but also as a fuel inside nuclear power plants that helps generate power and electricity.
This has resulted in the increase of the mining of uranium around the world. In fact, the amount of uranium mined in 2015 was around sixty thousand tons. Most of this mined uranium came only from three countries, the leading produces, Kazakhstan, Australia, and Canada. For now, let’s take a look at the three different mining approaches in the mining of uranium.
1.) Open pit mining – In this approach of uranium mining, the overburden which covers the ore is removed through the process of drilling through the ground and using explosives to blast it away. The uranium ore is then blasted and excavated with loaders and the mined ores are carried on a dump truck. In order to limit radiation exposure, the miners stay in their enclosed cabins most of the time.
2.) Underground mining – Underground uranium mining is the approach taken if ever the uranium ore is too deep underground and cannot easily be accessed through open pit mining. In underground mining, the miners dig tunnels and shafts beneath the earth in order to get to the uranium ore and remove it. Although much less material is removed, underground mining also exposes miners to more radon gas.
3.) In-situ leaching – This mining approach is also called solution mining and actually just leaves the uranium ore where it is underground. In order to remove the uranium, the minerals are being dissolves and then pumped with a solution. This solution will rise to the surface bringing with it the dissolved minerals including the uranium.
4.) Heap leaching – During heap leaching, piles of mined ore are placed on the surface of the ground. These ore piles are then treated with chemicals like sulfuric acid in order to extract the element uranium from the ore and separate it from the other minerals. If ever the uranium has a lower concentration, miners may use acid that isn’t as harsh.
5.) Milling – This is the uranium mining approach used when the ore has a quite low concentration of uranium. During this process, the rocks are crushed into fine fragments which are then added with water and an alkaline solution or acid which separates the uranium.