Debate on Uranium as a Sustainable Energy Source

Tomas Hilliard-Arce
December 15, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2016


Fig. 1: Uranium mine in Namibia. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As climate change becomes a more prevalent issue in our society, environmentalists continue to search for an cleaner alternative energy solution. At the moment we use two types of energy. The main source being nonrenewable energy. This type of energy is relatively cheap and we already have much of the infrastructure to be able to extract these energy resources. The downside to this type of energy is that it contributes to climate change and often pollutes the environment through runoff or carbon emissions which are released into the atmosphere. The other type of energy resource is renewable energy, which includes solar, wind, and water energy. Although this energy is much cleaner for the environment, they are inconsistent and are expensive because of storage and building new machinery to produce the energy. [1] One potential solution that is currently receiving attention is nuclear power, specifically uranium mining (see Fig. 1). Nuclear power contributes energy in large portions to select countries such as Japan and France, but only contributes to 20% of the electricity in the United States. Environmentalists are debating a transition to this type of energy because it does not release harmful CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.


As previously mentioned, the most attractive aspect of switching to uranium as a energy solution would be moving towards an energy that does not release CO2 into the atmosphere. Uranium only releases CO2 during the actual process of mining as well as when transporting the resource, this is just a fraction compared to the CO2 released through extracting and using fossil fuels. [1] Another positive about switching to uranium is the fact that fossil fuels are depleting. [2] We will be forced to make a transition eventually, and over the last century we have continued to find more and more pockets of uranium, thus allowing us to actually consider uranium to one day be a viable widespread energy option. If we continue to burn uranium at its current rate it would last us for another 229 years! Lastly, because uranium is a newer source of energy, the areas that contain large amounts of uranium will be able to economically benefit from producing this type of energy. Countries such as Australia, Canada, and even the United States have large reservoirs of untapped uranium. [1] Not only would this stimulate the countries' economies but could also help local economies and generate jobs.


Much of the downside of producing uranium comes from its uncertainty. Although uranium has many positives, people have reserves about nuclear energy because of safety issues. One big safety concern is the safety of nuclear plants and storage. Events like Chernobyl in 1986, or even Fukishima in 2011 have people fearful of the effects of a nuclear power plant accident. Another concern people may have is that mining for uranium would endanger the miners as well as surrounding communities once produced. Although these are reasonable concerns, uranium mining and storage is highly regulated and would not put miners or the surrounding community in much danger. [2] The last concern with uranium mining is the future uncertainty we might face. Because uranium mining is a relatively new solution to the energy problem, we do not know for sure what long term effects it might have on our environment.


Clearly uranium mining provides many positives as well as concerns as a potential energy alternative. Whether or not we decide to take the route of using uranium, it is understood that we must find an energy resource that is more environmentally friendly while still remaining economically sensible.

© Tomas Hilliard-Arce. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] G. M. Mudd and M. Diesendorf, "Sustainability of Uranium Mining and Milling: Toward Quantifying Resources and Eco-Efficiency," Environ. Sci. Technol. 42, 2624 (2008).

[2] J. Esch, Prolog to "Keeping the Energy Debate Clean: How Do We Supply the World's Energy Needs?" Proc. IEEE 98, 39 (2010).