, Volume 26, Issue 1, pp 19-31

US Geological Survey research on the environmental fate of uranium mining and milling wastes

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Abstract

Studies by the US Geological Survey (USGS) of uranium mill tailings (UMT) have focused on characterizing the forms in which radionuclides are retained and identifying factors influencing the release of radionuclides to air and water. Selective extraction studies and studies of radionuclide sorption by and leaching from components of UMT showed alkaline earth sulfate and hydrous ferric oxides to be important hosts of radium-226 (226Ra) in UMT. Extrapolating from studies of barite dissolution in anerobic lake sediments, the leaching of226Ra from UMT by sulfate-reducing bacteria was investigated; a marked increase in226Ra release to aqueous solution as compared to sterile controls was demonstrated. A similar action of iron(III)-reducing bacteria was later shown. Ion exchangers such as clay minerals can also promote the dissolution of host-phase minerals and thereby influence the fate of radionuclides such as226Ra. Radon release studies examined particle size and ore composition as variables. Aggregation of UMT particles was shown to mask the higher emanating fraction of finer particles. Studies of various ores and ore components showed that UMT cannot be assumed to have the same radon-release characteristics as their precursor ores, nor can226Ra retained by various substrates be assumed to emanate the same fraction of radon. Over the last decade, USGS research directed at offsite mobility of radionuclides from uranium mining and milling processes has focused on six areas: the Midnite Mine in Washington; Ralston Creek and Reservoir, Colorado; sites near Canon City, Colorado; the Monument Valley District of Arizona and Utah; the Cameron District of Arizona; and the Puerco River basin of Arizona and New Mexico.