Medicine, Materials, Energy and Environment
Researchers (L to R) Prof. Emeritus Gordon Sparks, graduate student David Parker and Cameron McNaughton.

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Study shows that Saskatchewan uranium mining emits few greenhouse gases

SASKATOON-A University of Saskatchewan (U of S) research group has found that the mining and milling of Canadian uranium contributes very few greenhouse gases to nuclear power’s already low emissions. The study, conducted by David Parker, a graduate student in the College of Engineering co-supervised by U of S professor emeritus Gordon Sparks and environmental engineer Cameron McNaughton, was published online in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“We found that the mining and milling of uranium contributes about 1 gram of greenhouse gases (stated as CO2 equivalents) per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced from that uranium,” explained Parker. “Saskatchewan has the highest grade uranium in the world, and the emissions from uranium mining in Canada are very, very low when compared to extracting fossil fuels. “

By comparison, coal produces over 800 grams of CO2 equivalent per kilowatt hour and natural gas about 500 grams, according to the 2014 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  The report cites a mid-range value of 12 grams of CO2 equivalent gases per kilowatt hour for nuclear power, similar to wind power.

“Many people think that the mining and milling of uranium is a hidden source of greenhouse gas emissions related to nuclear power – that it’s the dirty end of the stick,” says McNaughton, who is an adjunct professor at the U of S and an engineer with Golder Associates. “This study, which is the most rigorous done to date, showed that the mining and milling of uranium produces only a small amount of emissions.”

The study involved adding up the greenhouse gases emitted by everything used in the mining and milling of uranium at three Saskatchewan operations—from the fuel used in heavy machinery and to power facilities, to the concrete and steel used in construction, to the emissions from flying workers in and out of the mine sites. Even the emissions from the mining companies’ head offices were tallied. The technique, called life cycle assessment, followed a methodology laid out by the International Organization for Standardization.

“When doing life cycle studies it is really surprising how much data is required, and how difficult it can be to get all of that information,” said Parker, who was able to use information supplied by uranium mining companies Cameco Corporation and AREVA Resources Canada, as well as databases that contain information about the greenhouse gas emissions for things like building materials. The work was funded through a grant from the Fedoruk Centre.

The researchers hope to expand their life cycle assessment work in a number of directions, looking at the impact ore grade and different mining processes have on emissions, moving their analysis further down the nuclear fuel cycle, and broadening it to consider other environmental impacts beyond greenhouse gas emissions.

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A short video of the research team explaining their work is available on the Fedoruk Centre’s YouTube channel.

The paper’s reference is: David J. Parker, Cameron S. McNaughton, and Gordon A. Sparks “Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Uranium Mining and Milling in Canada,” Environmental Science and Technology, 2016, 50 (17), pp. 9746-9753. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b06072.