Uranium mining and milling is an expanding activity in the. Western United States. Although the milling process yields a uranium concentrate, the large volume of tailings remaining contains about 85 percent of the radioactivity originally associated with the ore. By virtue of the physical and chemical processing of the ore and the redistribution of the contained radionuclides at the Earth's surface, these tailings constitute a technologically enhanced source of natural radiation exposure. Sources of potential human radiation exposure from uranium mill tailings include the emanation of radon gas, the transport of particles by wind and water, and the transport of soluble radionuclides, seeping from disposal areas, by ground water. Due to the 77,000 year half-life of thorium-230, the parent of radium-226, the environmental effects associated with radionuclides contained in these railings must be conceived of within the framework of geologic processes operating over geologic time. The magnitude of erosion of cover materials and tailings and the extent of geochemical mobilization of the contained radionuclides to the atmosphere and hydrosphere should be considered in the evaluation of the potential, long-term consequences of all proposed uranium mill tailings management plans.
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Isolation of uranium mill tailings and their component radionuclides from the biosphere; some earth science perspectives