Uranium Study Dispels Myths about Dangers, Examines Science of Mining, Energy

Dana Ulmer-Scholle

Right: Dana Ulmer Scholle

By Thomas Guengerich

SOCORRO, N.M., Feb. 26, 2009 – A new study by New Mexico Tech researcher Dr. Dana Ulmer-Scholle opens a window to the world of uranium.

Ulmer-Scholle’s study is broken down into seven sections, all posted on the Web at ees.nmt.edu/~dulmer/NMCEP/Index.html.

Ulmer-Scholle produced the study for the New Mexico Center for Energy Policy, a division of New Mexico Tech based in Hobbs. She is a senior research scientist with Research and Economic Development in the university’s Earth and Environmental Studies department.

The new study presents a detailed overview of the chemistry of uranium, the nuclear power industry, the many and varied uses of uranium and mining in an accessible, easy-to-read fashion. New Mexico has the second largest amount of uranium in the United States; however, the industry stopped producing when prices fell in the 1980s. Now, with radically fluctuating petroleum prices and mounting concerns about climate change, energy policymakers are looking again toward uranium and nuclear power.

“In order for New Mexico to get back into uranium production, we’ll have to be able to monitor and mitigate the effects of mining,” said Dr. Van Romero, vice president of Research and Economic Development at Tech. “The work that Dr. Ulmer-Scholle is doing is going a long way towards jumpstarting both remediation and mitigation of uranium production waste.”

Ulmer-Scholle is a geologist who specializes in carbonate sedimentology. However, when she came to New Mexico Tech, she accepted a research proposal to study remediation of uranium. Specifically, she studied how native plants consume and remediate both natural and depleted uranium contamination in soil.

That project led to her current study of uranium, mining and the nuclear industry. She approached the subject dispassionately in attempt to explain the basic properties of uranium and offering all information available.

“If we bring our opinions and our passions into the discussion, we’ll be arguing about it for years and nothing will be done,” she said. “The best service I could do is give it an even-handed look.”

In the course of her research, she found data points that contradict some popularly held perceptions.

“The biggest misconception is how dangerous uranium is,” she said. “Weapons grade uranium is highly radioactive and dangerous, but natural uranium – if you’re walking near rocks containing uranium – isn’t going to cause harm.”
Even fuel grade uranium, which is slightly enriched, is not a radioactive hazard and can not be used for nuclear weapons.

The study opens with an overview of nuclear fission, with detailed diagrams showing how uranium molecules are split to create heat, which can be harnessed to generate electricity.

The second section discusses the chemistry of uranium, its half-life and the practical uses for the element. Uranium, Ulmer-Scholle writes, has numerous military and civilian uses, from medicine, scientific research, agriculture, consumer products, materials testing and space exploration.

The third and fourth sections of her study deal with the geology of uranium – where it is found and how it is mined. Complete with explanatory graphics, these parts offer great detail about global uranium deposits and mining activities.

New Mexico ranks second in the nation for uranium deposits, with a high concentration of uranium in the region from Grants west toward Gallup.

The final three sections of Ulmer-Scholle’s study examine the nuclear power industry, its benefits and drawbacks. Section 5 is “How Uranium Is Enriched,” complete with detailed explanations, pictures and graphics relating to methodology.

“How is Nuclear Power Produced,” Section 6, explains in detail the various methods used around the world to harness the power of uranium.

“Why Nuclear Energy,” Section 7, examines the benefits and limitations of nuclear energy.

“First and foremost, global warming … is seen as not an emerging threat but as something that is occurring already with a rise in the average global air temperatures,” Ulmer-Scholle writes. “Nuclear energy has become much more attractive [because] it decreases our dependence on fossil fuels. … Since nuclear fuel contains much more energy than a similar mass of hydrocarbons or coal, nuclear energy is an attractive alternative to carbon-based fuels.”

Ulmer-Scholle’s study contains a wide range of interesting science, demographics and findings.

For instance, she notes that 75 percent of France’s energy needs are provided by the nuclear industry. In America, less than 15 percent of all energy is from nuclear power.

Another significant finding, Ulmer-Scholle said, is that the new generation of nuclear reactors is much safer than those already in operation. That finding, however, is beyond the realm of her expertise and this study.

While she found that new developments in nuclear reactor design might make smaller facilities more economical and safer, she also found that little research has been done to make in situ leaching operations cleaner and safer.

More research and development is necessary to make uranium mining more environmentally friendly. To make that happen, government agencies must devote more resources toward the science of uranium.

– NMT –