Pin the Tailings on the Reserve [Part 1] / by The Green Medium

Don’t worry, this piece isn’t about a racist party game. It actually discusses something much worse. This two part article will be taking a look at one case among many in which the deliberate mishandling of uranium mining, a vital step of the nuclear fuel cycle, has negatively impacted an aboriginal community. This kind of topic can come off as a bit technical, so I’m going to use part one of this as a brief, three question FAQ, so let’s do a lil learning together!


Question 1) “How does nuclear power actually work?”

Well, as activist and author Dr. Helen Caldicott puts it, “[Nuclear power] is a very expensive, sophisticated, and dangerous way to boil water.”¹ If you’re pretty new to nuclear matters, this can be surprising. Your idea of nuclear power was probably more like, “the process of harnessing the awesome power of the atom!” And you’re right, nuclear power does rely on very cool and interesting functions of atoms. However, for the sake of brevity and to keep this focused on the power industry side of things, I’m going to be reductive: atoms split, this releases energy, atoms continue to split in a sustained reaction, LOTS OF POWER O LORD SO MUCH GODDAMN POWER. So, where does the water boiling part come in? It boils down to this process:

I) Take a fancy and very secure chamber of water (a reactor, if you will)

II) Stick long, hollow metal poles filled with pellets of uranium (fuel rods) into the reactor

III) Begin and sustain the reaction, producing so much goddamn heat

IV) The heat boils the water and the resulting steam is piped to a turbine, producing electricity.

Voilà! Power-grid powered!

Question 2) “What about that nuclear fuel cycle you mentioned?”

The nuclear fuel cycle is, at its simplest, the process of obtaining and using uranium and dealing with the subsequent waste created. Uranium is a heavy, radioactive element that makes this whole nuke thing possible. Uranium is predominantly obtained in ore-form, and must be refined heavily to end up with a usable material. Once loosened and pull out of the earth, the uranium is refined through the milling phase of the cycle. The ore is trucked to uranium mills where it is ground into a powder, heated, and treated with chemicals (often sulfuric acid) to separate the uranium from the ore. The resulting compound is the famous “yellow cake” uranium. Yellowcake, however, isn’t usable for reaction yet, as it must be separated into its isotopes in a process called enrichment. Uranium comes in two common isotopes: uranium-235, which is the fissionable (read: reactive) and thus useful isotope and it must be removed from the more common uranium-238. To enrich uranium, you run it through machines called centrifuges. A centrifuge is a machine that spins a material so that the lighter components tend toward the edges and can then be collected. You may have seen these used to separate blood components at a clinic. The yellowcake is made into a gas which is sent through the centrifuges. The uranium-235 is isolated and collected by small amounts at a time, so the gas is run through thousands of centrifuges. Now that you have a large enough amount of fissionable product, its fabricated into fuel rods that can be used in the reactor. The uranium is made into pellets and loaded into the rods. The finished rods are shipped to the plants to generate steam in the reactors.

B! U! T! And this is one of the nuclear industry’s biggest buts, the cycle isn’t done yet. It’s easy to think of nuclear energy as being this magic, zero waste science-powered industry. However, what exactly happens to the spent and melted fuel rods, the cooling water, the myriad of fission by-products created, all of which are now lethally irradiated? All these waste products must be disposed of safely to avoid or, more often, simply reduce the environmental, infrastructural, and human health risks. Since we don’t know how to render much of the nuclear waste produced safe or how to recycle it, we seal it, transport it, and store it. This is the nuclear fuel cycle. Oh, one more part I forgot to mention. When you are milling the uranium most of that ore isn’t useful, so you have to put it somewhere. But we’re talking millions of tonnes of radioactive material? These materials are called tailings and ideally you’d treated them to reduce the radiation risk, and load them back into the mine with caution, to prevent seepage into the nearby water and environment. Ideally. Its been fun learning together, but things start to get upsetting from here on.

Question 3) “What’s this got to do with aboriginal communities?”

Canada is the world’s second largest supplier of uranium, producing over 20% of the world's supply over the last decade. Most of this uranium comes from Northern Saskatchewan and the great lakes area. Both of these areas have reserves and aboriginal land within proximity to the nuclear sites. In part 2, we’ll focus on the case of the Elliot Lake area in the early 1990s, and how it became home to 200 million tonnes of radioactive tailings.

1. Caldicott, Helen. Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer. New York: New, 2006. Print.