US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Applied Geochemistry, 2014


U.S. Government work


Natural uranium (U) occurs as a mixture of three radioactive isotopes: 238U, 235U, and 234U. Only 235U is fissionable and makes up about 0.7% of natural U, while 238U is overwhelmingly the most abundant at greater than 99% of the total mass of U. Prior to the 1940s, U was predominantly used as a coloring agent, and U-bearing ores were mined mainly for their radium (Ra) and/or vanadium (V) content; the bulk of the U was discarded with the tailings (Finch et al., 1972). Once nuclear fission was discovered, the economic importance of U increased greatly. The mining and milling of U-bearing ores is the first step in the nuclear fuel cycle, and the contact of residual waste with natural water is a potential source of contamination of U and associated elements to the environment. Uranium is mined by three basic methods: surface (open pit), underground, and solution mining (in situ leaching or in situ recovery), depending on the deposit grade, size, location, geology and economic considerations (Abdelouas, 2006). Solid wastes at U mill tailings (UMT) sites can include both standard tailings (i.e., leached ore rock residues) and solids generated on site by waste treatment processes. The latter can include sludge or ‘‘mud’’ from neutralization of acidic mine/mill effluents, containing Fe and a range of coprecipitated constituents, or barium sulfate precipitates that selectively remove Ra (e.g., Carvalho et al., 2007). In this chapter, we review the hydrometallurgical processes by which U is extracted from ore, the biogeochemical processes that can affect the fate and transport of U and associated elements in the environment, and possible remediation strategies for site closure and aquifer restoration. This paper represents the fourth in a series of review papers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) on geochemical aspects of UMT management that span more than three decades. The first paper (Landa, 1980) in this series is a primer on the nature of tailings and radionuclide mobilization from them. The second paper (Landa, 1999) includes coverage of research carried out under the U.S. Department of Energy’s Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Program (UMTRA). The third paper (Landa, 2004) reflects the increased focus of researchers on biotic effects in UMT environs. This paper expands the focus to U mining, milling, and remedial actions, and includes extensive coverage of the increasingly important alkaline in situ recovery and groundwater restoration.