Research & Commentary: Uranium Mining

Published October 10, 2012

Recent moratoria on uranium mining in states such as Virginia and Arizona have sparked debates about whether the benefits of uranium outweigh its costs.

Currently, approximately 20 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by fuel derived from uranium, an extremely dense, naturally occurring metal. Through nuclear fission, this metal can be used to generate large-scale electricity with near-zero carbon dioxide emissions.

To obtain uranium, miners extract it from the ground. Uranium mining has been going on since the nineteenth century, and in many ways it is not much different from other forms of metallic mining. The two basic approaches to uranium mining are conventional mining and milling, and in situ recovery (ISR).

During the uranium mining boom of the 1950s, many miners were affected by overexposure to the toxic heavy metal. They experienced a level of exposure 100 or more times greater than what current federal standards would allow. Nevertheless, there has never been a death or permanent injury to a human attributable to uranium poisoning. Despite this low risk, concerns over potential health impacts from uranium exposure are getting stronger.

Many opponents of uranium mining claim it puts the public at risk of excessive radiation exposure. In fact, the risk is negligible to nonexistent. Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency imposes a 10 millirem limit on the amount of radioactive gas emitted by uranium mines. EPA states it requires a minimum of 5,000 to 10,000 millirems for humans to experience a change in blood chemistry, and at least 50,000 millirems to cause nausea. Most people receive about 300 millirems every year from natural background sources of radiation. Not a single case of human cancer of any type due to uranium exposure has been documented.

Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore told a panel of members of the National Academy of Sciences, “A sensible environmentalist knows that uranium mining is carried out safely in many countries around the world” and “realizes that it is completely unrealistic in the extreme to be opposed to both fossil fuels and nuclear energy in Virginia, or in the United States for that matter.”

Uranium mining has been proven safe to both the environment and public health under current regulations, while accomplishing impressive productivity as an energy source. States should embrace the mining of uranium for efficient, carbon-free production of electricity, rather than ban it or implement additional, unneeded regulations. Such measures won’t accomplish anything other than depriving the nation of one of our best-available long-term sources of energy.

The following documents provide additional information about the safety and benefits of uranium mining.


Ten Principles of Energy Policy
Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast outlines the ten most important principles for policymakers confronting energy issues, providing guidance about ongoing changes in markets, technology, and policies adopted in other states, supported by a thorough bibliography.

Research & Commentary: Mining Regulation–commentary-mining-regulation
Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith examines the contributions of the mining industry and the most effective ways to regulate it.

Arizona Congressmen Fight Uranium Ban
The Heartlander digital magazine reports on the battle between Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who wants to impose a 20-year moratorium on new mining claims in 1.1 million acres of public forest surrounding the Grand Canyon, and the Arizona congressmen who have fought back to protect the state’s energy costs and job growth potential.

Greenpeace Co-Founder Says Uranium Mining Is Done Safely All Over the World
The cofounder of Greenpeace tells a National Academy of Sciences panel that uranium mining is performed safely all over the world, having toured many of those sites personally.

Powering America: Uranium Mining and Milling
This Heritage Foundation video depicts the uranium mining and milling stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, with interviews and narration by mining workers.

Analysis of the Mortality Experience amongst U.S. Nuclear Power Industry Workers after Chronic Low-Dose Exposure to Ionizing Radiation
A 2004 Columbia University study that followed 54,000 U.S. nuclear industry workers from 15 different utilities over a span of 18 years found the workers displayed considerably lower cancer and non-cancer morality than the general population. 

A Citizen’s Guide to Uranium
Health Physics Society President Steve H. Brown offers a primer on the chemical element uranium, its extraction techniques, and whether the health concerns over it are justified. 

Health Effects
Health effects are the focus of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Radiation Protection Programs. On this Web page, EPA has outlined several information points regarding existing regulations and how they’re more than sufficient to protect the public from adverse health effects of radiation. 

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Environment & Climate News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at


If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.