Scientific Concepts

Uranium as a Fossil Fuel

uranium mine in Wyoming

uranium mine in Wyoming

Back in the days when our planet was young and the crust of the earth was forming, the minerals and precious metals for which we now dig so deep were spewing forth from the molten core of the earth. The planet was fiery, volcanoes erupted, the atmosphere contained little oxygen, and carbon-based life was millennia in the future. Gradually the planet cooled, and the great continent of Pangea arose and was torn apart by the movement of tectonic plates, giving us the continents we now have—puzzle pieces that still look as though they could fit back together somehow and in fact are still moving. Tectonic plates drifted, enormous mountain chains rose and fell while the atmosphere began to settle into a mix of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and a few other gases. The mix was very close to what we have now. Minerals and metals from the youth of the planet were buried and moved by the same powerful forces that tore apart the continents; forces that are still at work today when one tectonic plate meets another. And so life began.

Shallow seas came and went, leaving behind organic remains that were buried under great pressure and became sedimentary rock. Inert minerals and metals were transformed by volcanoes and became seams in the fabric of the emerging world. We have the fossil record that shows the ages of sea creatures great and small. As time passed on the enormous geological scale of the universe, the first fernlike plants emerged; a long process of altering the soil and air began, paving the way for what would come later. Dinosaurs and the plants that sustained them thrived and died on a hot and humid planet, leaving behind the organic matter that would, eons later, under great pressure, become oil, gas, and coal. There were great extinctions that wiped out most life, but somehow small mammallike creatures survived and inherited the earth. They began to fill the niches left empty by the fall of the giants.

Coal, oil, and gas are all remnants from our prehistoric past. They are mined from the earth at great cost and labor. Mining is an inherently dangerous and dirty job, and people all over the world who have done this work have suffered greatly, as have their communities.

These carbon-rich fuels have powered human economic development since the industrial revolution and before, and, as we now realize, are the source of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The price of civilization has been the destabilization of the natural system of checks and balances that has kept our atmosphere – the air we breathe – operating within the narrow band of gases that is hospitable to life.

Uranium, although it is not rich in carbon, fits into this category of mined fuels. The Navajo have a saying, “You might meet old coal miners, but you will never meet old uranium workers.” The mining and enrichment of the ore into fuel requires an enormous amount of electricity, and most of all, the reactors that are fueled by uranium alter the fuel rods and produce plutonium. One of the most deadly substances on the face of the planet, plutonium leaves a legacy that is deadly for 240,000 years and takes us to a time in the future that we cannot even begin to imagine.

There is no going back. What has happened cannot be undone. What we can do is work to keep all of these ancient fuels, including uranium, in the ground where they belong. We can only hope that we have not yet reached the tipping point that will return us to the Earth’s stormy past and a world inhospitable to life.

Instead, we can move to the life-sustaining power of the wind, sun, and water. That change is happening around the world and can happen here. Experts have laid out blueprints for the process, and progress is being made. We can reform our energy vision and wrest control from the dying giants of our crumbling centralized power sector—those who fight renewable energy every step of the way because it challenges corporate power and profit. Small generators that are quick to turn on and equally quick to turn off when they are not needed are a key to a new way to think about our electricity grid. Distributed generation makes for a stronger grid: it is cheaper to install and easier to dismantle.

Electricity can be generated in our communities by the buildings in which we live. Thoughtful distributed generation from clean sources, coupled with transmission, efficiency, and conservation, will meet our needs. The myth of scarcity and rolling blackouts is a story told by the powerful to intimidate the fearful. We have an abundance of electricity that is affordable, renewable, and waiting to be used. Let’s get started, for our sake and for those who come after!

Marilyn Elie, 3/20/16

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