Within the environmental movement, criticism of dirty uranium mining is often used as an argument against nuclear power. But we rarely hear voices in the environmental movement that problematize the effects of producing the materials needed for renewable energy production.
We have therefore compiled the results of studies that investigated the environment and the health effects of the metals required for nuclear and wind and solar power respectively.
The studies show that wind and solar power are dependent on large quantities of copper, aluminum, and steel (primarily consisting of iron) while nuclear power is dependent on uranium.
A study that compiled the results from existing life cycle analyzes for different metals concluded that copper and uranium mining have equivalent environmental and health effects per kilo of processed metal.
To calculate how much of different metals are used to produce one terawatt-hour of electricity with different energy types is not an exact science. However, using the latest technologies available today for wind and solar power, we see that they require about 50 tons of copper / produced TWh, while nuclear energy requires about 30 tons of uranium to produce the same amount of energy.
Aluminum and iron production clearly have lower health and environmental effects. But even though the impact is lower per kilo, one needs to take into account that much more of these metals are required.
The use of iron and aluminum in nuclear power generation is considered to be small while it requires about 4000 tonnes of steel and about 400 tonnes of aluminum to produce 1 TWh of average wind and solar power built with the latest technologies available today.
All in all, we think this shows that uranium mining is a dubious argument against nuclear power. However, we want to make it clear that the purpose of the review we carry out here is not to put renewable energy against nuclear power since both are needed for the climate.
Uranium mining in comparison with material production for renewable
For starters, it is important to note that renewable energy also requires mining, a lot of mining, even.
According to a study in Nature, solar and wind energy require up to 15 times more concrete, 90 times more aluminum and 50 times more iron, copper and glass per installed capacity compared to what fossil energy and nuclear power do.
In order for us to weigh the effects of the production of these materials against the development of uranium for nuclear power, we need to make two estimates:
- An estimate of the environmental and health impact of mining and refining of the respective metals
- An estimate of how much of each metal is required to produce a certain amount of energy
However, making such estimates is not trivial but involves several uncertainties. It is therefore important to see that these types of estimates are more of an image of the sizes than something that reflects exact figures.
Nuclear power for nuclear power
Nuclear fuel is produced from the substance U³0⁸ (these are also the effects of producing this substance as the life cycle analysis we refer to calculated).
According to the World Nuclear Organization, about 200 tonnes of U³0⁸ are required to run a reactor of 1000MWe for one year.
Of course, it is not enough with just uranium to produce nuclear power, it also requires metals to build the reactor itself. But according to the study in Nature, solar and wind energy require up to 15 times more concrete, 90 times more aluminum and 50 times more iron, copper and glass per installed capacity compared to what fossil energy and nuclear power do.
Environmental impact from closed mines
Environmental problems due to abandoned mines are a general mining problem and nothing specifically linked to uranium mining alone. According to the UN Environment Program, abandoned mines are one of the major environmental problems linked to mining. For example, the UK Environmental Protection Agency reports in a report that nine percent of the rivers in England are polluted by abandoned coal and metal mines.
Rare earth metals in the wind and solar power
In addition to common metals such as iron, copper, and aluminum, modern wind and solar power plants in some models contain a significant amount of rare earth metals. The article in Nature, which compares material consumption for different types of energy, mentions e.g. substances such as indium, gallium, and selenium have started to be used to increase the efficiency of the latest generation wind turbines.
In the study that compiles the results of life cycle analyses for a large number of metals, we find that these listed metals have an equivalent environment and health impact as copper and uranium.
However, the article in Nature emphasizes that the dependence on “ordinary metals” is more serious than the dependence on rare earth metals as research on replacement materials is ongoing and we can choose to build slightly less efficient solar and wind power plants that are not dependent on the rare earth metals.
The very topic of neodymium has sparked a lot of debate in connection with the production of wind power. Many nuclear advocates usually say that neodymium is the uranium of wind power. But we can note that neodymium actually seems to have consistently lower environmental and health effects than copper and uranium have. In addition, neodymium was only present in 5-10% of the wind turbines installed in the world in 2011.
Risk of ionizing radiation during uranium mining
It is sometimes argued that fears of uranium mining lead to cancer in miners due to radiation. When you look at increased incidence of cancer, the levels are so low that they are barely measurable. For miners, the radiation dose they receive is not higher than what a normal person gets from natural radiation.
In contrast, uranium mining caused cancer among miners between 1940-1970 because ventilation technology was much worse.
The health effects of uranium mining in Australia
In the environmental party’s publication Nuclear Power in the Age of the Climate Crisis, we can read the following statement:
At uranium mines in Australia, for example, people and animals suffer from diseases. Memory loss, impaired vision, and children born with malformations are direct consequences of uranium mining.