Uranium mining is a hazardous and controversial industry. It is the labor-intensive process of extracting uranium ore from the earth. Uranium ore is a rare element and unlike other types of metals and elements that are mined, it is only found in trace amounts. This requires a large volume of earth to be mined just to produce a small amount of uranium.
Uranium is a vital fuel source for nuclear reactors and power plants. Because of its scarcity, it can only be found in certain countries. Of the top-producing companies, Canada provides around 20% of the world's total amount. The other top two countries that mine uranium are Kazakhstan and Australia. Uranium is also mined in parts of the U.S., Namibia, Russia, and Niger. In 2008, the world's total production accounted for over 48,000 tons of uranium.
Uranium was purposefully mined for the first time back in the late 1800's. It was mined mostly for radium, a by-product of uranium. Radium was used for luminous paint on the hands of watches and instrument dials to better see them in the dark. Some radium was even unwisely used for a number of health treatments. One of the first detectors used to find uranium was the Geiger counter. Prominent in the 1930's, it picked up levels of radiation which showed up on a small screen with a needle. Today's miners and engineers use airborne gamma-ray symmetry for mining and exploration.
Uranium is mined in similar ways to other minerals and elements. The most common methods are open mining, box mining, and in situ leaching. In the first two methods, a large amount of waste rock is produced. These waste bi-products can be dangerous because they contain small amounts of trace radioactive isotopes which are hazardous. These pilings of waste release radon gas into the air and radioactive toxins can be absorbed into the ground and contaminate local water sources. This is why when a uranium mine is shut down, care must be taken to dispose of all waste properly.
According to latest environmental studies, the amount of known uranium that can be currently mined will yield enough product to last for approximately a century.
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