Solid-Phase Distribution and Leaching Behaviour of Nickel and Uranium in a Uranium Waste-Rock Piles
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The potential risk of surface and groundwater contamination by the heavy metals and radionuclides leached from uranium waste-rock piles (UWRP) is a major environmental concern in the uranium-mining district of Northern Saskatchewan, Canada. The main objective of this study was to evaluate the nickel and uranium leaching behaviour in the UWRP lithological materials. In addition to the chemical characterization, these selected UWRP geomedia samples were also subjected to the sequential extraction procedure, availability test to quantify leaching potential and cumulative leaching test (CLT). Sequential extractions results demonstrated substantial observed differences in the Ni and U distribution patterns among various operationally defined geochemical fractions. A large fraction of total Ni concentration was associated with non-labile residual fraction while U was mainly present in the labile fractions. The observed labile Ni and U concentrations also remained relatively high in the gneissic basement materials and underlying organic-rich lake sediment. In case of basement materials, both Ni and U concentrations in solution with the first CLT fraction exceeds their maximum permissible levels in both surface and groundwater. Leaching test results confirmed that Ni and U leachability depends on their total content distribution in various solid phase fractions, and several geochemical processes are controlling the solubility of Ni and U geochemical phases in the UWRP. Our experimental data suggest the potential for a long-term risk to surface and groundwater contamination from these UWRP.