Preserving biodiversity on the path towards sustainable energy
Biodiversity is at the heart of how we source our energy. Whether it be fossil fuels or renewables, energy sourcing comes with altering our natural ecosystems and results in a reduction in biodiversity. In the plausible scenario where future energy schemes not only include nuclear but give it a sizeable portion of their portfolio, it is worth considering nuclears’ impact on nature. Nuclear energy can answer the scale of demand for a greener energy source and uranium mining is the first step in this process.
This article will not concentrate on the direct consequences that uranium mining poses to biodiversity. It is well known that mining is an invasive and disruptive activity; that it involves human displacement, the destruction of surrounding land and the potential for chemicals to leach into the air, water, and food of local communities. Rather, this study will explore how these two things can work in unison. A collapse in the conservation of Earth’s biodiversity is intertwined with a changing climate. It is important that on the way to establishing renewable energy the threat to climate change does not deepen. If nuclear is considered essential for future energy sourcing, the demand for minerals will only continue to grow.
Are biodiversity conservation and uranium mining necessarily in disaccord? Can nuclear fuel be made greener from its source? And how can mining industries work towards improving the conservation of biodiversity in the regions in which they operate?
Applying Conservation Methods within Mining
Taking uranium out of the equation for a minute, we could ask whether conservation in other mining sectors has been addressed and if previous methods can be applied to uranium industries. Collaborative projects between environmental organizations and mining industries have led to a better understanding of the ecosystems at stake. Encouraging industries to be more socially and environmentally responsible has shown results. Land exchange is a prime example: for every hectare of land used by the De Beers Group, six hectares are committed to land conservation. The De Beers group mine diamonds in parts of southern Africa and now manage sites of 200,000 hectares dedicated to biodiversity conservation spanning from South Africa to Botswana. This land allows endangered animals to breed and plants to grow. Conservation, while mining is in operation, is viable. Until now the focus has been either working on sites post-closure by returning the site to a ‘before’ status via remediation, or on what conservation can be done elsewhere.
Technologies used in Uranium Mining
For uranium mining, additional concerns arise. Alongside questions of infrastructure and their implications on nature, radioactivity in mining and milling is now central to the discussion.
The first complication is that minerals are sourced from different corners of the world. Most of the world’s concentration of uranium is found in Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan and Niger. With other countries getting on board, the diversity of landscape means different habitats and vegetation are at threat. Different questions need different answers. Therefore, an inventory of all mines and what lies near them is essential to get a better understanding of the priorities of each region.
Secondly, different methods of extraction are used. The three dominant methods of uranium mining include in situ leaching, open pit or underground mining.
As the name states, open pit mining involves blasting the bedrock to form a pit where orebodies close to the surface can be collected. Often, the deeper the pit, the more economically viable it will be. This method is considered the most environmentally damaging. Large areas of land are permanently altered, changing the vegetation, soil and bedrock. The open void must be addressed once activities have ceased; if left unkept erosion may direct radioactive rock downstream.
Underground mining extracts uranium from deeper surfaces through vertical openings. The underground network of pipes raises issues for the proper ventilation of radon gas, potentially contaminating surrounding sediment. In both underground and open pit mining, considerable amounts of waste rock are brought up to the surface. Additional complications arise from closure plans for underground mines due to the risk of it caving in.
In situ leaching methods involve chemical agents being injected below the Earth’s surface. The orebody is dissolved, uranium is pumped back up to the surface and the chemicals are recycled back down. The design of in situ leaching means it is the least environmentally damaging to the Earth’s surface because the rock in which the uranium resides is left in place. Although using leachates sounds aggressive, which it is, the path of the acid can be carefully traced. Uranium can be extracted from specific points as opposed to drilling large pockets beneath the Earth’s surface or blasting surface rock. Smart robotic drills plan routes specific to the local terrain – analysing paths that best maintain natural diversity. This low-impact method is a key example of technological change within the industry towards preserving biodiversity.
The primary concerns are how invasive the technologies are and the levels of radioactivity. Mining significantly alters the Earth’s geomorphology. On top of this, uranium mining and milling come with a large number of hazards. Radioactive minerals and radon gas emanate through sediment, soil and air. These concerns are not only focused on the exploited land but relate also to the surrounding areas. Past studies have shown contamination by wastewater irrigation on local crops and animal bodies as a result of uranium milling and mining. These incidents can be mitigated by routinely monitoring samples from water, air and the food chain. It must be stated that in the categorisation of radioactive waste, mining and milling processes remains low level and manageable to contain.
Biodiversity Conservation in Uranium Mining Today
Currently, former uranium mining sites are being handled in three ways: as storage sites for very low-level waste, as photovoltaic farms and as remediation sites. The Orano group, a French nuclear fuel company, do all three.
To safely store nuclear waste, large surface areas are needed, often for years on end. Thus, it is necessary to have zones dedicated solely to radioactive waste management. Next, when recycling the land by implementing other renewables, the goal is purely economic. Using old mining sites for solar farms generates both energy and jobs. Finally, more remediation projects are being considered from the outset. The responsibility of monitoring post-mining sites falls upon the operator. A uranium mine owned by Orano was shut down in 1993 near the Limousin region of France. The site was monitored for five years before being transformed into an artificial fishing lake. To commence decommissioning, contaminated sediments are disposed of and radioactivity levels are frequently monitored. The goal for environmental rehabilitation is to return the land to its ‘before status’ and safely re-integrate it into the landscape.
Remediation plans are not the only post-mining projects to be considered. While some plans appear more economically favourable, or when remediation projects seem to compete against the two other projects, one could argue that a combination of all three – or at least storage and remediation – is essential to a well-functioning nuclear industry. Conservation plans are therefore not central to the discussion, rather shared, but this shows that conservation is a topic that is being addressed in today’s uranium industry.
Changes to be made
Biodiversity conservation through land exchange is not enough. In the goal towards making nuclear fuel greener, the entire life cycle should be assessed and in particular its direct impact on nature. the direct impacts it has on nature. Future projects should aim to use less invasive technologies, ones that have been shown to reduce environmental impacts, such as in situ leaching. Efforts to move towards this newer technology have already started. Over the years, the number of in situ sites has increased. Remediation projects need to be carefully planned and executed to reduce the instability of mines threatened by erosion and flooding. While uranium mining will continue companies must be pressured to do their part to protect the environment. Uranium mining will have an impact on our environment, but the protection of our natural ecosystems does not have to be entirely incompatible with mining methods.
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