Uranium in the environment

Uranium in the environment refers to the science of the sources, environmental behaviour, and effects of uranium on humans and other animals. Uranium is weakly radioactive and remains so because of its long physical half-life (4.468 billion years for uranium-238). The biological half-life (the average time it takes for the human body to eliminate half the amount in the body) for uranium is about 15 days.[1] Normal functioning of the kidney, brain, liver, heart, and numerous other systems can be affected by uranium exposure, because uranium is a toxic metal.[2] The use of depleted uranium (DU) in munitions is controversial because of questions about potential long-term health effects.[3][4]

Natural occurrence

Uranium ore

Uranium is a naturally occurring element found in low levels within all rock, soil, and water. This is the highest-numbered element to be found naturally in significant quantities on earth. According to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation the normal concentration of uranium in soil is 300 μg/kg to 11.7 mg/kg.[5]

It is considered to be more plentiful than antimony, beryllium, cadmium, gold, mercury, silver, or tungsten and is about as abundant as tin, arsenic or molybdenum. It is found in many minerals including uraninite (most common uranium ore), autunite, uranophane, torbernite, and coffinite.[6] Significant concentrations of uranium occur in some substances such as phosphate rock deposits, and minerals such as lignite, and monazite sands in uranium-rich ores (it is recovered commercially from these sources). Coal fly ash from uranium bearing coal is particularly rich in uranium and there have been several proposals to "mine" this waste product for its uranium content.[7][8] Due to the fact that part of the ash of a coal power plant escapes through the smokestack, the radioactive contamination released by coal power plants in regular operation is actually higher than that of nuclear power plants.[9][10]

Seawater contains about 3.3 parts per billion of uranium by weight, approximately (3.3 µg/kg) or, 3.3 micrograms per liter of seawater.[11] The extraction of uranium from seawater has been considered as a means of obtaining the element.

Sources of uranium

Mining and milling

The radiation hazards of uranium mining and milling were not appreciated in the early years, resulting in workers exposed to high levels of radiation. Conventional uranium ore treatment mills create radioactive waste in the form of tailings, which contain uranium, radium, and polonium. Consequently, uranium mining results in "the unavoidable radioactive contamination of the environment by solid, liquid and gaseous wastes".[12] Inhalation of radon gas caused sharp increases in lung cancers among underground uranium miners employed in the 1940s and 1950s.[13]

In the 1940s and 1950s, uranium mill tailings were released with impunity into water sources, and the radium leached from these tailings contaminated thousands of miles of the Colorado River system. Between 1966 and 1971, thousands of homes and commercial buildings in the Colorado Plateau region were "found to contain anomalously high concentrations of radon, after being built on uranium tailings taken from piles under the authority of the Atomic Energy Commission".[14]


DU penetrator from the PGU-14/B incendiary 30 mm round

Depleted uranium (DU) is useful because of its very high density of 19.1 g/cm3 (68.4% denser than lead). Civilian uses include counterweights in aircraft, radiation shielding in medical radiation therapy and industrial radiography equipment, and containers used to transport radioactive materials. Military uses include defensive armor plating and armor-piercing projectiles.

Uranium metal can disperse into the air and water, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study says in part:

"The most important concern is the potential for future groundwater contamination by corroding penetrators (ammunition tips made out of DU). The munition tips recovered by the UNEP team had already decreased in mass by 10-15% in this way. This rapid corrosion speed underlines the importance of monitoring the water quality at the DU sites on an annual basis."[15]


Studies of depleted uranium aerosol exposure suggest that uranium combustion product particles would quickly settle out of the air,[16] and thus could not affect populations more than a few kilometres from target areas.[17]

The U.S. has admitted that there have been over 100 "friendly fire" incidents in which members of the U.S. military have been struck by DU munitions, and that an unknown number have been exposed to DU via inhalation of combustion products from burning DU munitions.


It has been reported that the corrosion of uranium in a silica rich aqueous solution forms both uranium dioxide and uranium trioxide.[18]

In pure water, schoepite {(UO2)8O2(OH)12.12(H2O)} is formed [19][20] in the first week and then after four months studtite {(UO2)O2·4(H2O)} was formed.

Uranium metal reacts with water to form hydrogen gas, this reaction forms uranium dioxide and 2% to 9% uranium hydride. It is important to note that the rate of corrosion due to water is far greater than that caused by oxygen at temperatures around 100 °C (212 °F). At pH values below 2 the corrosion rate at 100 °C goes down greatly, while as pH values go from 7 upwards the corrosion rate declines. Gamma irradiation has little effect on the corrosion rate.[21]

Oxygen gas inhibits the corrosion of uranium by water. .[22]

Nuclear waste

Spent uranium dioxide fuel is very insoluble in water, it is likely to release uranium (and fission products) even more slowly than borosilicate glass when in contact with water.[23]

Note that while the vast majority of the uranium is removed by PUREX nuclear reprocessing, a small amount of uranium is left in the raffinate from the first cycle of the PUREX process. In addition because of the decay of the transplutonium minor actinides and the residual plutonium in the waste the concentration of uranium will increase on the waste. This will occur on a time scale of hundreds and thousands of years.

Health effects


Soluble uranium salts are toxic, though less so than those of other heavy metals such as lead or mercury. The organ which is most affected is the kidney. Soluble uranium salts are readily excreted in the urine, although some accumulation in the kidneys does occur in the case of chronic exposure. The World Health Organization has established a daily "tolerated intake" of soluble uranium salts for the general public of 0.5 μg/kg body weight (or 35 μg for a 70 kg adult): exposure at this level is not thought to lead to any significant kidney damage.[24][25]

Tiron may be used to remove uranium from the human body, in a form of chelation therapy.[26] Bicarbonate may also be used as uranium (VI) forms complexes with the carbonate ion.



In 1950, the US Public Health service began a comprehensive study of uranium miners, leading to the first publication of a statistical correlation between cancer and uranium mining, released in 1962.[27] The federal government eventually regulated the standard amount of radon in mines, setting the level at 0.3 WL on January 1, 1969.[28]

Out of 69 present and former uranium milling sites in 12 states, 24 have been abandoned, and are the responsibility of the US Department of Energy.[29] Accidental releases from uranium mills include the 1979 Church Rock uranium mill spill in New Mexico, called the largest accident of nuclear-related waste in US history, and the 1986 Sequoyah Corporation Fuels Release in Oklahoma.[30]

In 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), granting reparations for those affected by mining, with amendments passed in 2000 to address criticisms with the original act.[27]

Depleted uranium exposure

Sites in Kosovo and southern Central Serbia where NATO aviation used depleted uranium munitions during 1999 bombing

The use of depleted uranium (DU) in munitions is controversial because of questions about potential long-term health effects.[3][4] Normal functioning of the kidney, brain, liver, heart, and numerous other systems can be affected by uranium exposure, because uranium is a toxic metal.[2] The aerosol produced during impact and combustion of depleted uranium munitions can potentially contaminate wide areas around the impact sites leading to possible inhalation by human beings.[17] During a three-week period of conflict in 2003 in Iraq, 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes of DU munitions were used.[31]

The actual acute and chronic toxicity of DU is also a point of medical controversy. Multiple studies using cultured cells and laboratory rodents suggest the possibility of leukemogenic, genetic, reproductive, and neurological effects from chronic exposure.[3] A 2005 epidemiology review concluded: "In aggregate the human epidemiological evidence is consistent with increased risk of birth defects in offspring of persons exposed to DU."[32] The World Health Organization, the directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations which is responsible for setting health research norms and standards, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends,[33] states that no risk of reproductive, developmental, or carcinogenic effects have been reported in humans due to DU exposure.[34][35] This report has been criticized by Dr. Keith Baverstock for not including possible long-term effects of DU on human body.[36]

Birth defects

Most scientific studies have found no link between uranium and birth defects, but some claim statistical correlations between soldiers exposed to DU, and those who were not, concerning reproductive abnormalities.

One study concluded that epidemiological evidence is consistent with an increased risk of birth defects in the offspring of persons exposed to DU.[32] Environmental groups and others have expressed concern about the health effects of depleted uranium,[37] and there is some debate over the matter. Some people have raised concerns about the use of this material, particularly in munitions, because of its mutagenicity,[38] teratogenicity in mice,[39][40] and neurotoxicity,[41] and its suspected carcinogenic potential. Additional concerns address unexploded DU munitions leeching into groundwater over time.[42]

Several sources have attributed the increase in the rate of birth defects in the children of Gulf War veterans and in Iraqis to depleted uranium inhalation exposure,[40][43] A 2001 study of 15,000 February 1991 U.S. Gulf War combat veterans and 15,000 control veterans found that the Gulf War veterans were 1.8 (fathers) to 2.8 (mothers) times more likely to have children with birth defects.[44] In a study of UK troops, "Overall, the risk of any malformation among pregnancies reported by men was 50% higher in Gulf War Veterans (GWV) compared with Non-GWVs". The conclusion of the study stated "We found no evidence for a link between paternal deployment to the Gulf war and increased risk of stillbirth, chromosomal malformations, or congenital syndromes. Associations were found between fathers' service in the Gulf war and increased risk of miscarriage and less well-defined malformations, but these findings need to be interpreted with caution as such outcomes are susceptible to recall bias. The finding of a possible relationship with renal anomalies requires further investigation. There was no evidence of an association between risk of miscarriage and mothers' service in the gulf."[45]


It has been reported that uranium has caused reproductive defects, and other health problems in rodents, frogs and other animals. Uranium was shown to have cytotoxic, genotoxic and carcinogenic effects in animal studies.[46]

[47] It has been shown in rodents and frogs that water-soluble forms of uranium are teratogenic.[32][39][40]

Bacterial biochemistry

It has been shown that bacteria, and Pseudomonadota such as Geobacter and Burkholderia fungorum (strain Rifle), can reduce and fix uranium in soil and groundwater.[48][49][50] These bacteria change soluble U(VI) into the highly insoluble complex-forming U(IV) ion, hence stopping chemical leaching.

Behavior in soil

It has been suggested that it is possible to form a reactive barrier by adding something to the soil which will cause the uranium to become fixed. One method of doing this is to use a mineral (apatite)[51] while a second method is to add a food substance such as acetate to the soil. This will enable bacteria to reduce the uranium (VI) to uranium (IV) which is much less soluble. In peat-like soils the uranium will tend to bind to the humic acids, this tends to fix the uranium in the soil.[52] J.D. Chaplin et al. recently reported advances in the Diffusive gradients in thin films technique, which have provided a method to measure labile bioavailable Uranium in soils, as well as in freshwater and seawater.[53]


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