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Nuclear Waste


Uranium Mining Report
Uranium Mining

Mines & Communities

Project Underground
Aussie campaign
Aussie fuel-cycle overview
Cameco Mining Co.

Fuel Fabrication
Enrichment Slideshow
Yggdrasil Institute

U.S. Enrichment Co. (USEC)
Urenco Enrichment Co.
Bechtel Jacobs
British Nuclear Fuels Ltd.
BNFL FactSheet
Reference Material
Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Events Overview

U.S. Nuclear Fuel Tracking Network

World Nuclear Facilities

The Nuclear Fuel Cycle


The Nuclear Fuel Cycle is the massive nuclear weapons supply system, hidden for generations by the military industrial complex. It is broken into two main parts, the front end, where uranium is mined and concentrated to make nuclear weapons, and later for nuclear powered electricity. The back end of the nuclear fuel cycle is all about nuclear waste and spent fuel storage. Spent nuclear fuel is the most deadly material known, remaining radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. The nuclear fuel cycle is one of the largest and most complex industrial processes in the world. Called the Manhattan Project, it was secretly set up to produce the nuclear bombs that were used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Over 200,000 people died, with the lingering effects being passed on to following generations in their genes. It is estimated that the U.S. has spent $5 trillion during the atomic age. This Faustian bargain has altered the genetic future of all life on earth.

The Atoms for Peace campaign was a cold war tactic to develop nuclear technology for civilian use to rationalize the expense of the massive industrial complex that is now managed by the Department of Energy(DOE). The media promoted claims that we would be flying in nuclear planes, promising that nuclear electricity would be too cheap to meter. The DOE spends $25 billion a year to manage over 30 national laboratories with 90% of all work contracted out to giant corporations like Battelle, CH2M Hill, Fluor Daniel, Lockheed, SAIC, and Bechtel. Between 100,000 and 400,000 former DOE employees were adversely affected by working in the nuclear industry. Massive contamination scandals racked the DOE in the late 80,'s.

Cleanup costs were estimated to exceed $100 billion. The Bush Administration is pushing to spend hundreds of billions more to completely revitalize the entire nuclear weapons complex. Over 1/2 million military personnel witnessed close up atmospheric tests. Citizens in prison as well as mentally handicapped were purposely exposed to excessive radiation experiments without their consent or knowledge. The atmospheric tests done in Nevada and elsewhere between 1948 and 1963 affected the lives and health of millions of Americans across the country. Compensation programs for workers, miners and downwinders have spent billions of dollars but as of yet begun to deal with the scale of the impacts. The National Institute of Health released the first comprehensive investigation of the radioactive fallout. This is our online Department of Energy page.


Uranium Mining

The first step in the nuclear fuel cycle is the mining and milling process. Historically, uranium was found using Geiger counters. Today it is done by airborne gamma-ray spectrometry. An area is then selected using a variety of criteria for mining. The best sources within the U.S. are located in the Southwest on indigenous lands.

Even though the dangers were known by experts hard rock mining techniques of extracting uranium was offered as a labor source for tribes like the Navajo. Many of the miners would later die of cancer, passing congenital disease onto their children.

As demand grew for uranium large companies like the French owned Cameco would use modern excavation and In Situ Leech (ISL)to recover uranium ore. Excavation may be underground or via open pit mining.

Open pit mines require large holes on the surface. The milling process extracts the uranium from the original ore leaving behind large dry or wet tailings. An growing percentage of uranium now comes from In Situ Leaching (ISL), where oxygenated groundwater is circulated through a very porous orebody to dissolve the uranium and bring it to the surface in a water based slurry. Acids or alkaline chemicals are used to keep the uranium in solution. The uranium is then recovered from the solution in a conventional mill.

The quarried raw ore from open pit mines is then hauled via giant trucks to a uranium mill. The milling process crushes the ore into a fine sandy powder that is then mixed with large amounts of water, acids and other chemicals to tease out the uranium. It is dried and dyed yellow whiich is how it gets the name yellowcake.

Left behind are immense dry or wet tailing piles of the original ore that contain 80% of the original radiation, and other environmentally sensitive materials. The U.S. industry collapsed by 1990 leaving behind thousands of abandoned uranium mines mostly in the four corners area of the southwest. These mines and the tailings piles have adversely affected the environment and the health of the communities living near them which happen to be mostly Navaho Indians.

The awareness that these tailing piles represent a serious environmental hazzard has been known since the 1970's. 300,000 tons of the radioactive tailings were used to build the streets and foundations for homes and office buildings in Grand Junction Colorado. The government was forced to spend nearly a billion dollars to fix this mess in a white community. Previous attempts to cleanup thousands of abandoned mines on Navajo lands failed. Not until 2007 did the abandoned mines get readdressed. Homes were built with contaminated materials. Their drinking water is contaminated resulting in devastating health impacts. Then there is the story about the previos generation of Navajo uranium miners who died from Radon poisoning.

In 1979, A tailings site at Churchrock New Mexico broke free of its dam and contaminated indigenous communities drinking water. Today, another major tailings dam at Moab Utah is endangering the Colorado River and water supplies of much of the southwest U.S.. Cleanup costs at the Moab site is estimated to cost $1 billion and not be completed until 2020. Cleanup costs for the entire nightmare range as high as $30 billion. And yet, there is now a new push to starting mining across the same areas that have yet to be cleaned up. Nearly a thousand mining claims have been placed within 5 miles of the Grand Canyon, with thousands more across the region.

Full Uranium Mining Report


Yellowcake to UF6 Conversion

After the uranium milled into yellowcake, it must go through a series of complex steps before it can be used as nuclear fuel. It is first turned into a gas (uranium dioxide) and then into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) at the country's only conversion facility located in Metropolis Illinois. Converdyn operates the conversion facility and is a joint partnership between General Atomics and Honeywell. It currently has the capacity to produce up to 15,000 tons of UF6 a year. There was a December 2003 fire at the 1,100 acre facility that required public evacuation of the nearby area. Eleven workers were contaminated by a UF6 leak. Federal funding was required starting in 2000 to keep the facility from going bankrupt due to the lack of business.

The Converdyn facility is located on the Ohio River, across from the massive Paducah Gaseous diffusion facility where the UF6 then goes for enrichment.

To the left is a close-up of the UF6 Conversion facility yard where old canisters are being stored. Newer canisters can be seen in detail with the Enrichment section.





U.S. Enrichment Facilities

The uranium hexafluoride (UF6) then travels across the river to be enriched at the Gaseous Diffusion facility at Paducah Kentucky. The U.S. currently uses a now outmoded enrichment process called gaseous diffusion to concentrate uranium enough to reach critical mass. The uranium must be enriched from 1% to between 3-5% for commercial reactors or to more than 85% for weapons grade material.

The first gaseous diffusion facility in Oak Ridge Tennessee called the K-25 facility was the largest manufacturing building ever built and was a mile long. At the peak of operation there were three facilities operating, including Paducah Kentucky and Portmouth Ohio. These units used vast amounts of water and 3% of the entire electrical output of the U.S. The K-25 facility was shutdown in 1987 and is still awaiting decommissioning. The Portsmouth Ohio Gaseous Diffusion facility ran from 1954 to 1991, but still is in operation for other work.

These facilities are also where a large percentage of the tens of thousands of U.S. workers were contaminated, right up to the present time, with over 100,000 workers currently requesting compensation for their illnesses.

In 1997 congress transferred the entire infrastructure to a quasi private company called the U.S.Enrichment Corporation. The gaseous diffusion enrichment process is considered an outdated technology with the goal of replacing it with gaseous centrifuges.

One of the byproducts of enrichment process is depleted uranium. As part of the cold war exchange, the U.S. starting experimenting with the recycling of depleted uranium for the development of armor piercing ammunition in the 1970's.

Fuel Fabrication

The enriched uranium is then converted into a solid uranium dioxide (UO2) powder and pressed into small pellets. The pellets are placed into fuel rods that are about 4 meters long. These fuel rods are coated with a zirconium alloy to protect them from extreme heat and then put into assemblies for use in nuclear power stations. The U.S. currently has two types of reactors the Boiling Water Reactor (a BWR assembly hold 63 fuel rods) or the Pressurized Water Reactor (the PWR assembly holds 265 rods).Large amounts of fluorine and chlorine are used in making uranium fuel.

The nuclear industry likes to brag about how much energy it gets from a single uranium pellet. Imagine all the work done by that one uranium pellet could never exist if it wasn't for the largest, most expensive and complex industrial infrastructure in the world! It is one of the largest users of water and energy in the world. In 2006 U.S. commercial reactors purchased 33,000 tons of uranium fuel. And for you energy independence buffs, none of it was mined from within the U.S.

For every ton of uranium fuel used, about 55 tons of radioactive waste tailings are produced, or over 1.8 million tons a year, or over 120 million cubic meters to date.

The EPA estimates that there are somewhere between 1-9 billion tons of abandoned uranium tailings are left at approximately 4,000 abandoned uranium mines. Four billions tons of tailings would fill 26,000 football fields 8 stories high with wastes.

The Rossing mine (one of the largest in the world) extracted over 19 million tons or raw ore to produce 3,700 tons of uranium ore in 2005. It used 3.3 million cubic meters of water and 225,000 tons of acid to produce the yellowcake. The tailings pond at Rossing is over 730 Hectares over over 1,500 acres in size, while the facility itself covers 23 square kilometers. It uses nearly 30% of the entire water consumption of Nambia. There are currently 8 mines in Canada that are each over 4,000 acres in size. There are two gigantic mines in Australia (Ranger and Olympic) that are producing nearly 9,000 tons of uranium yellowcake a year.

And we haven't begun to talk about the spent fuel, as well as low-level wastes produced by nuclear industry. Or the fact that a single nuclear reactor uses about 1 billion gallons of water for cooling every day. Or the immense amounts of water and energy the gaseous diffusion facilities during the enrichment phase use. According to one study, the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) is less that 1 to 5 compared with 1 to 40 for oil.


The U.S. currently has commercial 104 nuclear power reactors operating. They are regulated by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. No state or local oversight of nuclear power plants is allowed except for the rates charged to the public for electricity. Each reactor consumes about 150 tons of uranium fuel per year. The uranium fuel pellets are placed in long zirconium rods that are then placed in assembles inside the nuclear reactor.

A large 1,000 megawatt reactor uses up to 1 billion gallons of water per day for cooling. In the case of the Diablo Canyon facility (right) state and federal environmental laws were waived to allow for operation. The largest population of Abalone in North America was destroyed the first day the reactor's plumbing was tested. The two Diablo Canyon initially had a $54 billion contract to operate for its first 30 years. Reactors cost $5.8 billion to construct and over $7 billion in financing. The U.S. EPA loaned the utility over $2 billion to complete the reactors It is located 2 miles from the fault that leveled the city of Santa Barbara in 1927.

Over $3 billion of ratepayer money has been placed in a special federal account to pay for the reactor's decommissioning when finally shut down. In the late 1990's one of the largest proposed fines ever for lying to federal authorities about contamination of the offshore environment magically disappeared. -

Typically a 1000 MWe reactor will discharge about 2 metric tons of high level waste each refueling. This is a work in progress(Oct 5th, 2008)

Spent Fuel

Approximately every 18 months a commercial reactor is shut down for a month to remove spent nuclear fuel and add new fuel. The spent fuel assemblies are placed in an adjacent spent fuel pond. The spent fuel ponds at reactors across the U.S. are nearly full today. Thirty years ago the DOE promised that it would have a spent fuel repository available by 1998. Sorry, but due to the undemocratic process of shoving the repository down the throat of the state of Nevada, it has fought back. Proving that the plans to store the most deadly waste in the world at Yucca Mountain is scientifically problematic at best.

The Yucca Mt. spent fuel disposal site is estimated to cost $100 billion dollars and will dispose of roughly half of America's spent fuel. The cost of sending a man to the moon was $100 billion dollars. In June of 2008 Senator Lieberman attempted to sneak in a $518 billion check to the nuclear industry to build 45 reactors. President Bush's Global Nuclear Energy partnership, where nuclear fuel would be reprocessed using breeder reactors to make plutonium was estimated to cost over $400 billion.