#439-440 - September, 1995 - Special: Uranium Mining in Europe - The Impacts on Man and Environment

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Uranium Mining in Europe - The Impacts on Man and Environment
Full issue

Peter Diehl

Uranium Mining in Europe

The Impacts on Man and Environment

About the author: Peter Diehl, born in 1954, was for many years speaker of the Citizen Committee Against Uranium Mining in the Southern Black Forest (Germany). The committee struggled against the planned commercial operation of the Menzenschwand uranium exploration mine. From 1988, he visited many uranium mining sites in Europe. In 1991, he organized a European conference of citizen comittees opposed to uranium mining, the first conference of its kind after the fall of the iron curtain.

Published by:
WISE Amsterdam
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1040 LC Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel. +31-20-61263681
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© 1995 by uranium@t-online.de - Peter Diehl
Photographs: Peter Diehl

Special thanks to Monica Muurlink of WISE Glen Aplin, who edited the text of this brochure in her solar-powered hut in the Australian bush.

1. Uranium production in Europe

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Uranium Mining in Europe - The Impacts on Man and Environment

(September 1995) Uranium production figures are still not freely available in all countries. The statistics published by OECD on a regular basis (the last in 1994) still show major gaps, in particular for the former Soviet Union and China.

Three European countries are found within the top seven in the thus incomplete world ranking list of uranium producing countries with the highest total production since World War II: Germany (East), Czechoslovakia, and France. The European uranium producing countries together have produced more uranium than any other country.

Since the rapid decline of uranium prices in the early eighties and the political changes in the late eighties, the situation has changed very much. Uranium is now no longer produced for political reasons without concern for cost, and only the most cost-effective production centers survive. Furthermore, the large stockpile accumulated during the Cold War era is now being sold on the market. The most recent figures available are those for the year 1992: They indicate the new situation; but the changes were still in course in 1992.


The largest uranium producers of the world Production (tonnes U)
USA 339.290 CANADA 9.297
CANADA 257.692 NIGER 2.964
GERMANY (East) 217.791 RUSSIA 2.9001
FRANCE 68.174 USA 2.200
NAMIBIA 56.6821 FRANCE 2.149
NIGER 54.143 NAMIBIA 1.6841
GABON 22.226 UKRAINE 1.0001
BULGARIA 21.0002 CHINA 800
RUMANIA 16.850 GABON 540
INDIA 5.9201 INDIA 2901

Production (tonnes U)
GERMANY (East) 217.791 FRANCE 2.149
FRANCE 68.174 UKRAINE 1.0001
HUNGARY 16.718 SPAIN 187


The three largest producers German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia and France together have produced 86 % of the uranium produced in Europe (without USSR) since World War II. The producers located in the Eastern Bloc held an 83 % share in the total production. 89 % of Western Europe's 17 % share in the total production was produced by France.


Uranium mining in Germany is characterized by its completely different developments in both parts of the country: while only a few ore deposits were explored in the Western part, the third-largest uranium mining province in the world developed in the Eastern part.

Immediately after the end of World War II, the Soviets started exploration and mining of uranium in the historic mining provinces in the Ore Mountains. Subsequently, Wismut developed the largest uranium mining province in Europe in the Southern part of the German Democratic Republic.

"Wismut" is the short name of the mining company in East Germany. From 1946 to 1953, it was a Soviet stock corporation; so the complete name was "SAG Wismut", where SAG stands for Sowjetische Aktiengesellschaft. From 1954 to 1991, it was a Soviet-German stock corporation (50%/50%); so the complete name was "SDAG Wismut", where SDAG stands for Sowjetisch-Deutsche Aktiengesellschaft. In December 1991, the company was completely taken over by the government of then united Germany and was converted to a limited company; the name thus is now "Wismut GmbH", where GmbH stands for Ltd. But during all these years, the company was usually referred to as simply "Wismut".

Between 1946 and 1990, Wismut produced a total of around 220,000 tonnes of uranium. During peak times, production exceeded 7000 tonnes per year. For subsequent processing, all uranium produced was delivered to the Soviet Union. Initially, the uranium produced was exclusively used for nuclear weapons; later it was also used for nuclear power plants.

Wismut's staff in the early years is estimated to have been up to 100,000, among them many in forced labour. In the mid-eighties, the staff figures were around 27,000. More than 400,000 people have been working with Wismut at one time or another.

At the end of 1990, uranium mining was discontinued as a consequence of the German unification. Since 1991, Wismut carries out the work necessary for shut down and reclamation with drastically reduced numbers of employees (late 1994: 4600). The government estimates the clean-up period at 10 - 15 years, at costs of DM 13 billion (US$ 9.3 billion). Since no reserves were saved by the former operators, the clean-up has to be funded from the Federal budget.

In the beginning, Wismut's uranium mining focused on the locations Johanngeorgenstadt/Aue/Schlema in the Saxonian part of the Ore Mountains, later also on Ronneburg in Eastern Thuringia, and Freital/Dresden-Gittersee and Königstein near Dresden. In addition to these major sites, there exist many other places where uranium was explored or temporarily mined.

The contents of uranium of the ore extracted by Wismut was 251,000 tonnes; the amount of uranium produced in concentrate form from the ore was lower, due to production losses. The production figures of the various regions are shown in the following table [Hähne1993]:

Ore deposit type location production
Hydrothermal Ore Mnts./Vogtland 103,000 t
Sedimentary metamorphose Paleozoic Ronneburg 113,000 t
Carbonate Zechstein Culmitzsch 12,000 t
Lower Permian coal Dresden/Freital 4,000 t
Cretaceous sedimentary Königstein 19,000 t

The uranium was mined in open pits and in underground mines. The largest open pit called "Lichtenberg" is located near Ronneburg. Its initial depth was 240 meters; after being partly refilled, the depth was still 160 meters at an open volume of 80 million m3 in 1990. After depletion of the ore deposits located near the surface, mining continued at this place to depths of 500 meters. In the Ore Mountains, depths of 2000 meters were even reached; due to the high temperatures at these depths, the mines had to be air conditioned at high cost.

During the early years, the ore extracted was processed in small mechanical processing plants located near the mines. From the 1950's, processing was concentrated in two large uranium mills including chemical treatment in Crossen near Zwickau and Seelingstädt near Gera/Ronneburg. In addition, two smaller mills were in operation in Freital and Dresden-Gittersee until 1962.

A special case is the Königstein mine. This underground mine was switched to in-situ leaching in the early eighties: the ore was no longer removed from the deposit, but sulfuric acid was injected into the ore deposit to leach the uranium on site.

The grade of the ores produced by Wismut in the last years was only around 0.07 % uranium, a comparatively low value. Correspondingly, mining cost and amounts of waste and tailings produced were rather high. In 1990, Wismut's production cost was DM 380.50 per kg of uranium [Pfueller1994]; this corresponds to 90 $/lb U3O8, while the world market price was around 10 $/lb U3O8.

In the western part of Germany, several uranium deposits were discovered and explored in the highlands, but no commercial uranium mining developed there. Test mines existed in Ellweiler (Rhineland-Palatinate), Baden-Baden/Gernsbach in the northern part of the Black Forest, Menzenschwand in the southern part of the Black Forest, Mähring and Poppenreuth in Northern Bavaria, and Großschloppen in the Fichtel Gebirge. The only uranium mill was in operation from 1961 to 1989 at Ellweiler. It has produced a total of around 700 tonnes of uranium, mainly from Menzenschwand ores. After protests by environmental activists, it was shut down in 1989, for exceeding radiation release limits from the associated mill tailings dump. In Mähring, heap leaching was continued for some period of time after the shut down of the test mine. At the end of the eighties, all uranium exploration and mining activities in Western Germany were discontinued due to the low uranium market price.

Czech Republic

Uranium mining began immediately after the end of World War II in the historic mining province on the Czech side of the Ore Mountains at Jáchymov and surroundings; these deposits were depleted in the sixties. Further deposits were discovered and mined in various areas of Bohemia and Moravia. The annual production was in the range of 2500 - 3000 tonnes of uranium between 1955 and 1988. The total production was 102,245 tonnes from 1946 to 1992. The uranium was shipped to the Soviet Union for further processing. The mining was performed by the state enterprise CSUP s.p. (Ceskoslovensky Uranovy Prumysl s.p.)., which changed its name to DIAMO s.p. in 1992.

The largest uranium province was Príbram; 38.9 % of the uranium was produced there, at an annual production of up to 2000 tonnes. After the political changes, mining was discontinued at this site due to depletion of the deposit. The same happened at the West Bohemian site of Zadní Chodov and at the South Bohemian site Okrouhlá Radoun. The North Bohemian Hamr na Jezere mine with the Stráz pod Ralskem mill is now being decommissioned.

At the South Bohemian site of Mydlovary near Budweis, a uranium mill was in operation, processing exclusively uranium ore that was supplied from other sites.

Uranium mining is still in operation at a reduced production rate at the West Moravian Rozná mine with the associated Dolní Rozínka mill.

In Stráz pod Ralskem moreover, the in-situ leaching technology was used on a large scale: The ore deposit is located in Cretaceous sandstones with grades of 0.08 - 0.15 % uranium. In an area of 5.6 km2, 9340 wells were drilled from the surface into the deposit. Diluted sulfuric acid was injected as a leaching agent through some of the wells, while the uranium bearing liquid was pumped from the others.

After the political changes, it was planned to keep the uranium production at a level sufficient to supply the reactor related uranium needs of the country. The only operating nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic, Dukovany (4 x 408 MW), needs 1632 tonnes per year; after the start of the still uncompleted Temelin plant (2 x 892 MW), the demand will approximately double. But, due to the high production cost, uranium mining will now be further reduced.


No uranium mining took place in the territory of Slovakia since its formation as a sovereign state (1 January 1993), but during its affiliation to Czechoslovakia, some uranium mining was undertaken in the areas of Novoveská Huta - Murán - Hnilcík and Kalnica - Selec in the West Carpathians. [OECD1994, p.223]


Uranium mining took place in Poland at various locations in the Sudety Mountains near the Czech border (in the Jelenia Góra and Walbrzych districts) from 1948 to 1963. A total of 26,000 workers was employed in the mines. From 1963 to 1972, a uranium mill was in operation at Kowáry, to process the uranium contained in the waste rock piles of the shut down mines [Norman1993].

The total uranium production of Poland is estimated at 1000 tonnes [OECD1992].


There exists only one uranium ore deposit in Hungary. It is located in the south of the country at the foot of the Mecsek Mountains at the Western border of the city of Pécs. Before 1989, production was 500 - 550 tonnes of uranium per year from ores at grades of 0.1 % and was completely shipped to the Soviet Union. The total production until 1992 amounts to 16,718 tonnes of uranium. The production declined to 413 tonnes in 1994.

From 1956 to 31 March 1992, mining was performed by the state owned Mecseki Ércbányászati Vállalat (MEV), and since then by Mecsekurán LLC. The number of employees declined from 7454 in 1985 to 1855 in 1992. After the political changes, it was planned to continue production at the level of the domestic nuclear power-plant needs. The Paks plant (4 x 425 MW) has a demand of 420 tonnes of uranium per year. But at the end of 1994, the decision was made to completely shut down the mine until 1997, due to the high production costs [NF 16 Jan 1995].


Uranium mining started in Rumania in 1950 by the Soviet-Rumanian enterprise SOVROM-CUARTT at Baita-Bihor in the West Carpathian Mountains. As no uranium mill existed here, all ore was shipped abroad for processing, initially to Sillamäe in Estonia. The uranium concentrate produced was then exclusively delivered to the Soviet Union. The enterprise was liquidated in 1961 and production stopped.

Uranium mining resumed in 1978 with the start of the uranium mill at Feldioara near Brasov. All ore produced in the uranium mining provinces of the West-Carpathians, East-Carpathians, and the Banat Mountains was brought to this mill. Peak production was attained in 1986 at 290 tonnes of uranium. Production has declined since then to 120 tonnes in 1992. The total production from Rumanian uranium ore between 1950 and 1992 amounts to 16,850 tonnes, 2350 of which is from the Feldioara mill. At present, the mines of Avram Iancu (West Carpathians), Dobrei South (Banat Mountains), Botusana and Crucea (East Carpathians) are still operating.

The uranium produced is intended to supply the Cernavoda nuclear power plant. This plant is still under construction. It comprises 5 units of the Canadian CANDU type. This reactor type can be operated with natural uranium; an enrichment is not required. Unit No.1 was to be completed in Spring 1995, but the start-up had to be deferred.


Uranium mining began in Bulgaria in 1946 at Bukhovo near Sofia. It was carried out by a Soviet-Bulgarian enterprise under Soviet management. From 1956, uranium mining was continued by the Bulgarian firm Redki Metali (Rare Metals), with participation of Soviet consultants. The uranium produced was delivered to the Soviet Union, initially as ore, and, after the start of the uranium mills at Bukhovo and Eleshnitza, as uranium concentrate. In return for the uranium deliveries, Bulgaria received fuel rods for its Kozloduj nuclear power plant (4 x 440 MW, 2 x 1000 MW).

The first uranium mines in Bulgaria were underground mines. From 1979, in-situ leaching was also applied, using wells, drilled form the surface. The leaching agent used in most cases was sulfuric acid. From 1981, in-situ leaching was also used to increase the yield from mined out conventional underground mines [Tabakov1993]. From 1981, 23 ore deposits were mined by conventional underground mining techniques, 17 by in-situ leaching from the surface, and 11 by in-situ leaching in combination with conventional mining techniques. In 1990, 70 % of the uranium produced was from in-situ leaching of ore deposits with very low grades of 0.02 - 0.07 % of uranium [Kuzmanov1993]. In the years 1991 - 1992, 14,000 wells in 15 in-situ leaching fields were in operation [OECD1994]. The total area used for in-situ leaching comprised 6 km2 [Vapirev1994].

Official production figures are not available. The total production from 1946 to 1992 is estimated at 21,000 tonnes of uranium [UI1994]; the annual production decreased from 850 tonnes in 1989 to 90 tonnes in 1992 [OECD1994].

On 20 August 1992, the Bulgarian government decided to completely shut down all uranium mining activities until 1995, due to the high production cost of 62 $/kg U (24 $/lb U3O8).


At present, uranium is being mined in the Ingul'skii and Vatutinskii mines near Kirovograd. The ore is processed in the Zholtiye Vody and Dneprodzerzhinsk mills.

There is no data available on the Ukrainian uranium production. The annual production for 1992 is estimated at 1000 tonnes of uranium [OECD1994]. In April 1995, the Ukrainian government approved a nuclear fuel industry plan, scheduling a threefold increase of uranium production by the year 2003 [NF May 8, 1995].


At present, uranium is only being mined in Russia at the Streltsovsk deposit in the eastern Transbaikal district in Eastern Siberia. The 1992 annual production is estimated at 2900 tonnes of uranium [OECD1994].

In the European part of Russia, a small uranium deposit in the Onezsk district in Karelia is known, but has not yet been mined. The deposits in the Stavropol district and in the Northern Caucasus Mountains are exhausted.


France is the by far largest uranium producer in Western Europe. In 1988, production attained a peak of 3394 tonnes; this allowed France to meet the half of its reactor demand from domestic sources. From 1989, many mines were closed due to exhaustion of the deposits or excessive production cost. Production declined rapidly since then (1992: 2149 tonnes). As a consequence of the shut downs, employment in the uranium industry decreased from 2886 in 1989, to 1443 end 1992. Of the 34 mines and 5 mills in operation in 1986, only 4 mines and 2 mills were left in operation in early 1995, at a total capacity of 1000 tonnes of uranium per year. A further production reduction to 400 tonnes per year is scheduled for 1999 [NF 16 January 1995].

While the state owned firm COGEMA (Compagnie Générale des Matières Nucléaires) already held the vast majority of the uranium mining operations in France, COGEMA now is the only domestic uranium producer, after the aquisition of the uranium activites of the company TOTAL in 1993.


Spain is, apart from Ukraine, the only country in Europe with an increasing uranium production. The company ENUSA (Empresa Nacional del Uranio SA) has taken into operation a new uranium mill at Saelices el Chico near Ciudad-Rodrigo (Salamanca province) close to the Portuguese border, and produced a total of 270 tonnes of uranium in 1994. Production shall be maintained at this level in the future. Spain thus can meet one fifth of its reactor needs [NF 16 January 1995]. The final design capacity of the plant is 800 tonnes of uranium per year.


The state enterprise ENU (Empresa Nacional de Urânio) operates a uranium mill at Urgeiriça in the Beiras district, which is supplied with uranium from various mines in the surroundings. The plant with its design capacity of 170 tonnes of uranium per year operates at a rate of only 28 tonnes at present. At present, the uranium is mainly recovered from heap leaching of low grade ores, and in part, also from in-situ leaching.

Since Portugal operates no nuclear power-plants, it has to export the uranium produced. Until 1991, ENU exported 130 tonnes of uranium annually to the French utility EdF; but this contract was not renewed due to the high production cost. ENU therefore urged the Euratom Supply Agency (ESA) to care of the future delivery of the material produced, under the Euratom treaty. When ESA declined to do so, ENU went to the European Court in Luxembourg. [NF 14 May 1990, 29 March 1993, 17 January 1994]



In Zirovski Vrh west of Lubljana, 382 tonnes of uranium were produced from 1982. The underground mine was closed in 1992.


In Sillamäe (185 km east of Tallinn) a uranium mill operated from 1948. Initially, it processed uranium ores from Estonia with low grades of around 300 g/t. Later, a total of 4 million tonnes of uranium ore at grades of up to 1 % from various East European countries were processed: 2.2 million tonnes from Czechoslovakia, 1.2 million tonnes from Hungary, as well as smaller amounts from Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria, and the German Democratic Republic. From 1977, the plant processes only ores other than uranium ores. [Ehdwall1993]


At Ranstad in Västergötland (South Sweden), a total of 200 tonnes of uranium was mined in an open pit from 1965 to 1969. The ore deposit located in alum shale had an ore grade of only 0.03 %.


Some minor uranium deposits are known in Finland. A total amount of approximately 30 tonnes was mined a long time ago.

Great Britain:

There are some minor uranium occurences known in the Southwest of England (Cornwall, Devon) and in the North of Scotland, but no mining took place [OECD1990]. But the British uranium deposits at least left their marks in the history of music: When the Thatcher government wanted to start uranium mining near Stromness on the Orkney islands in 1980, the famous composer and conductor Peter Maxwell Davies, who lived on the neighbouring island of Hoy, produced the Yellow Cake Revue for the anti-mining campaign [Davies1984].

The most important uranium producing countries in Europe were the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, and France.

After the political changes, uranium mining was significantly reduced or discontinued in most European countries due to economic considerations.

Related Maps:



2. Hazards for uranium miners

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Uranium Mining in Europe - The Impacts on Man and Environment

(September 1995) In addition to the hazards of conventional mining, uranium miners are exposed to the risk of contracting lung cancer; this results from the inhalation of radioactive dusts and the radioactive gas radon. Radon-222 is formed from the decay of radium-226, a radionuclide contained in the uranium ore. Investigations (for example the study [Sevc1988] conducted on Czech uranium miners) show a sixfold increase of lung cancer risk with uranium miners; but also other respiratory diseases show higher incidences. Lung cancer typically develops with a latency period of 15 to 30 years; the link between occupational exposure in a uranium mine and the incidence of the disease therefore is not always obvious.

During the early "wild" years of uranium mining, protective measures for the miners were rarely taken worldwide. Miners in these early years thus took the highest risk of contracting lung cancer. In the year 1955, radon concentrations in Wismut's mines typically were approximately 100,000 Bq/m3, with peaks of 1.5 million Bq/m3 [Jacobi1992]. From the end of the fifties, the ore was kept wet during drilling to avoid generation of dust, and the mines were intensively ventilated to lower the radon concentrations. The doses received from radon decay products thus decreased from 150 WLM to 4 WLM per year (WLM = Working Level Month is a unit for the dose from radon decay products, which are causative for cancer development).

In the Rumanian uranium mine Avram Iancu high radon concentrations of up to 60,000 Bq/m3were even monitored in recent times, due to insufficient ventilation of the mine [RSRP1993].

radiation exposure SDAG Wismut

According to [Jacobi1992], the doses received in Wismut's mines in the early years should not be estimated at 150 WLM, but at 200 WLM per year. The true value can hardly be determined, since Wismut never performed direct individual monitoring of the doses received by the miners. Before 1955, no monitoring was performed at all - only estimates can be made for this early period. Later, radon decay product concentrations were sampled at representative locations within the mines for short periods of time. The doses received by the miners were calculated from these sampling results. While this method allows a certain overview on the doses received, its results cannot be compared with those of continuous individual monitoring.

In France, however, individual dose meters are used from 1983. From 1989, they are obligatory for all miners who risk exceeding 30 % of the radiation dose limit. [Tirmarche1993], [Bernhard1991]

Between 1946 and 1990, 7163 uranium miners who had been employed with Wismut died from lung cancer. For 5237 of them, the occupational exposure was recognized as the cause of the disease [AKURA1993]. Until mid-1990, the limit for recognition was 450 WLM; then it was lowered to 200 WLM. One year of work in the uranium mines during the early years is therefore already sufficient to attribute an observed lung cancer to the occupational exposure.

An assessment of international studies on lung cancer incidences with uranium miners showed that with reference to age at exposure and age at cancer incidence, even a total exposure of only 40 WLM can be sufficient to be regarded causative. Such a dose could also be obtained by work exclusively during the mine's later years, while the recognition was so far granted only for work during the mine's early years. At exposures of 150 WLM and higher, an observed lung cancer can be attributed to the work in the uranium mines, practically independent of the exposure history. [Jacobi1992]

A specific situation is given for the workers employed in the final stage of the uranium mills. Since they handle the concentrated final product, their main risk results from inhalation of contaminated dust. For these workers, the most severe hazards result from the chemical toxicity of the uranium, causing kidney function deterioration.

Uranium miners take an elevated risk of contracting lung cancer from inhalation of radon.

The highest doses occured during the early years of uranium mining (up to the 1950's).

Even ten years of uranium mining work under present conditions can, in certain cases, be sufficient to be recognized as causative for an observed lung cancer incidence.

3. Environmental impacts

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Uranium Mining in Europe - The Impacts on Man and Environment


Uranium Mines

(September 1995) Uranium ore is produced in open pit or underground mines. The ore grades often are only 0.1 %; large amounts of ore have to be mined to obtain the amounts of uranium required. In the early years after World War II, uranium was mostly mined from deposits located close to the surface, while mining later continued into the deeper underground. With the decline of uranium prices on the world market, underground mining became too expensive for most deposits, and many mines have been shut down since then.

During the active mining period, large amounts of air contaminated with radon and dust are blown into the open air, for example 7426 million m3 (i.e. 235 m3/s) of contaminated air alone at Schlema-Alberoda (Saxony, Germany) in 1993, with average radon concentrations of 96,000 Bq/m3. While lowering the doses for the miners, these ventilation efforts increase the levels for residents living near the ventilation shafts. These high levels continue after the shutdown of the mines, as long as they are still ventilated during decommissioning works and not yet flooded. In April 1992, the radon levels for residential areas of the town of Schlema in Saxony were significantly lowered by a change of the ventilation shaft: the contaminated air is now blown into open air at a remote place.

In Bulgaria, a shut-down uranium mine is located immediately neighbouring the village of Eleshnitza. It causes high radon concentrations in free air. It is anticipated that 0.3 to 1 lung cancer incidences annually are caused by the mine in the 2600 residents of the village. [Vapirev1994]

From the shutdown uranium mine of Zirovski Vrh in Slovenia, air containing radon concentrations of 5000 Bq/m3 flows into the surrounding valleys and causes high doses for residents, when air exchange is low due to climatic conditions [Peter1994].

Radon and dust, blown out by the mine's ventilation, do not only cause direct dose loads for the residents by inhalation: an investigation of various food samples grown in the Ronneburg (Thuringia) uranium mining district showed that by the consumption of local food the highest dose by far of 0.33 mSv (33 mrem) per year is caused from wheat grown near a ventilation shaft [Schmidt1994].

Large amounts of groundwater are pumped out of the mines, to keep them dry during mining operations. The water is released into rivers, creeks and lakes. In the sediments of rivers in the Ronneburg area, concentrations of radium and uranium around 3000 Bq/kg were found, indicating up to 100-fold increases over natural background [Hanisch1994].

In the Czech Republic, a continued contamination of the sediments of the Ploucnice river was caused from the insufficient water treatment of the Hamr I uranium mine water releases before 1989. The river sediments and flooding areas are contaminated over a length of approximately 30 km [Andel1993]. The doses received from gamma radiation, reach peak levels of 3.1 Gy/h; that is 30 times background levels.

In the Lergue river in France, the waste waters of the Le Bosc uranium mining complex (Hérault) have caused concentrations of radium-226 in sediments of 13,000 Bq/kg; that corresponds to the concentrations found in uranium ores [Descamps1988]. From the reference it cannot be concluded whether these levels are caused by the mines themselves, by the uranium mill, or by the uranium mill tailings deposits.

In the old mining areas in the Ore Mountains, the problems resulting from uranium mining are commingled with those resulting from historic mining - mining haven taken place in the medieval age. In Schneeberg for example, extremely high concentrations of radon are found in homes: in living rooms, 20,000 Bq/m3 are not uncommon, while up to 100,000 Bq/m3 are found in basements [Keller1991]. These levels are, in part, caused by the direct access to former underground mine workings existing in the basements of many houses, or by other radon pathways from the mines to the basements. Since there is no scientific consensus on the lung cancer risk from such elevated radon levels in homes, a number of epidemiologic studies are being performed worldwide on this subject at present. First preliminary investigations in the East German uranium mining province show elevated lung cancer incidences with men in several towns; they are attributed to occupational exposure in the uranium industry. But, in Schlema and Schneeberg, elevated incidence rates of lung cancer were also found with women [Heinemann1992]. Therefore, a detailed investigation is now being undertaken on the lung cancer risk in homes in Thuringia and Saxony [Heinrich1992].

In the Dresden-Freital area, hard coal containing uranium was mined for fuel use from 1542. From 1952-1955 and 1967-1989, the same coal was mined by Wismut for uranium. Consequently, there is also a problem of both wastes from uranium mining, and from historic mining in this area, especially from the coal ashes.


Waste Rock

Waste rock is produced in open pit mines when removing the overburden, and in underground mines when driving galleries through non-ore zones. Piles of so-called waste rock often contain elevated concentrations of radionuclides compared to normal rock. Other piles contain low grade ores, with grades too low for processing in a mill. The transition between waste rock, low grade ore, and ore is fluent and depends on the technological and economic constraints.

All these piles present hazards to residents and the environment, even after the shutdown of the mines, due to their release of radon gas into the air, and to their release of toxic and radioactive contaminants by seepage into groundwater.

The waste rock piles of the uranium mines in the Schlema/Aue area contain a volume of 47 million m3 and cover an area of 343 hectares. The waste rock often was dumped on the valley's slopes. In many instances, they are located in the immmediate neighbourhood of residential areas. Consequently, high radon concentrations in free air around 100 Bq/m3 are found in large areas of Schlema, in some quarters even above 300 Bq/m3. The independent Ecology Institute has calculated a lifetime excess lung cancer risk of 20 cases (and 60 cases respectively) per 1000 inhabitants from these concentrations [Küppers1994]. This is the extra risk caused from radiation, in addition to the risk caused from natural background or other sources. Moreover, much higher peak concentrations of radon may result from climatic inversion conditions in the narrow valleys.

For the southern parts of the town of Ronneburg, the Ecology Institute calculated a lifetime excess lung cancer risk of 15 cases per 1000 inhabitants. Since radon spreads rapidly with the wind, the risk must also be considered for the residents in the wider surroundings: the Ecology Institute calculated an excess lung cancer incidence of 6 cases per year within a radius of 400 km. [Küppers1994]

Seepage is another problem presented by the waste rock piles; in some cases, even creeks were simply buried under the piles. The seepage releases of the waste rock piles in the Schlema/Aue area are estimated at 2 million m3 per year, half of which flows into groundwater. Only a small fraction of the other half is captured at the foot of the piles.

So-called waste rock was often processed into gravel or cement for use in road and railroad construction. The Saxonian Hartsteinwerke Oelsnitz alone, for example, have processed 7.58 million tonnes at uranium concentrations of up to 100 g per tonne. Baukombinat Zwickau used 14.4 million tonnes of material from the waste rock pile of the Crossen uranium mill for road construction, at uranium concentrations of up to 150 g per tonne and radium concentrations of up to 1.3 Bq/g [BT1992a]. The radioactivity thereby was dispersed over large areas. For some part of the material, a follow-up of the use is not possible.

In Czechoslovakia, material at uranium concentrations up to 200 g per tonne, and radium concentrations of up to 2.22 Bq/g, was approved for road construction until 1991 [Andel1994].


Heap Leaching Piles

In some instances, low grade ores are processed in the heap leaching technology; it is used if the grade is too low for a cost-effective treatment in an uranium mill. The leaching liquid (often sulfuric acid) is pumped to the top of the piles, from where it percolates through the ore and reaches a liner installed under the pile. From there, the uranium bearing liquid is captured and conducted to a processing plant. At the site of Le Cellier (Lozère, France), the leaching process was accelerated, and the uranium recovery was enhanced, by injection of the leaching liquid directly into the piles.

Heap leaching of low grade ores was performed on a large scale at Wismut's Gessental-pile at Ronneburg (7 million tonnes) and in Königstein (2 million tonnes); and at the Hungarian site of Pécs (2-3 million tonnes); and also on a small scale also in Mähring in Bavaria (15,000 tonnes), among others.

During operation, these heap-leaching piles present hazards due to the release of dust, radon gas and, possibly, leaching liquid seepage. After termination of the operation, a permanent hazard may persist due to natural leaching processes taking place, if the material piled up contains the mineral of pyrite (FeS2): Then, precipitation together with inflow of air can cause the continuous formation of sulfuric acid within the pile, leading to a permanent leaching of uranium and other contaminants, presenting a groundwater hazard for centuries.


In-Situ Leaching

In the case of in-situ leaching, the uranium-bearing ore is not removed from its geological deposit, but a leaching liquid is injected through wells into the ore deposit, and the uranium bearing liquid is pumped from other wells. The leaching liquid contains the leaching agent ammonium carbonate for example or - particularly in Europe - sulfuric acid. This method can only be applied if the uranium deposit is located in porous rock, confined in impermeable rock layers.

In-situ leaching gains importance with decreasing uranium prices. For economic reasons, it is the only technology used in the United States today (for example), the country with the highest cumulative uranium production so far. In Saxony, an underground mine converted to an in-situ leaching facility was in operation at Königstein near Dresden until end 1990. On a small scale, in-situ leaching was also used in the Ronneburg (Thuringia) uranium province. In the Czech Republic, in-situ leaching was used on a large scale at Stráz pod Ralskem in North Bohemia. In Bulgaria, in-situ leaching was in use at 8 locations.

The advantages of this technology are:

  • the reduced hazards for the employees from accidents and radiation,
  • the low cost;
  • no need for large uranium mill tailings deposits.

The disadvantages of the in-situ leaching technology are:

  • the risk of spreading of leaching liquid outside of the uranium deposit, involving subsequent groundwater contamination,
  • the unpredictable impact of the leaching liquid on the rock of the deposit,
  • the production of certain amounts of waste slurries and waste water during recovery of the uranium from the liquid,
  • the impossibility of restoring natural groundwater conditions after completion of the leaching operations.

In the case of Königstein, a total of 100,000 tonnes of sulfuric acid was injected with the leaching liquid into the ore deposit. At present, 1.9 million m3 of leaching liquid are still locked in the pores of the rock leached so far; a further 0.85 million m3 are circulating between the leaching zone and the recovery plant. The liquid contains high contaminant concentrations, for example, expressed as multiples of the drinking water standards: cadmium 400x, arsenic 280x, nickel 130x, uranium 83x, etc. This liquid presents a hazard to an aquifer that is of importance for the drinking water supply of the region.

Groundwater impact is much larger at the North Bohemian in-situ leaching site of Stráz pod Ralskem: 28.7 million m3 of contaminated liquid is contained in the leaching zone, covering an area of 5.74 km2. This zone contains a total of 1.5 million tonnes of sulphate, 37,500 tonnes of ammonium, and others. In addition to the chemicals needed for the leaching operation (including 3.7 million tonnes of sulfuric acid, among others), 100,000 tonnes of ammonium were injected; they were a waste product resulting from the recovery of uranium from the leaching liquid. Moreover, the contaminated liquid has spread out beyond the leaching zone horizontally and vertically, thus contaminating another area of 28 km2 and a further 235 million m3 of groundwater. To the southwest, the groundwater contamination has already reached the second zone of groundwater protection of the potable water supply of the town of Mimon. In southeastern direction, the contaminated groundwater is still at a distance of 1.2 - 1.5 km from the second zone of groundwater protection of the Dolánky potable water wells, which supply 200 l/s for the city of Liberec [Andel1993]. The migration of the contaminated liquids in a easterly direction towards the Hamr I underground mine is at present intercepted by a hydraulic barrier: decontaminated water is injected into a chain of wells to prevent further migration of the contaminated groundwater.

In Bulgaria, a total of 2.5 million tonnes of sulfuric acid was injected into the ore deposits treated by in-situ leaching [Vapirev1994]. Some in-situ leaching facilities (for example Okop-Tenebo) are located close to drinking water wells. It seems that the environmental impacts of in-situ leaching of uranium have not drawn much attention so far in Bulgaria.


Uranium Milling

The uranium ore produced in open pit and underground mines is processed in uranium mills to recover the uranium. These mills are, in most cases, built near the mines and comprise a mechanical and a chemical treatment. In the first step, the ore is crushed and ground, then it is leached in a hydrometallurgical process. In most cases, sulfuric acid is used as a leaching agent, but carbonate (alkaline) leaching is also used. Since the leaching agent leaches not only uranium from the ore, but also other constituents such as molybdenum, vanadium, selenium, iron, lead, and arsenic, the uranium has to be recovered from the liquid by ion exchange. The final product of the milling process is Yellow Cake, a compound containing uranium in the form of U3O8 and impurities. This final product is packed in casks and shipped to the customers for further processing.

During operation, uranium mills present a hazard, in particular due to the release of radioactive dusts.

During the decommissioning of uranium mills, large amounts of radioactively contaminated metal scrap have to be dealt with and must be disposed of safely. In the case of the decommissioning of the Crossen uranium mill, Wismut plans to dump large amounts of metal scrap in the Helmsdorf uranium mill tailings deposit, to save cost. But, due to chemical reactions taking place between tailings and scrap, gases develop and may deteriorate the safe long-term disposal of the tailings. A further 20,000 tonnes of metal scrap, at a surface contamination of less than 0.5 Bq/cm2, are to be smelted like normal scrap and are to be recycled.


Uranium Mill Tailings

The residues of the milling process, the uranium mill tailings, have the form of a slurry. They are usually pumped to settling ponds for final disposal.

An exception is the Bukhovo mill in Bulgaria, where the slurries were simply dumped in a glen between 1947 and 1958; the finer particles flew into a nearby river. During heavy precipitation, the dumped material was spread over a wider area, contaminating an agricultural area of 120 hectares. Gamma dose rates of up to 1000 µR/h were monitored; this is about hundredfold times the background value. After 1958, the most severely contaminated areas were fenced. But the fences deteriorated later, and the areas were in part reused for agriculture. Radium concentrations of up to 1077 Bq/kg were found in cereals grown on these areas. [Vapirev1994], [Dimtchev1991]

According to the calculating rules prescribed by the radiation protection regulations effective in the Western part of Germany, consumption of these cereals would result in an annual dose of 74 mSv (7400 mrem), while the admissible dose in the German uranium mining area is 1 mSv (100 mrem).

Settling ponds for uranium mill tailings are either installed in existing depressions, or, dams are built for that particular purpose. In France, the tailings are often dumped in former open pit uranium mines.

The largest such settling ponds in Europe are the Culmitzsch tailings dam near Seelingstädt (Thuringia), containing 90 million tonnes of solids, and the Helmsdorf tailings dam in Oberrothenbach near Zwickau (Saxony), containing 50 million tonnes of solids. The Culmitzsch dam was erected on the site of a mined-out open pit uranium mine, the capacity of which was enlarged by additional dams. The Helmsdorf dam was erected as a barrier on the place of the village by the same name, which was completely destroyed for the dam. In the Western part of Germany, there exists only one small tailings dam with a content of 170,000 tonnes, at the Ellweiler uranium mill.


Uranium Mill Tailings in Europe
  Solids contents surface
  106 t 106 m3 ha
Germany 170 ?   650 ?
Culmitzsch 90   250
Helmsdorf 50.3   192
Trünzig 19   116
Dänkritz I 5.6   19.5
Dänkritz II 0.8   7
Oberschlema 0.4    
Schlema-Borbachtal 0.3    
Dresden-Gittersee   3 29
Freital   ? ?
Ellweiler 0.17   2.5
Czech Republic   45 ? 607 ?
Mydlovary   18.8 264
Stráz pod Ralskem   14.2 187
Dolní Rozínka   8 110
Príbram   ? 46
Hungary 20   200
Rumania 3.4 1.7 35
Bulgaria 16    
Ukraine ?    
Slovenia ?    
Estonia 4   33
Sweden 1.5 1 25
France 45    
Le Brugeaud 14.2    
Lavaugrasse 5.7    
Le Cellier 5.6    
l'Ecarpière 11.5    
Le Bosc 2.97    
St.Priest-la-Prugne 1.3    
Spain ?    
Portugal ?    
Compiled from a multitude of sources (reference years 1989-1994)
The data from different sources vary considerably in some instances

The amount of tailings produced is virtually equal to the amount of ore processed: at uranium grades of 0.1 % for example, 99.9 % of the input is left over as a waste.

Apart from the uranium, the tailings contain all constituents of the uranium ore. This also implies that the tailings still contain 85 % of the radioactivity contained in the ore, as the long-lived decay products of uranium, thorium-230 and radium-226 are not removed. Since the uranium cannot be recovered completely from the ore during the milling process due to technological constraints, the tailings, moreover, contain 5 - 10 % of the uranium initially present in the ore.

The radium-226 contained in the ore decays to the radioactive gas radon-222. A part of this radon escapes from the tailings deposit into the atmosphere. Although radon-222 has a comparatively short half-life of 3.8 days, it presents a long-term hazard, since the decay of radium-226 - with its half-life of 1600 years - constantly produces new radon-222. In addition, the tailings also contain the predecessor of radium-226 in the decay chain, thorium-230. It decays at a half-life of 80,000 years, constantly producing new radium-226.

It therefore takes about a million years, for the radioactivity contained in the tailings, and thus the radon releases, to decrease to the level determined by the residual concentration of uranium-238. If, for example, 90 % of the uranium was recovered from ore with a uranium grade of 0.1 %, the radioactivity of the tailings stabilizes at 33 times natural background radiation levels after 1 million years. Due to the 4.5 billion year half-life of uranium-238, practically no further decrease of the radioactivity can be expected.

Apart from the radioactive constituents, the tailings also contain other contaminants that were present in the ore, for example, arsenic, or various other heavy metals. The Helmsdorf tailings dam alone, for example, contains 7590 tonnes of arsenic. Furthermore, the tailings contain chemicals that were added during the milling process.

All these hazardous substances have been removed from their safe underground disposal and have been brought to the form of a fine sand or slurry. The contaminants thus are now much more mobile and susceptible to release into the environment. In addition, the contaminants are left in a geochemical disequilibrium inside the tailings deposit, causing various processes to take place that present further hazards for the environment, for example:

  • The salts present in the deposit impede the dehydration of the slurries, which would be highly desirable to improve the stability of the deposit, and to lower seepage. On the other hand, these salts cause desiccation of adjacent areas of lower salt concentrations, resulting (for example) in the cracking of cover layers. In dry areas, contaminated salts can migrate to the surface of the deposit, where they are exposed to erosion and spread into the environment.
  • If the ore contains the mineral pyrite (FeS2), then sulfuric acid forms inside the deposit when accessed by precipitation and oxygen. This acid causes a continuous automatic leaching of contaminants.
  • Chemical interactions between the slurries and the liner under the deposit might deteriorate the performance of the liner and thus increase release of contaminants into groundwater.

Due to their properties, the tailings slurries present a very problematic potential of hazards:

The radionuclides contained in the tailings emit gamma radiation. It reaches 20 - 100 times background levels at the surface of the deposit. Gamma radiation decreases rapidly with distance from the deposit. It therefore presents a hazard only for residents living in the immediate neighbourhood of the deposit.

The gas radon-222 escaping from the tailings deposit presents one of the most severe hazards, persisting even after decommissioning of uranium mines, as it causes lung cancer and is continuously produced over longer periods of time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates the lifetime excess lung cancer risk of residents living nearby a bare tailings pile of 80 hectares at 2 cases per hundred [EPA1983b].

Since radon spreads quickly with the wind, many people receive small additional radiation doses. Although the excess risk for the individual is small, it cannot be neglected due to the large number of people concerned. EPA estimates that the uranium tailings deposits existing in the United States in 1983 would cause 500 lung cancer deaths per century, if no countermeasures were taken [EPA1983].

Tailings deposits are exposed to various kinds of erosion. The longterm safety of the deposit must nevertheless be assured, due to the longevity of the hazards. Precipitation can form erosion gullies; floods can destroy the whole deposit; roots and burrowing animals can intrude into the deposit and spread the material, increase radon exhalation, and make the deposit more susceptible for weathering and erosion. If the surface of the deposit desiccates, the fine sands are blown by the wind over adjacent areas.

The sky darkened over the villages in the neighbourhood of Wismut's uranium mill tailings dams, when storms blew the sands from the dry tailings beach. Consequently, elevated concentrations of radium-226 and arsenic were found in dust samples from these villages. Meanwhile, the dry tailings beaches have been covered with neutral material to prevent further wind erosion.

The Estonian uranium mill tailings deposit at Sillamäe is at risk due to its location immediately on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Erosion of the coast line proceeds in several places towards the deposit. In a worst-case scenario, it is anticipated that the whole contents of the deposit might spill into the Baltic Sea.

The dams of uranium mill tailings deposits are often not of a stable construction: in most cases, they are not built as engineered structures, but by piling up of the coarse fraction of the tailings slurries themselves. An assessment of dam stability thus is subject to great uncertainties. Moreover, the dams are raised sequentially, following the rising elevation of the impounded tailings during the filling process. Some dams (among them those of Culmitzsch and Trünzig in Thuringia) are built on geological faults and are located close to the center of seismic activity in the Eastern part of Germany. They are therefore at a specific risk during earthquakes. The main dam of the Helmsdorf tailings deposit, with its 1800 m length and 59 m height, does not even meet the German dam safety standards. In the case of a dam failure, large parts of the village of Oberrothenbach would be flooded by the slurries.

Dam failures can also be caused by heavy precipitation events with excessive rises in the level of the water ponding above the slurries in the impoundment. In May 1994, the water level in the Helmsdorf dam approached the limit with 6 cm to spare. For this reason, an additional protection dam was built on the deposit in Spring 1995, to prevent water from reaching the main dam.

The tailings dam of Zirovski Vrh in Slovenia was severely damaged during a landslide in 1990.

Failures with uranium tailings dams, have occured worldwide, again and again, for example:

  • 1977, Grants, New Mexico, USA: a spill of 50,000 tonnes of slurry and several million liters of contaminated water,
  • 1979, Church Rock, New Mexico, USA: a spill of more than 1000 tonnes of slurry and around 400 million liters of contaminated water,
  • 1984, Key Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada: a spill of more than 100 million liters of contaminated liquid.

U.S. experience shows that dry tailings, with their fine sandy consistency, were often misused for construction of homes or for landfills. In homes built on or from such material, high radiation levels were found from gamma radiation and radon. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates the lifetime excess lung cancer risk of residents of such homes at 4 cases per 100 [EPA1983b]. There is no evidence of comparable efforts for a systematic survey of such misuse of contaminated material in any of the European uranium provinces.

Random samples taken by the independent radiation monitoring organization CRII-RAD in France showed, as an example, radon concentrations up to 1200 Bq/m3 in the kindergarden of Bessines (Haute Vienne) [CRII-RAD1994]. They were caused from use of contaminated fill in the floor of the building. This level corresponds approximately to that allowed for uranium miners for occupational exposure. The standards for radon in homes are, in many countries, around 200 Bq/m3.

Seepage from the tailings deposit contaminates surface and ground waters. Residents are endangered from radium-226 and other hazardous substances such as arsenic in their drinking water and in fish caught in the area. The seepage problem gains importance with acid tailings, since most of the radionuclides involved are more mobile under acidic conditions. In pyritic tailings, acidic conditions establish automatically by sulfuric acid production from oxidation of pyrite, enhancing the spreading of contaminants with seepage. Under favourable geochemical conditions, the contaminants are trapped in the soil beneath the deposit, or their migration is at least slowed down. But often, this retention effect decreases with time. If the bed rock consists of fractured rock, the spread of the contaminants is not retarded at all.

The behaviour of seepage in natural soils depends on complicated hydrogeological conditions; its behaviour can only be predicted on the basis of detailed monitoring data and computer modelling. The seepage release presents one of the two major hazards resulting from uranium mill tailings (the other being radon exhalation).

Total seepage from the Helmsdorf tailings deposit is estimated at 600,000 m3 per year; only about the half of this amount is detained and temporarily pumped back to the deposit, until a water treatment plant is operational. This seepage has a high contaminant load, expressed as multiples of drinking water standards, for example: sulphate 24x, arsenic 253x, uranium 46x. On the one hand, the contamination invades the creeks around the deposit, where concentrations decrease rapidly with distance. On the other hand, seepage causes contamination of groundwater. The values found here are lower, but they hardly decrease with distance. [Wismut1992c]

The total seepage releases from the uranium mill deposit at the Stráz pod Ralskem mill in North Bohemia have amounted up to 4 million m3 of contaminated liquids since 1979. Sooner or later, they could reach the river Ploucnice at a distance of only 750 m, or the deeper groundwater that represents the largest drinking water reserve in North Bohemia. At the second pond of the deposit, which became operational in 1992, a groundwater contamination front was observed, proceeding at a speed of 0.4 m per day away from the deposit. [Hudecek1993]

Groundwater also is contaminated from seepage around the uranium mill tailings deposits of the Pécs uranium mill in Hungary. About 1 - 2 km westward from the deposit, a number of wells are operated, producing about half of the potable water demand of the city of Pécs. The contaminated groundwater migrates at a speed of 30 - 50 m per year towards the drinking water wells. Due to lack of funds, further seepage cannot be intercepted, not to mention restoration of the already contaminated groundwater.

In France, radium concentrations of more than 25 Bq/g were found in the sediments of creeks around the Bellezane (Haute Vienne) uranium mill tailings deposit; this corresponds to the radium concentrations found in the tailings themselves [CRII-RAD1994].

The tailings deposit of the Estonian uranium mill at Sillamäe is located immediately on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Uranium concentrations of up to 230 times background levels were found in the sea water (190 g/l). The contamination could be monitored up to a distance of 300 m from the coast. [Ehdwall1993], [Putnik1994]

The contaminants released from uranium mill tailings can contribute through various pathways to the doses received by humans. Some of these pathways have a direct impact, while others are effective through the food chain. Two direct pathways have been identified as the major contributors to the doses received: the inhalation of released radon and dust, and the consumption of water, contaminated by seepage.

Dumping of Extraneous Wastes

The lack of disposal sites for toxic and nuclear waste lead to proposals to dump these hazardous wastes in uranium waste rock piles, in uranium mill tailings deposits, or in former uranium mines:

  • Toxic waste was dumped on the surface of the Trünzig A uranium mill tailings pile in Thuringia before the political changes. It was intended to cover this toxic waste by another 5 m layer of domestic waste; but this was prevented by residents' protests.
  • 1 million m3 of domestic waste and ash was dumped on the top of the tailings deposit of the Dresden-Gittersee uranium mill, which was shut down in 1962.
  • Liquids presenting a hazard to water were dumped on the top of a waste rock pile at Ronneburg (Thuringia) after the political changes. These liquids must now be removed and disposed of at high cost to allow for reclamation of the pile.
  • Radioactively contaminated metal scrap from the decommissioning of the Crossen (Saxony) uranium mill is to be dumped in the Helmsdorf tailings dam.
  • Low level radioactive waste from Rhône-Poulenc's La Rochelle facility is to be dumped on the tailings of the shut down l'Ecarpière (Loire Atlantique) uranium mill in France. The La Rochelle facility produces rare earth elements from ores imported from Australia.

If the mixing of uranium mill tailings with other wastes is approved, the reclamation of these deposits becomes even more difficult, if not completely impossible, since the most suitable method available is always for a single contaminant only.

  • 176,150 radioactively contaminated casks, alleged empty, were dumped in the pit of the former open-pit uranium mine at Margnac near Limoges in France.
  • Investigations are underway in Hungary to find out, whether a deposit for high-level nuclear waste can be installed 1000 m below ground beneath the Pécs uranium mine, which is scheduled for shut down [NF 2 January 1995].

But, in most cases, decommissioned uranium mines have very poor properties of contaminant retention; detailed investigations must be performed at the site by independent experts, before such disposal can be considered.

  • 265,000 tonnes of depleted uranium is to be stored at the site of the shut down uranium mill at Bessines near Limoges in France. The depleted uranium is a waste produced by the EURODIF uranium enrichment plant located at Tricastin in the Rhône valley.

During the active life of uranium mines, the major hazards result from release of radon and dust by mine ventilation, and from mine water releases.

After shut down of the mines, the major hazards are posed by radon releases and seepage from waste rock piles and tailings deposits.

In-situ leaching presents a severe hazard to groundwater reserves.

The contamination was spread widely by use of contaminated material for construction purposes.

Heap leaching piles, uranium mill tailings deposits, and in-situ leaching facilities are the most problematic legacy of uranium mining.

All problems resulting from uranium mining are of a real long-term nature.

Mixing of different kinds of waste often makes problems even worse.

Related images:
Uranium Production
Uranium Concentrations in Rock
Elevated Radon Levels
Heap leaching of uranium ore
In Situ Leaching of Uranium
The uranium-238 decay chain
Radioactivity in tailings
Uranium Mill Tailings Hazards
Typical construction of a tailings dam
Major environmental transport pathways from uranium mill tailings to man
Related Photo's
Open pit mine Le Bosc near Lodè (Hérault, France)
Landscape of piles at Paitzdorf, Ronneburg (Thuringia), May 1990
Waste rock piles at Schlema (Saxony)
Uranium mill tailings deposit in the former bellezane open pit mine near Bessines-sur-Gartempe, January 1992
The two partial ponds of the Culmitzsch uranium mill tailings deposit
Main dam of the Helmsdorf uranium mill tailings deposit


4. Reclamation concepts

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Uranium Mining in Europe - The Impacts on Man and Environment


(September 1995) Taking into consideration the longevity of the radioactive substances released and the huge amounts of wastes produced by uranium mining, it is obvious that full elimination of the hazards posed by these wastes is impossible. Reclamation efforts can only be directed towards limitation of the hazards in the best available way and for the longest possible period of time. Since no technological measures can be effective for the necessary periods of tens of thousands of years, it is also clear that future generations will have to deal with the uranium mining legacy as well.

Since no means exist to make the wastes from uranium mining harmless, reclamation of these wastes can only intend to confine the contaminants and prevent their spreading into the environment by the best means possible. This confinement must prevent the release of radon gas and gamma radiation, the wind erosion of contaminated material, and the release of seepage to surface waters and groundwater.

In the early years of uranium mining after World War II, the mining companies often left sites without any clean up after the ore deposits were exhausted: often, in the United States, the mining and milling facilities were not even demolished, not to mention reclamation of the wastes produced; in Canada, uranium mill tailings were often simply dumped in one of the numerous lakes.

The untenability of this situation was for the first time recognized by U.S. legislation, which defined legal requirements for the reclamation of uranium mill tailings in 1978 [UMTRCA1978]. On the basis of this law, regulations were promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) [EPA1983a], [EPA1983b], etc. These regulations not only define maximum contaminant concentrations for soils and admissible contaminant releases (in particular for radon), but also the period of time, in which the reclamation measures taken must be effective: 200 - 1000 years. The reclamation action thus not only has to assure that the standards are met after completion of the reclamation work; but for the first time, a long-term perspective is included in such regulations. A further demand is that the measures taken must assure a safe disposal for the prescribed period of time without active maintenance. If these conditions cannot be met at the present site, the tailings must be relocated to a more suitable place.

Considering the actual period of time the hazards from uranium mining and milling wastes persist, these regulations are of course only a compromise, but they are a first step, at least. Regulations for the protection of groundwater were not included in the initial legislation, they were only promulgated in January 1995 [EPA1995].

Based on these regulations, various technologies for the safe and maintenance-free confinement of the contaminants were developed in the United States during subsequent years. The reclamation efforts also include the decontamination of homes in the vicinity built from contaminated material or on contaminated landfills.

In Canada, on the contrary, authorities decide on a site-by-site basis on the measures to be taken for reclamation; there are no legal requirements. The Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB) has only promulgated rough guidelines; and it decides, together with the mine and mill operators, on the necessity of measures to be taken. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Canadian approach results in a much lower level of protection.

Alternatives for Uranium Mill Tailings Management

When speaking about uranium mill tailings management, one solution seems to be near at hand: bringing the wastes back to where they came from, into the mined-out mining cavities and pits. Unfortunately, this is generally not a satisfying solution. Although the uranium was removed from the ore, the tailings are no less hazardous than the ore. Quite the contrary: the tailings still contain 85 % of the radioactivity and all toxic contaminants are present in the ore; moreover, the contaminants are now, due to the mechanical and chemical properties of the material, much more mobile and susceptible to release into the environment.

Bringing the wastes back to an underground mine is therefore in most cases not an acceptable option; after the halt of the pumps, the material would be in direct contact with groundwater. Further, there is often only a small part of the old galleries accessible.

The situation is similar for the option of bringing the tailings back to a former open pit mines. Here, also, the tailings will be in direct contact with groundwater, or can contaminate it through seepage. This option can only be considered, if groundwater contamination can be permanently excluded due to the presence of proven natural or artificial tight layers. Its advantage is the relatively good erosion protection.

In France, on the other hand, the concept of dumping the tailings in former open pits in groundwater is pursued at several sites in recent years. In this case, a highly permeable layer is installed around the tailings, to allow free groundwater circulation around the tailings. Since the permeability of the tailings themselves is lower, it is anticipated that nearly no exchange of contaminants between tailings and groundwater takes place. A similar method is being tested in Canada for the disposal of uranium mill tailings in lakes (called "pervious surround disposal").

In most cases, there will be no choice other than dumping the tailings above ground. In this instance, the protection requirements can be realized more easily in a controlled way, but additional measures for erosion protection must be included.

In any case, the site must be suitable for the disposal by consideration of its geology and hydrology: it must not be located on geological faults, must not be endangered by earthquakes; impermeable geological layers should be present; it should not be located in the flood plain of rivers; groundwater level should be as deep as possible; possible seepage excursions should not endanger groundwater; the site should not be located too far from suitable deposits of clays needed for covers and liners; and it should be located remote from settlements, etc.

During site investigations, monitoring of groundwater flow has to be carried out. The age of groundwaters can be determined by isotopic methods; this knowledge allows the identification of links between groundwater and surface water, for instance. Only after sufficient site data has been gathered, can groundwater flow be modelled by three-dimensional computer modelling. Based on the monitoring data gathered and on modelling results, the impact of anticipated or existing contaminant releases can be predicted and respectively followed up.

If a suitable site has been found, appropriate liners and covers have to be installed to confine the wastes in the optimum and most durable way.

For an intermediate disposal of tailings, lined ponds are suitable; radon release can in this case be minimized by a water cover of 1 m minimum.

Management of Existing Uranium Mill Tailings

If an existing tailings deposit is to be reclaimed according to the requirements of a safe long-term disposal, detailed site investigations have first to be performed to allow a thorough hazard assessment. If the deposit presents an immediate hazard, preliminary management options (such as the installation of a cover against dust releases, collecting of seepages) can be performed, as long as they don't impede the measures to be taken later for a safe long-term disposal.

At first, it has to be determined if the deposit can be reclaimed in its original place. This requires detailed hydrogeological site investigations. Under certain circumstances, it may become necessary to remove the whole material temporarily, to allow installation of a liner, onto which the material is then brought back. This was the case for example at the Canonsburg (Pennsylvania, USA) site. Under very unfavourable circumstances, it may become necessary to permanently relocate the tailings to a more suitable site. In the United States, this option was selected for those sites where the tailings were located in densely populated areas on sites at high flood risk.

For a safe long-term disposal, the following measures are required:

  • If no natural impermeable layers are found on the site, a liner must be installed beneath the contaminated material, to prevent groundwater inflow and seepage releases. Appropriate materials have to be selected for the liner, that permanently keep their properties even under impact from the deposited tailings. The liner might consist of multiple layers to meet all requirements.
  • The following measures serve to enhance the mechanical stability of the deposit: dehydration of the slurries, flattening of the slopes, installation of an erosion prevention technique.
  • On top of the deposit, a cover has to be installed, for protection against release of gamma radiation and radon, infiltration of precipitation, intrusion of plants or animals, and erosion. Generally, this cover consists of several different layers to meet all requirements. Under certain circumstances, the liner under the deposit can be omitted, if a suitable cover is installed.
  • Collection and treatment of seepage is necessary for as long as the measures taken for lining and covering are not yet fully effective, to assure the release of treated water only. According to the U.S. regulations, liners and covers must in the long term assure the release of minor amounts of seepage only, and the safety of the deposit must be based on passive measures.
  • Finally, it has to be determined, to what extent contaminated material was used for construction purposes or in landfills on properties in the vicinity . The contaminated properties have to be included in the reclamation programme.

Reclamation After In-Situ Leaching

After termination of an in-situ leaching operation, the waste slurries produced must be safely disposed, and the aquifer, contaminated from the leaching activities, must be restored. Groundwater restoration is a very tedious process that is not yet fully understood. So far, it is not possible to restore groundwater quality to previous conditions.

The best results have been obtained with the following treatment scheme, consisting of a series of different steps [Schmidt1989], [Catchpole1993b]:

  • Phase 1: Pumping of contaminated water: the injection of the leaching solution is stopped and the contaminated liquid is pumped from the leaching zone. Subsequently, clean groundwater flows in from outside of the leaching zone.
  • Phase 2: as 1, but with treatment of the pumped liquid (by reverse osmosis) and re-injection into the former leaching zone. This scheme results in circulation of the liquid.
  • Phase 3: as 2, with the addition of a reducing chemical (for example hydrogen sulfide or sodium sulfide). This causes the chemical precipitation and thus immobilization of major contaminants.
  • Phase 4: Circulation of the liquid by pumping and re-injection, to obtain uniform conditions in the whole former leaching zone.

But, even with this treatment scheme, various problems remain unresolved:

  • Contaminants, that are mobile under chemically reducing conditions, such as radium, cannot be controlled,
  • if the chemically reducing conditions are later disturbed for any reasons, the precipitated contaminates are re-mobilized,
  • the restoration process takes very long periods of time,
  • not all parameters can be lowered appropriately.

Since the alkaline leaching scheme is the only one used in the Western world in-situ operations, most restoration experiments reported refer to this scheme. Therefore, nearly no experience exists with groundwater restoration after acid in-situ leaching, the scheme that was applied in most instances in Eastern Europe. The only in-situ leaching site restored after sulfuric acid leaching so far, is the small pilot scale facility Nine Mile Lake near Casper, Wyoming (USA). The results can therefore not simply be transferred to production scale facilities. The restoration scheme applied included the first two steps mentioned above. It turned out that a water volume of more than 20 times the porevolume of the leaching zone had to be pumped, and still several parameters did not reach background levels. Moreover, the restoration required about the same time as used for the leaching period [Nigbor1982].

An elimination of the hazards presented by the legacy of uranium mining and milling is not possible by any management options.

For the reclamation of uranium mill tailings, concepts for a comparatively safe long-term disposal have been developed.

For the restoration of groundwater after in-situ leaching, there exists no satisfying management option.

Related image:
Tailings disposal cell design; Tailings pile top cover design


5. Reclamation projects

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Uranium Mining in Europe - The Impacts on Man and Environment


Reclamation Standards

(September 1995) In European countries, there are no legal regulations specific to the management of the uranium mining legacy so far. In Germany, environmental groups called for a reclamation law and the adoption of the US regulations, but the Federal Government refused any such demands [BT1992a], [BT1993a]. Parliamentary initiatives by Greens [BT1992b] and Social Democrats [BT1994] were declined by the Conservative's majority. The Federal Government favours the Canadian approach of site-specific decisions; it has also intervened at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) against a worldwide adoption of the US regulations [BT1993b].

Correspondingly, a standardized concept for the reclamation tasks to be done in Eastern Germany is lacking. Reclamation action was started without sufficient analysis and consideration of management alternatives. There doesn't even exist a standardized procedure for hazard assessment at the various sites; only gamma radiation is monitored systematically.

According to the German Unification Treaty, the West German radiation protection regulations are not adopted for the East German uranium province, but the GDR regulations remain in force. Thus, an annual dose of 1 mSv (100 mrem) instead of 0.6 mSv (0.3 for the aquatic and 0.3 for the atmospheric pathway) is admissible. The calculation rules of the GDR regulations, moreover, result in much lower radiation doses for a certain amount of activity ingested, and therefore allow for much higher radiation uptake to obtain the same doses [Küppers1991]. The annual dose limit of 1 mSv means that one lifetime incidence of cancer is regarded acceptable per 286 persons concerned.

Several communities and individuals have filed a suit at the Federal Constitutional Court against this provision of the Unification Treaty. The suit has been accepted for decision, but judgement is still pending.

For the reuse of contaminated material and areas, various recommendations have been elaborated by the German Radiation Protection Commission (SSK) [BMU1993]. They are based in principle on an excess annual dose of 1 mSv for the public. But, this limit does not include the dose from drinking water contamination (another 0.5 mSv) [SSK1993t], and from radon in homes. SSK's recommendations are, moreover, based on different calculation rules for the doses resulting from ingestion with food and water, than used in the West German radiation regulations; thus, higher radionuclide uptakes are admissible, until the limit is exceeded [Küppers1994]. For the most problematic issues - the management of the uranium mill tailings and in-situ leaching facilities - there are no recommendations at all.

Reclamation Cost

If the total reclamation cost of DM 13 billion (US$ 9.3 billion) estimated by the German Federal Government for the Wismut sites is attributed to the amount of uranium produced, specific reclamation costs of DM 60 (US$ 43) per kg of uranium produced are obtained. Since the costs for the reclamation of those sites that were returned to the local authorities before 1962, are not included in this amount, the true figure should be even considerably higher. Nevertheless, this cost is already higher than the current world market price for uranium of about US$ 26/kg. On the other hand, it is not yet clear, whether Wismut's reclamation concept can at all be realized as is proposed. Groundwater protection might require much more expensive efforts than proposed so far.

Uranium Mines

Soon after the termination of uranium mining, Wismut started flooding of the deepest parts of its shafts, i.e. the pumps were shut off. Hazardous liquids were removed before flooding, while contaminated equipment remains in place. The rising groundwater level thus reaches the contaminated material. Through the presence of oxygen and water, chemical processes take place, leading to leaching and mobilization of contaminants. Barriers are built at several places in the underground mines to prevent uncontrolled circulation, but there is no complete refill of the mines. A restoration of natural groundwater flow conditions is impossible due to the large system of shafts and galleries. After completion of the flooding, a new geochemical equilibrium can establish, reducing the mobility of contaminants. But it may take decades to reach this state. In the meantime, release of contaminated water must be inhibited, or its treatment prior to release must be assured.

The ramp leading to the bottom of the pit was constructed from material of the Gessental heap leaching pile.

Waste Rock Piles

According to Wismut's reclamation concept, the majority of the waste rock piles in the Thuringian mining district is to be dumped in the open pit of the former Lichtenberg mine; the others are to be protected by covers. After the political changes, Wismut had already started to dump parts of the highly problematic 7 million tonnes Gessental heap leaching pile into the Lichtenberg pit. Due to the high contaminant concentration of this pile, its high pyrite contents, and its leaching by sulfuric acid over decades, a long lasting groundwater contamination must be anticipated after the flooding of the pit.

The liquid hazardous wastes that were dumped after the political changes on the Absetzerhalde pile in Ronneburg, need to be removed and disposed of separately, before this pile can be reclaimed. Wismut wants to build a special toxic waste deposit for this material on its Ronneburg premises. The license for dumping the Absetzerhalde pile in the Lichtenberg pit was issued in March 1995.

Uranium Mills

Wismut plans to release parts of equipment contaminated at levels below SSK recommendations for smelting or reuse. Items of higher contamination are to be dumped in the existing uranium mill tailings ponds.

This mixing of the tailings with metal scrap might result in generation of gases inside the tailings deposits, endangering their safe disposal.

Uranium Mill Tailings

As an immediate measure, Wismut has covered the dry tailings beaches with neutral soil to prevent further blowing of the dry tailings by the wind. Since the ground under the deposits has not yet been investigated in detail, it is not known, whether the deposits can at all be reclaimed in situ. If they would have to be temporarily removed (for installation of a liner) or permanently relocated, then this soil cover would have to be removed again.

With the slurries dumped in the Helmsdorf tailings dam, dehydration tests are being conducted at present. A water treatment plant is being taken into operation at this dam, to allow for the treatment and discharge of the highly contaminated water ponding on the tailings, and of seepage collected.

The uranium mill tailings deposit at the Ellweiler uranium mill in Rhineland-Palatinate was reclaimed by the State after the shut down of the mill at costs of DM 6.9 million (US$ 4.9 million). A few months after the completion of the reclamation work, parts of the cover slid after rainfall in January 1991. The same happened again in January 1995. It is obvious that the present state does not meet the requirements for a long-term disposal, and that a safe confinement of the tailings is impossible in situ, due to the limited space and the immediate neighbourhood of a creek. A new concept must therefore be developed and realized, aiming at the relocation of the deposit.

In France, the "pervious surround disposal" method was used for the first time for the disposal of uranium mill tailings in groundwater at Le Cellier (Lozère). After the shut down of the mine in 1987, 1.1 million tonnes of tailings were dumped in the 105 m deep open pit. The pit is located in granite rock. The tailings were neutralized and dehydrated to 10 % before disposal. The pit bottom and walls were lined with a drainage layer from uncontaminated waste rock before the start of the disposal. From the same material, alternating drainage layers were installed between the tailings being disposed. During the pit filling process, seepage was pumped from the deepest point of the pit, but in the long term, the pit is to be left unattended. The course of the fractures in the rock was investigated to allow for follow-up of eventual seepage. No groundwater contamination outside the site has been detected so far. But the question is, whether this remains true in the long term. As the cover installed on top of the tailings is not impermeable, a fraction of precipitation can infiltrate the tailings. The tailings also contain the mineral pyrite. It must therefore be anticipated that, through the oxygen brought in by precipitation, a continued natural production of sulfuric acid will take place, leading to the destruction of the neutralization performed, and to the mobilization of contaminants. And, the performance of the drainage layer must be questioned in the long term; if it plugs with fine material, it cannot fulfill its function any longer.

In Spain, the uranium mill tailings deposit at Andújar (Andalusia) is at present being reclaimed according to the US regulations, without these regulations being legally in force in Spain [Santiago1994]. This is the first application of these standards in Europe. In addition, groundwater standards were defined for this site. The tailings deposit was operational from 1959 to 1981, comprising a volume of 1 million m3 and covering an area of 9.4 hectares.

In Sweden, the reclamation of the Ranstad uranium mill tailings is being carried out at present. It has a volume of 1 million m3 (1.5 million tonnes) and covers an area of 25 hectares. These tailings have an extraordinarily high concentration of pyrite (FeS2) at 15 %. A cover made from several layers was installed, designed also to prevent access of air to the tailings. The natural generation of acid in the tailings with subsequent mobilization of contaminants is thus intended to be minimized. Seepage is at present being contained and treated, but seepage quality has already improved, and it is hoped that water treatment and further maintenance can soon be abandoned. The total reclamation costs are estimated at US$ 25 million. [Sundblad1994], [Linder1993]

In-Situ Leaching

A problematic matter is the proposed flooding of the Königstein (Saxony) in-situ leaching mine: There are still around 1.8 million m3 of highly contaminated leaching liquid present in the deposit. So far, there are no large-scale proven methods to remove this liquid from the deposit and to inhibit continued leaching of uranium and other contaminants. The impact is rather severe, as the mining activities damaged an aquifer used for the drinking water supply in the Dresden area.

Initially, Wismut also planned to leach those ore blocs that had already been prepared for leaching, before the decision for the shut down of the mine was made. This leaching was intended to remove uranium for its possible groundwater impact. But, expert analysis, untertaken on behalf of the Saxonian Ministry of Environment, showed that the situation would become even worse, since the result would be a geochemical disequilibrium, enhancing the mobilization of many contaminants. The Ministry consequently prohibited this leaching. Wismut then went to the law, but later withdrew the suit.

At present, Wismut plans to flood the Königstein mine (which is an underground mine converted to in-situ leaching in some areas), up to a certain groundwater level, to wash the leaching blocs. The flooding should be halted and the flooding waters be contained and treated, until their contaminant concentrations would only be marginal. It must be anticipated, though, that this procedure might take hundreds of years, as the leaching zone is no longer washed under pressure, unlike during the leaching action.

The situation is even more difficult in the North Bohemian in-situ leaching facility of Stráz pod Ralskem: the goal of restoring groundwater quality to background has been abandoned as unrealistic. Instead, the goal of reducing the contaminant concentrations at least to 100 times drinking water standard has been proposed. But, modeling showed that even this reduced goal would require continued pumping of groundwater for 168 years, and subsequent treatment (at least initially).

The restoration goal for the aquifer located above the leaching zone, and used for drinking water supply, is the drinking water standard. Here, this goal is more realistic, since contaminant concentrations are much lower. This restoration process is already underway with preliminary water treatment. If, however, no adequate solution for the restoration of the leaching zone is found, migration of contaminated liquids from the leaching zone might cause contamination of waters used for drinking water supply.

No European country has promulgated legal regulations for the reclamation of its legacy of uranium mining so far.

The costs for reclamation of the wastes produced from uranium mining and milling exceed by far the current world market price of uranium.

Wismut undertakes several reclamation actions at its sites in Eastern Germany; a fundamental analysis of the problems, the assessment of alternative management options, and a standardized concept are lacking though.

In Western Europe, favourable (Ranstad, Andújar) and questionable (Le Cellier) examples exist.

In Central and Eastern Europe, discussion of the legacy of uranium mining is only beginning.

Related image:
Former open pit mine Lichtenberg, Ronneburg, June 1992


6. Reclamation implementation

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Uranium Mining in Europe - The Impacts on Man and Environment

(September 1995) Before any work for the long term management of the mines, waste piles, and mill tailings can be started, a comprehensive investigation of the environmental impacts that have already occured, and of potential future hazards must be carried out.

The reclamation goals must be defined in parallel. Since the health of the residents living in the area now, and of future generations is affected, the fundamental requirements can only be defined by legislation, not by regulations issued by agencies, nor by any commissions without a legal mission.

Based on the legal provisions for the reclamation goals, the reclamation concepts can be elaborated. These must undergo a critical review, including participation of the public, concerned communities, independent experts and environmental organizations, before the decision between various management options is made, and the concepts are realized.

During the first phase of investigations and planning, only such steps should be undertaken that are necessary for protection from immediate hazards, and respective of not interfering with long-term management. These include the as-complete-as-possible collection and treatment of all seepage, or the location and collection of contaminated material outside the site borders.


Public Participation

In Germany, the reclamation of the uranium mining legacy in the Eastern German uranium district is not subject to the nuclear law. Therefore, no public hearings take place, as are known with other nuclear projects. Neither are environmental organizations involved in the decision processes, as is known with other large-scale projects of environmental importance; so far, they were only invited to give their comments on the decommissioning concept for the Königstein mine, since this is located in an environmental conservation area.

Another problem is the access to environmental data gathered about the aftermath of uranium mining. For those sites that are still owned by Wismut, the data is gathered by Wismut itself; for those sites that were returned to the local authorities before 1962, the Federal Radiation Protection Agency (BfS) performs the monitoring. For its sites, Wismut only publishes rather general annual reports, while BfS has not yet published any results at all. In other countries, such as Poland and Rumania, all information concerning uranium mining is still subject to secrecy.


Reclamation Law

In each country concerned, the legal basis for reclamation must be created, since the existing legal regulations are insufficient in all European countries. This should be done cooperatively to insure uniform standards. The basic requirements for reclamation must be laid down in law:

Reclamation goals

  • Definition of the categories of persons to be protected (it is not sufficient to protect the average healthy adult; children and the sick must also be considered; moreover, the protection of future generations has to be assured),
  • Definition of the acceptable excess health risk caused from the uranium mining legacy,
  • Definition of the period of time, the reclamation to be carried out has to be efficient in the long-term,
  • Provisions to assure authorization only for those reclamation options requiring no active maintenance,
  • Fixing of a time limit for completion of the reclamation action.

Compensation claims

  • for miners, residents, concerned communities

The details can then be fixed in regulations:

Standards for systematical site monitoring

  • Type and extent of the site investigations, monitoring data acquisition, contaminants to be monitored, monitoring periods, etc.
  • Quality assurance for the monitoring program

Rules for ranking of hazards

  • Set clear priorities in case that reclamation actions have to be deferred due to lack of funds

Dose limits

  • Dose-effect ratios to be used for calculation of derived dose units
  • Dose limits corresponding to the acceptable excess health risk defined above
  • Calculation rules for computing the radiation doses

Reclamation standards

  • Standards for the continued release of contaminants (radon exhalation from surfaces, contaminant releases with waste water, dust releases, gamma radiation,...)
  • Contamination standards (radon concentrations in free air and in dwellings, contaminant concentrations in soils and groundwater, surface contamination for unrestricted reuse of metal scrap and construction rubble...),
  • Determination of measures that are regarded suitable to ensure the confinement of the contaminants during the whole period defined as the long-term protection goal,
  • Standards for stability against seismic events, flood, and erosion,
  • Determination of measures for the quality assurance of the whole reclamation process,
  • Determination of measures for eventual necessary maintenance,
  • Determination of measures for long-term monitoring and its financing

Administrative responsibilities and procedures

  • Definition of the responsibilities of Federal and State Agencies for the licensing process of the reclamation,
  • Definition of the licensing procedures,
  • Definition of the legal process

Public participation

  • Ensuring free access to all relevant information,
  • Ensuring public participation during the planning stage, during the licensing procedure (hearings), and for supervision of the action being taken,
  • Supply of funds, to enable concerned individuals, communities, and associations to contract experts of their choice.




Wismut receives DM 700 - 800 million (US$ 500 - 570 million) annually from the German Federal Budget for its reclamation efforts so far. But, Wismut is only responsible for the reclamation of those sites that were not returned to the local authorities before 1962. The communities are responsible for the other sites, but they are not nearly able to pay for their reclamation. The communities should therefore receive compensation for their former Wismut sites from the Federal Budget. This position is also supported by an expert analysis ordered by the Saxonian State Ministry of Environment. At present, the State Ministry is searching for a community that could sue the Federal Government for paying its reclamation cost.

Unlike Germany, most other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, do not nearly have enough funds required for the reclamation of the uranium mining legacy. In some cases, as in the Czech Republic, preparations are at least made for an analysis of the problems and possible management options. The European Union is now obviously willing to contribute to the solution of these problems in the Central and East European countries under its PHARE program [NF Sept. 26, 1994].


A condition for a successful reclamation is the definition of standardized criteria and requirements in a law.

Public participation barely exists in the preparation of reclamation plans, but it is absolutely necessary for success.

In Germany, financial provisions are lacking for the reclamation of those sites that were returned to the local authorities before 1962.

The Eastern neighbours of Germany suffer from lack of funds for the reclamation of their uranium mining legacy.

7. References

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Uranium Mining in Europe - The Impacts on Man and Environment

(September 1995) This list also contains works not referenced in the text. Literature on uranium ore deposits are not included for space considerations.


[BIUran1991] Bürgerinitiative gegen Uranabbau im Südschwarzwald; Bürgerinitiative Oberrothenbach (Hg.): Tagung der Bürgerinitiativen gegen Uranabbau in Europa, Zwickau(Sachsen) 1.-3.8.1991, Tagungsband, Herrischried 1991, 108 p.

[BIUran1992] Bürgerinitiative gegen Uranabbau im Südschwarzwald (Hg.): Sanierung von Altlasten des Uranabbaus, Materialsammlung, Herrischried 1992, 152 p.

[Catchpole1993b] Catchpole,Glenn J; Kuchelka,Rolf A: Sanierung von Grundwasserleitern bei Urangruben mit In Situ-Laugung. In: Erzmetall 46(1993)11, p.644-651.

[EPA1983a] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: 40 CFR Part 192 Standards for Remedial Actions at Inactive Uranium Processing Sites. In: Federal Register Vol.48, No.3, Washington, D.C., January 5, 1983, p.590-604.

[EPA1983b] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: 40 CFR Part 192 Environmental Standards for Uranium and Thorium Mill Tailings at Licensed Commercial Processing Sites. In: Federal Register Vol.48, No.196, Washington D.C., October 7, 1983, p.45926-45947.

[EPA1987] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: 40 CFR Part 192 Standards for Remedial Actions at Inactive Uranium Processing Sites; Proposed Rule. In: Federal Register Vol.52, No.185, Washington D.C. September 24, 1987, p.36000-36008.

[EPA1995] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: 40 CFR Part 192 Groundwater Standards for Remedial Actions at Inactive Uranium Processing Sites; Final Rule. In: Federal Register Vol.60, No.7, Washington D.C. January 11, 1995, p.2854.

[Nigbor1982] Nigbor,Michael T; Engelmann,William H; Tweeton,Daryl R: Case History of a Pilot-Scale Acidic In Situ Uranium Leaching Experiment. United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Mines Report of Investigations RI-8652, Washington D.C., 1982, 81 p.

[Norman1993] Norman,R E: Uranium production in Eastern Europe and its environmental impact: A literature survey.. ORNL/TM-12240, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 1993, 28 p.

[NRC1980] U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission: 10 CFR Part 40 Uranium Mill Tailings Regulations: Ground-Water Protection. In: Federal Register Vol.45, Washington D.C., October 3, 1980, p.65521.

[OECD1988] Uranium Resources, Production and Demand, OECD Nuclear Energy Agency/International Atomic Energy Agency (Ed.), Paris 1988, 194 p.

[OECD1990] Uranium Resources, Production and Demand 1989, OECD Nuclear Energy Agency/International Atomic Energy Agency (Ed.), Paris 1990, 358 p.

[OECD1992] Uranium 1991 Resources, Production and Demand, OECD Nuclear Energy Agency/International Atomic Energy Agency (Ed.), Paris 1992, 255 p.

[OECD1994] Uranium 1993 Resources, Production and Demand, OECD Nuclear Energy Agency/International Atomic Energy Agency (Ed.), Paris 1994, 311 p.

[Schmidt1989] Schmidt,C: Groundwater Restoration and Stabilization at the Ruth-ISL Test Site in Wyoming, USA. In: In Situ Leaching of Uranium - Technical, Environmental and Economic Aspects, Proceedings of a Technical Committee Meeting, IAEA-TECDOC-492, Wien 1989, p.97-126.

[UI1994] Update of the Report from the Working Group on Eastern Europe, CIS and China, Issued January 1994, The Uranium Institute (Ed.), London 1994, 27 p.

[UMTRCA1978] Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act, Public Law 95-604-Nov.8, 1978.


> [OECD1992] p.130-145

> [OECD1994] p.142-149

[AKURA1993] Strahlenexposition und strahleninduzierte Berufskrankheiten am Beispiel Wismut (2. und erweiterte Ausgabe), Darlegung des Arbeitskreises Uranbergbau und radioaktive Altlasten (AKURA), Berlin, November 1993, 42 p.

[Beleites1988] Beleites, Michael: Pechblende. Der Uranbergbau in der DDR und seine Folgen. Wittenberg 1988, 64 p.

[Beleites1991] Beleites, Michael: Untergrund. Ein Konflikt mit der Stasi in der Uran-Provinz. Berlin 1991, 274 p.

[Beleites1992] Beleites, Michael: Altlast Wismut. Ausnahmezustand, Umweltkatastrophe und das Sanierungsproblem im deutschen Uranbergbau. Frankfurt am Main, 1992, 174 p.

[BMU1993] Bundesminister für Umwelt, Naturschutz und Reaktorsicherheit (Hg.): Strahlenschutzgrundsätze für die Verwahrung, Nutzung oder Freigabe von kontaminierten Materialien, Gebäuden, Flächen und Halden aus dem Uranerzbergbau. Veröffentlichungen der Strahlenschutzkommission Band 23, Stuttgart 1993, 198 p.

[BMU1994] Der Bundesminister für Umwelt, Naturschutz und Reaktorsicherheit: Informationsmaterial zur Sanierung der Altlasten des Uranerzbergbaus, Stand: 15.04.1994. Bonn 1994, 91 p.

[BT1992a] Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Große Anfrage der Abgeordneten Dr.Klaus-Dieter Feige, Werner Schulz (Berlin) und der Gruppe BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN "Auswirkungen aus dem Uranbergbau und Umgang mit den Altlasten der Wismut in Ostdeutschland" vom 27.Mai 1992, BT-Drs.12/2671; Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 12/3309, Bonn 24.9.1992

[BT1992b] Antrag der Abgeordneten Dr.Klaus-Dieter Feige, Werner Schulz (Berlin) und der Gruppe BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN: Verantwortung für die Hinterlassenschaften aus fünf Jahrzehnten Uranabbau - Vorsorge für Jahrtausende, Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 12/3648, Bonn 6.11.1992

[BT1993a] Antwort der Bundesregierung auf die Kleine Anfrage der Abgeordneten Christoph Matschie u.a. - Drucksache 12/4515: Umweltbelastungen und Gesundheitsrisiken in der Wismut-Region, Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 12/4780, Bonn 22.4.1993

[BT1993b] Antwort des Staatssekretärs Clemens Stroetmann vom 23.2.1993 auf die Frage der Abgeordneten Siegrun Klemmer (SPD), Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 12/4344, Nr.116

[BT1994] Antrag der Abgeordneten Siegrun Klemmer u.a.: Sanierung der radioaktiven Altlasten in den Bundesländern Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Sachsen, Thüringen und Brandenburg, Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 12/8030, Bonn 21.6.1994

[Czarwinski1991] Czarwinski,R; Lehmann,R: Die Strahlenexposition durch Radon und Radon-Folgeprodukte in Gebäuden der Bergbaugebiete in Sachsen und Thüringen und eine Analyse der Ursachen. In: Jacobs,H; Bonka,H (Hg.): Strahlenschutz und Umwelt, Band I, Jubiläumstagung, Aachen, 30.September - 3.Oktober 1991, Köln, p.313-323.

[Diehl1991w] Uranabbau im Westen Deutschlands; in [BIUran1991] p.47-50

[Hähne1993] Hähne,R; Altmann,G: Principles and Results of Twenty Years of Block-Leaching of Uranium Ores by Wismut GmbH, Germany. In: Uranium In Situ Leaching, IAEA-TECDOC-720, Wien, 1993, p.43-54

[HaldenAnO1980] Anordnung zur Gewährleistung des Strahlenschutzes bei Halden und industriellen Absetzanlagen und bei der Verwendung darin abgelagerter Materialien vom 17.November 1980, Gesetzblatt der DDR Teil I, Nr.34, Ausgabetag: 17.Dezember 1980, p.347-350

[Hanisch1994] Hanisch, Christiane; Lohse,Maritta; Müller,Ansgar; Zerling,Lutz: Spurenelemente in Flußschlämmen der Weißen Elster und ihrer Nebengewässer. In: Spektrum der Wissenschaft, Mai 1994, p.98-102

[Heinemann1992] Heinemann,L et al.: Gesundheitsrisiken durch Strahlenexposition in den Südbezirken der ehemaligen DDR. BMU-1992-354, 1992, 144 p.

[Heinrich1992] Heinrich,J et al.: Lungenkrebsrisiko durch Radon in Wohnräumen - eine Fall-Kontroll-Studie in Thüringen und Sachsen. In: Forum Städte-Hygiene 43(1992) März/April p. 95-97

[Jacobi1992] Jacobi,W et al.: Verursachungs-Wahrscheinlichkeit von Lungenkrebs durch die berufliche Strahlenexposition von Uran-Bergarbeitern der WISMUT AG. Gutachterliche Stellungnahme im Auftrage der Berufsgenossenschaften. Köln, 1992, 58 p.

[Karlsch1993] Karlsch, Rainer: "Ein Staat im Staate". Der Uranbergbau der Wismut AG in Sachsen und Thüringen. In: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, Beilage zur Wochenzeitung Das Parlament, Nr. B 49-50/93, 3. Dezember 1993, p.14-23

[Keller1991] Keller,G; Schütz,M: Untersuchungen in "High Radon Areas" in Deutschland. In: Jacobs,H; Bonka,H (Hg.): Strahlenschutz und Umwelt, Band I, Jubiläumstagung, Aachen, 30.September - 3.Oktober 1991, Köln, p.324-329.

[Küppers1991] Küppers,Christian: Vergleich der Strahlenschutzgrenzwerte nach der Verordnung über die Gewährleistung von Atomsicherheit und Strahlenschutz (DDR-Recht) mit der Strahlenschutzverordnung der BRD, Darmstadt 1991, 15 p.

[Küppers1994] Küppers,Christian; Schmidt,Gerhard: Strahlenschutzaspekte bei Altlasten des Uranbergbaus in Thüringen und Sachsen, Öko-Institut, Werkstattreihe Nr.86, Darmstadt, 1994, 82 p.

[Paul1991] Paul, Reimar: Das Wismut-Erbe. Geschichte und Folgen des Uranbergbaus in Thüringen und Sachsen. Göttingen 1991, 191 p.

[Pfueller1994] Pfueller,B: Die Hinterlassenschaften der Wismut in Sachsen und Thüringen, in: Blick durch Wirtschaft und Umwelt, Sonderausgabe Oktober 1994, Vol.4, p.6-11.

[Schmidt1994] Schmidt,Gerhard; Küppers,Christian: Stellungnahme zu den Meßergebnissen des Bundesamtes für Strahlenschutz aus Proben im Raum Ronneburg (Stand: 15.11.1994), Öko-Institut, Darmstadt, 1994, 36 p.

[SSK1993t] Strahlenschutzkriterien für die Nutzung von möglicherweise durch den Uranbergbau beeinflußten Wässern als Trinkwasser - Empfehlung der Strahlenschutzkommission, Bundesanzeiger Nr.94 vom 22.Mai 1993, p.4680.

[SSK1994r] Strahlenschutzgrundsätze zur Begrenzung der Strahlenexposition durch Radon und seine Zerfallsprodukte in Gebäuden. Empfehlung der Strahlenschutzkommission. Verabschiedet in der 124.Sitzung der Strahlenschutzkommission am 21./22.April 1994

[Stein1993] Stein,Renate; Krompraß,Reiner; Dagen,Elenor; Hüttig,Wilfried; Bothe,Matthias: Untersuchungen zum Gehalt natürlicher radioaktiver Stoffe in ausgewählten Pflanzen als Voraussetzung für die Bewertung der radiologischen Situation im ostthüringischen Raum. In: Die Altlasten des Uranerzbergbaus und der Uranerzaufbereitung, Veröffentlichungen des Naturkundemuseums Gera, Naturwissenschaftliche Reihe, Heft 20/1993, Gera 1993, p.85-97.

[StrlSchV1989] Verordnung über den Schutz vor Schäden durch ionisierende Strahlen (Strahlenschutzverordnung - StrlSchV), 30.6.1989, Bundesgesetzblatt I, p.1321

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[Wismut1992c] Sanierungskonzept Sanierungsbetrieb Seelingstädt, Standort Crossen, Stand vom September 1992, Wismut GmbH, Chemnitz 1992, 148 p.

[Wismut1992g] Sanierungskonzept Sanierungsbetrieb Königstein, Standort Dresden-Gittersee, Stand vom September 1992, Wismut GmbH, Chemnitz 1992, 73 p.

[Wismut1992k] Sanierungskonzept Sanierungsbetrieb Königstein, Standort Königstein, Stand vom September 1992, Wismut GmbH, Chemnitz 1992, 123 p.

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[Karamushka1993] Karamushka,V P; Ostroborodov,V V: Rehabilitation of contaminated territories while liquidating enterprises of uranium mining industry of the CIS. In: The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (Ed.), Environmental Remediation and Environmental Management Issues, Proceedings of the 1993 International Conference on Nuclear Waste Management and Environmental Remediation, Prague, Czech Republic, September 5-11, 1993, Vol.3, New York 1993, p.523-526

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NF - Nuclear Fuel, New York


Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Uranium Mining in Europe - The Impacts on Man and Environment

(September 1995) In Europe, uranium mining has generally not taken place in the limelight, although about one third of the world's total uranium production has been produced in Europe so far.

In Western Germany, for example, the construction and operation of nuclear power plants, as well as the nuclear waste problem, have always found high public attention. The origin of the nuclear industry, the uranium mining industry, however, did never find that attention. One reason, obviously is that the uranium used for the German nuclear power plants is nearly completely imported from overseas, and the problems resulting from the uranium industry are thus not obvious in Western Germany.

Quite on the contrary, for example, the situation in France, the largest uranium producer in Western Europe: Here, a nation-wide network of environmental groups opposing uranium mining was already set up in 1979.

In Eastern Germany, there existed vast uranium mining operations; but information on them was not publicly accessible until the young peace and environmental activist Michael Beleites published his underground report "Pitchblend - Uranium Mining in the GDR and its Impacts" in 1988.

The situation changed abruptly with the political changes in 1989. It came to light that in Europe large areas had also been devastated for the production of the source material for the nuclear bomb, and later for nuclear power.

Meanwhile, uranium production has been shut down or strongly reduced in most European countries due to the high production cost. What is left over, are the countless shut-down uranium mines, hundreds of millions of tonnes of radiating waste rock and uranium mill tailings, presenting health risks through release of radon gas and contaminated seepage. This legacy does not only present an immediate hazard, but also endangers future generations for tens of thousands of years.

The time has come that the decisions on the fate of the uranium mining legacy and thus of the future generations must no longer be taken in obscurity.

Related Images, (September 1995)

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Uranium Mining in Europe - The Impacts on Man and Environment

Radiation exposure SDAG Wismuturanium productionuranium concentrations in rockelevated radon levelsheap leaching of uranium orein situ leaching of uraniumthe uranium-238 decay chainradioactivity in tailingsuranium mill tailings hazardstypical construction of a tailings dammajor environmental transport pathways from uranium mill tailings to man

Related Photo's, (September 1995)

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Uranium Mining in Europe - The Impacts on Man and Environment

Open pit mine Le Bosc near Lodève (Hérault, France)

Open pit mine Le Bosc near Lodève

Landscape of piles at Paitzdorf, Ronneburg (Thuringia), May 1990

Paitzdorf, Ronneburg

Waste rock piles at Schlema (Saxony)

Waste rock piles at Schlema

Uranium mill tailings deposit in the former Bellezane open pit mine near Bessines-sur-Gartempe (Haute-Vienne, France), January 1992. Contents (at the end of 1990): 844,000 tonnes

Uranium mill tailings at Bellezane

The two partial ponds of the Culmitzsch uranium mill tailings deposit near Seelingstädt (Thuringia) before the covering of the dry beaches, September 1990. Total contents: 90 million tonnes

Culmitasch uranium mill tailings

Main dam of the Helmsdorf uranium mill tailings deposit, Oberrothenbach (Saxony)

Helmsdorf uranium mill tailings deposit

Former open pit mine Lichtenberg, Ronneburg (Thuringia), June 1992. The ramp leading to the bottom of the pit was constructed from material of the Gessental heap leaching pile.

Lichtenberg, Ronneburg

© Peter Diehl

Related maps, (September 1995)

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Uranium Mining in Europe - The Impacts on Man and Environment

uranium mines and mills in thuringiauranium mines and mills in germanyuranium mines in the czech republicuranium mines and mils in polanduranium mines and mills in francewismut uraniunm production 1946-1991