Uranium

King, John W. ; Adler, Hans H. ; Kennedy, Richard H. ; Mathews, Dale C. ; McGinley, Frank F. ; Peterson, E. C. ; Swanquist, G. A. ; Wilde, Ralph M.
Organization: Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration
Pages: 41
Publication Date: Jan 1, 1985
INTRODUCTION From the first historical records of the discovery of uranium as an element and the attempted classification of its minerals in the early 18th century-through its first uses in pigmentation and the coloring of glasses and ceramic glazes-until 1939 when it was discovered that the isotope U235, was fissionable, uranium oxide in the form of pitchblende ores and concentrates (produced mainly in Bohemia, Canada, and the former Belgian Congo) in recent times was the source of uranium compounds incidental as byproducts to the recovery of radium from this invariable associated source. In 1938 this byproduct production from pitchblende concentrates was about 471 st of U3O8, with over 90% from Canada and the Belgian Congo and only 25.85 st from carnotite ores in the United States.1 Under the impetus of the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC now part of the Energy Research Development Administration) domestic and foreign production incentives and buying programs, and as an initial assurance of atomic armament capability of the United States and the Free World, the growth of the uranium mining and milling industry burgeoned from 1952 to 1962. After a short period of decline, in the second decade and in large commitments beyond, it has again extended its capacity to meet ever-increasing fuel demands of atomic power generation by the electric utilities industry. In 1961 the peak production in the United States alone was 17,758 st of U3O8. Peak aggregate domestic and foreign deliveries of 34,581 st of U3O8 to the AEC occurred in 1960.z Canada's maximum delivery of 13,506 st of U308 was made in 1959. These peak and continued productions in the Free World are largely from: the Mesozoic (Jurassic) and Tertiary (Eocene) sandstones in the United States; the quartz pebble conglomerates of Canada and the Witwatersrand; pegmatites, Jurassic limestones, and Precambrian complexes, with less but significant production; the phosphoria, where byproduct production is minor. This uranium production in the form of precipitated concentrates has come from the milling of ores from these sources, both directly and by retreatment of gold cyanidation tailings on the Witwatersrand. Milling of crude ore has followed these processes: conventional crushing and size preparation, ore drying when required, salt roasting for high vanadium ores and byproduct vanadium recovery, carbonate or acid-leaching processes, classification sand-dine separations or countercurrent decantation (CCD) circuits and complete liquid-solids separations, resin-in-pulp (RIP) or liquid-liquid (solvent) ion-ex- change extractions, clarification of pregnant liquors, precipitation, filtration and washing, sodium and vanadium removals, and drying or roasting and packaging of the high-grade, high-purity uranium concentrate commonly referred to as "yellowcake." Coupled with the hazards and control of dust generation incident to conventional crushing and milling operations, more stringent control of airborne respirable and ingestible radioactive particulates and the protection of personnel against definitive external radiation are inherent to uranium milling. Impoundment and control of tailings and other effluents of uranium milling are more restrictive than in conventional practice, be- cause long-term disposal and containment of the uranium series of radionuclides, whether in solution or in solid form, are requisite to uranium milling and are made manadatory under regulatory agencies of government. 2. GEOLOGY AND MINERALOGY OF URANIUM Early Uses and Byproduct Production of Uranium Uranium was discovered by Klaproth in 1789 but had little commercial importance until the discovery of uranium fission by Hahn and Strassman at the close of 1938. The well-known uranium ores of Joachimsthal, Czechoslovakia, the Congo, and the Colorado Plateau were early sources of radium. Minor quantities of uranium were used for small-scale technical and industrial applications, particularly in coloring glass and ceramics, but most of the uranium was discarded. The Colorado ores were also mined later, chiefly for vanadium. Impetus of Armament Capability and Fuel Demands for Atomic Power Following the discovery of atomic fission, uranium became critically important for military applications and, more recently, as a nuclear fuel. Prior to 1966 uranium was acquired in the United States almost solely for use in the weapons program of the AEC. By 1970 the AEC had procured approximately 325,000 st of U3O8 from domestic and foreign sources. Current and future marketability is primarily dependent upon commercial demand for reactor fuel. Estimates of
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