Nuclear energy currently supplies 10% of electricity globally and 19% in the United States, but nuclear generation could grow significantly in the coming decades to meet environmental and energy security goals. With that growth will come challenges, particularly when it comes to uranium supplies.
In comparison to extractive activities for oil, coal and gas, the footprint of mining for nuclear is tiny due to the high energy density of uranium fuel. However, demand for uranium is expected to grow in parallel with demand for low-carbon energy. And the location of mining to satisfy that demand may shift; the United States, which currently imports almost all its uranium fuel, and European countries are looking to reduce their reliance on Russian nuclear fuel.
Especially in the United States, the extraction of uranium for defense and civil use has a troubled legacy. Uranium mining has often disproportionately harmed Indigenous communities and other marginalized groups. Historic uranium mining left radon-emitting waste piles outside of mine sites, dispersing radioactive particles, and contaminating local ground and surface water.
Such environmental degradation and public health problems are among the primary reasons that many environmentalists do not consider nuclear energy to be “green” or sustainable. It can be. But as I recently wrote in a longer report for Good Energy Collective, the environmental and public health impacts of new uranium extraction must be included in decision-making—and the federal government and other responsible parties must remediate legacy contamination.
How the United States Got 15,000 Abandoned Uranium Mines
A look back at mining’s legacy in the United States is illustrative.
Here, mining has a long history of boom and bust. The first boom began in 1849 and was centered around gold in California. One byproduct, though, was uranium ore, which was seen more as a nuisance than a treasure and was largely tossed aside. That started to change in the 1930s, with the discovery of nuclear fission and the realization that it could be harnessed for weapons. That led to the creation of the Manhattan Project in 1941, through which the U.S. government sought large quantities of uranium to build nuclear weapons.
After World War II ended and the first nuclear bomb was dropped, the government established the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which helped prioritize the prolific leasing of new uranium mining claims on federal public lands through the 1872 Mining Law, which covers most hardrock mining exploration on federally-managed and public land.
The law allows individuals to purchase titles to unappropriated federal land for a small fee if they “discover a valuable deposit” of minerals on the land, and then extract the useable resources and sell them royalty-free. It was an attractive deal; during the height of the uranium boom from the 1940s to the 1980s, mining communities saw their economies thrive and populations double.
But there was a problem. There is nothing in the 1872 law that prevents companies from abandoning their claims (and mining-related waste) when their operations are no longer profitable. Facing a mining bust in the 1980s, when nuclear became less popular due to the Chernobyl accident and the global price of uranium started to drop, companies and workers fled mine towns in droves, leaving behind environmental hazards and health impacts that linger today.
All told, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimates there are 100,000–500,000 abandoned mines of all mineral varieties, with more than 52,000 on federal land. That total includes 15,000 abandoned uranium mines on federal lands. Cleanup can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and can take many years or decades. On average, from fiscal year 2008 through 2017, federal agencies spent about $287 million annually identifying, cleaning up and monitoring abandoned hardrock mines on federal land. The estimate to clean up all abandoned mines of all types on U.S. federal public lands is around $50 billion.
Radioactive Contamination in Native Lands
Left-behind nuclear hazards are not spread evenly across the country, since most of the highest-grade uranium is in Western states. A large portion of uranium deposits are on native lands.
A case in point is the Navajo Nation, which borders New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. It opened its land to vanadium mining at the government’s request during WWII. The Navy used vanadium as a waterproof coating for ships during the war, and the government told the Navajo people that the extraction of this precious resource would help young Navajo soldiers win the war.
In reality, vanadium was not Washington’s true prize. Rather, the government was searching for uranium (or what the Navajo people call “Leetso,” or “yellow dirt”) for atomic bombs. From 1944 to 1986, miners extracted 30 million tons of Leetso from the Navajo Nation to aid federal government programs to fuel nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors.
The mining done in those years wrought havoc. Although the detrimental effects were not initially understood in the 1940s at the beginning of the uranium mining boom, they were widely studied starting in the 1950s because of growing concerns that uranium mining could cause lung cancer.
The concerns were correct. In the early days, uranium miners extracted the metal without protective equipment or radiation monitoring, and mines were poorly ventilated, resulting in miners breathing in hazardous levels of radioactive particles daily. Indigenous mine workers and their families in the Navajo Nation suffered some of the worst impacts from mining, because mine supervisors and government officials failed to warn them of the radiation risks. According to a 2000 Health Physics study, uranium miners’ lung cancer rate was nearly 29 times more than people who did not work in the mines.
Health problems continue into the present, thanks largely to abandoned mines. Navajo Nation estimates cite 523 abandoned uranium mines and four abandoned uranium mills languishing throughout the Nation. Other studies put the total number of abandoned uranium mines in the area at closer to 1,000.
Water contamination is the main ongoing concern. Uranium mines contain radioactive substances that leach into groundwater and surface water. Mining waste piled outside former sites (known as tailings piles) can likewise create radioactive dust that leads to air and water contamination as the dust migrates. Some communities in Colorado, Utah and the Navajo Nation even built their home foundations and walls with tailings from abandoned uranium mines without knowledge of its radioactivity. Many radioactive homes in former uranium mining communities await remediation or remain unidentified.
To this day, large amounts of uranium mine waste on the Navajo Nation remain unsecured and migrate from abandoned mine sites through the wind into washes and tributaries, leading to surface and groundwater contamination. For example, although there are no uranium mines in the Sanders, Arizona community 80 miles from the Navajo Nation, studies have found evidence of uranium in groundwater and unregulated water sources tested in Sanders in 1986 and 1987 and again between 2003 and 2015. Livestock studies in the Navajo Nation have also uncovered uranium in the organs of animals.
So far, the EPA has received funding to assess and remediate 230 of the 523 mines on the Navajo nation and has invested as much as $5 million per year toward investigation, cleanup and technical support for Navajo government agencies.
This story is familiar to some tribes. The Lakota Tribal Nations Territories, which cover South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and parts of Colorado, hosts approximately 3,272 abandoned uranium mines with unknown reclamation status.
But the experiences and preferences of various communities as they relate to abandoned mines has differed. Many indigenous leaders and environmental activists in the United States prioritize the cleanup of legacy sites and oppose new or expanded mining operations. However, some community members value the stable employment that can come from mines and mills close to reservations, where other economic opportunities are sometimes few and far between.
From Environmental Disaster to Clean New Nuclear
If cleaning up abandoned mines were the main problem, the solution for those places that prioritize cleanup would be relatively straightforward—albeit vastly expensive. But the 1872 Mining Law could still create new disasters today.
In theory, most major new projects on U.S. federal public land are subject to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an accounting of the potential environmental impacts of large infrastructure projects with federal involvement.
But, in practice, many of the historic uranium mining sites that could come back into operation in the coming years could avoid this regulation, since it applies only to mining claims established after 1976, or to mining operations “causing undue or unnecessary degradation of lands and resources or adverse environmental effects.” In turn, observers have raised concerns that the current U.S. mining law framework may not prevent companies from reopening existing uranium mines, creating waste and then abandoning their operations once again.
Given that a new uranium mining boom is likely in the future, there are a couple of initiatives worth considering now to both remediate the impacts from abandoned mines and prevent future mining from recreating the same problems.
First, Congress should reform the General Mining Act of 1872 to prevent the future abandonment of new mine sites, and to make sure that licensees pay the government and local communities more than a token fee for the exploitation of resources on public land. Reform of the law has recently gained traction as the demand for U.S. critical mineral mining increases to support the clean energy transition.
Second, the federal government will need to do more to fund cleanup. In 2012, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated it would cost $39 million just to inspect all U.S. Bureau of Land Management mine sites of all types. It is unclear how many of these are uranium mine sites or may contain uranium. Congress must ensure that there are adequate resources for this work, potentially by appropriating resources to the BLM and cooperating federal agencies.
Another initiative could come through the EPA’s Brownfields Program, which provides grants and technical assistance to communities, nonprofits and others to clean up contaminated structures and revitalize them for productive use. A 2002 amendment expanded the program to include “mine-scarred land.” While the focus has so far centered on abandoned coal mines, abandoned uranium mine lands could be a viable new focus.
There’s also room to reform the Good Samaritan Initiative, an effort started in 2007 by the EPA to reduce barriers to the cleanup of abandoned mine sites by volunteers. Through the program, volunteers can apply for Good Samaritan Orphan Mine Permits to conduct remediation activities on abandoned mines in their community. However, many prospective volunteers are concerned that they will be held liable under the Clean Water Act for any pollution that remains there after their work, or any possible mistakes made during cleanup efforts.
Reform of this initiative and its liability provisions could allow more communities to address legacy mine pollution in their backyards. Such a reform could also be a win for mining companies because it would allow them to take part in mineral reprocessing efforts at abandoned mines and produce more sustainably sourced minerals and rare earth materials.
Fourth, and perhaps most important of all, will be co-management with tribal nations of uranium projects on federal lands. Past uranium mining occurred on sacred Indigenous sites and delicate ecosystems. To protect these areas from the impacts of new mining, the federal government and developers should work with tribes to allow more co-management of public lands and ensure that Indigenous communities have a say in whether an extractive industry is allowed near sacred sites.
At a minimum, tribal consultation is a legal requirement for the federal government whenever large infrastructure projects may encroach on a tribe’s land, natural resources or cultural resources. In January 2021, the Biden administration issued a memorandum directing all federal agencies to plan and engage in regular, meaningful and robust consultation in the development of policies that have implications for tribal nations, including hardrock mining regulations.
As part of this work, federal agencies should work to identify which communities are most interested in hosting new uranium mining and milling projects. In these communities, permitting should be executed as efficiently and effectively as possible while still prioritizing environmental protection and environmental justice.
And fifth, to make sure that agreements made are upheld, it will be important to adopt stricter standards for water quality protection—as soon as possible. These should include standards for aquifer testing, chemical use, monitoring and water restoration, and for in-situ leach mine operators to use continuous water-monitoring techniques rather than computer models to monitor the aquifers—a concern for many environmental groups.
The Future of Uranium Mining
To fight climate change, the world will need to transition global energy systems away from fossil fuel-based energy to carbon-free energy, including nuclear. But however clean the production of nuclear energy itself, the dangers that come from mining nuclear fuel cannot be ignored.
The future of uranium mining will hinge on community support for mining projects. Mining does not need to be destructive. It can be rethought to include cleaning up the dirty legacy of mining’s past, protecting the environment and investing in the community. There’s a long way to go to build community trust and support, but cleaning up legacy pollution, strengthening existing regulations, and successful community consultation practices offer a good start.
This report is adapted from a longer version published on Good Energy Collective. The author thanks Good Energy Collective Policy Analyst Colter Schroer for their research and workshop facilitation support.