Redevelopment and environmental monitoring of former uranium mines
Remediation and reclamation of mine sites
Update March 2016
When mining has ended at a site, AREVA remediates and reclaims the site, replants vegetation, and performs ongoing radiological and environmental monitoring to detect and manage any changes in conditions there, including any movement of the land.
This permanent monitoring of former mining sites is conducted under government supervision and in an evolving regulatory framework. The main objectives are to maintain stable safety and security conditions at these sites and minimize the residual impact of past mining operations on the environment and the local population.
Since it began its mining activities, AREVA has invested several hundred million euros in dismantling installations and reclaiming mining sites in France, Gabon, the United States and Canada.
Recognized French expertise
In France, uranium was mined at about 250 sites across the country between 1947 and 2001, with production totaling nearly 80,000 tons. Uranium mining ended in France in 2001.
Fewer than half of these sites in France were operated by AREVA and its subsidiaries, but the Group is performing a public service by rehabilitating and monitoring all the sites under an agreement with the French government.
A responsible activity
Reclamation in the mining industry is an activity in its own right, conducted on solid scientific and technical bases. Through cooperation and compliance with regulations, site reclamation seeks to:
- Secure the installations for the public’s safety
- Minimize the residual impact of the former activities
- Reintegrate the site into the landscape
- Perform radiological and environmental monitoring at former mine sites
- Treat the water at sites requiring it
- Manage conversion projects at former mine sites (solar farms, fishing areas, etc.)
Mine remediation and reclamation projects are carried out with total transparency, under the supervision of the DREAL, the ASN and the ASR. Entities have also been created (CLIS, CSS, Groupes d’Etudes Pluralistes – see Glossary below) to conduct studies, promote cooperation with stakeholders, satisfy their expectations and address their concerns.
Mine site rehabilitation requires real know-how, which explains why the task turned over to a single company. The French government thus chose AREVA, which has a reputation as a responsible mining company, to manage the rehabilitation and monitoring of the French mine sites, including the ones it did not operate.
Each year, AREVA spends several million euros to provide environmental monitoring at former mine sites in France. To provide this service, some 100 specialists carry out nearly 7,000 environmental, geological, radiological and health analyses annually.
More on Rehabilitating mine sites
The Lodève site
Mine site rehabilitation: a solar farm at Lodève
After producing uranium, the former Lodève uranium mine, in southwestern France, is getting a second lease on life.
The production of energy will continue to be the purpose of this former mine site, but now it will be with 35,000 solar panels installed by the Compagnie du Soleil, a subsidiary of the Compagnie du Vent. This 20-hectare (50-acre) solar farm will produce energy equivalent to the annual consumption of 7,400 people, or everyone living in the town of Lodève.
This solar power plant was inaugurated in October 2013.
The municipality of Lodève also wants to build a technology park on the former mine site. AREVA has therefore provided 1.3 million euros in assistance along with the services of its subsidiary specialized in the industrial conversion of closed sites.
Similar projects aimed at giving former French mine sites a second life are under study, for example, in the Loire-Atlantique department in western France and in the Forez region in the central France.
The Limousin GEP: a real response to society’s expectations following the end of uranium mining in France
Created by the French ministries of the Environment, Health and Industry on June 28, 2006, the GEP (Pluralistic Expertise Group) has worked on assessing and dealing with the radiological footprint of former uranium mines operated by AREVA NC (COGEMA) in the Limousin region in past decades.
With support from the Institute of Radiation protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), the GEP was tasked with performing a critical review of technical documentation supplied by the mine operator and making recommendations for reducing the site’s impact on the public.
The GEP at a glance
Its creation was strongly advocated and supported by AREVA.
- 3 years of studies: 2006–2009
- 24 sites (the largest) in the Haute Vienne department studied
- Recommendations that prompted the interest of all communities and DREALs affected by uranium mining
- 40 members from some fifteen groups of scientific experts (CNRS Nancy, University of Limoges, INVS, IRSN) and associations (Wise, GSIEN, Sources et Rivières du Limousin)
- 5 nationalities (British, Belgian, Swiss, French and Luxembourg).
- 4 task forces in 4 major areas of study:
- Source term studies (site hydrogeology and geochemistry)
- Dosimetry, exposure scenarios, health, study of cancer records (initial findings: the number of cases of cancer in the Limousin region is lower than the national average).
- Changes to regulations in step with growing knowledge
- Interpretations of measurements; concept of representativeness of environmental samples
Exposure to radioactivity
Natural radioactivity and artificial radioactivity
Radioactivity is a natural physical phenomenon. It appears when certain “unstable” atoms (such as natural uranium) transform spontaneously. Their nucleus naturally corrects their instability by “disintegrating,” i.e., by emitting excess energy or particles in the form of “ionizing” radiation.
Radioactivity occurs naturally, coming mainly from five sources:
- Cosmic rays from the sun
- Telluric radioactivity from the earth’s crust
- Radioactivity in water (coming from the geological formations it crosses)
- Radioactivity in the air (the presence of radon gas coming from soil containing high concentrations of uranium 238)
- Radioactivity in the human body (e.g., potassium 40 and carbon 14)
Humans have learned how to produce radioactivity artificially for use in medicine and industry. Whether natural or artificial, the characteristics and effects of the radioactivity are identical. In France, 70% of the radioactivity to which a person is exposed is of natural origin, while 30% comes from "artificial" radioactivity, mainly from medical uses. The average annual dose to an individual from natural sources is 2.4 mSv; total exposure is about 3.3 mSv.
Some examples of radiation exposure for an individual
Average annual exposure:
- A cosmonaut in orbit: 420 mSv
- Natural exposure in village of Ramsar, Iran: 300 mSv
- Natural exposure in an unventilated house in a granite region: 20 mSv
- Natural exposure at an altitude of 1,500m: 3.6 mSv
- Natural exposure of an individual in France: 2.4 mSv
- Aftermath of atmospheric nuclear testing: 0.017 mSv
- Waste from nuclear plants: 0.002 mSv
- Abdominal scanner: 12 mSv
- Lung X-ray: 0.1 mSv
- Paris-New York flight: 0.06 mSv
- Panoramic dental x-ray: 0.03 mSv
Exposure to radioactivity
When a living being is in the presence of a source of radioactivity, or when this source is in direct contact with the skin, we speak of irradiation or external exposure. When radioactive substances penetrate the organism (inhalation, ingestion, through a wound), contamination or internal exposure is the term used.
The effects of radioactive on the organism vary greatly depending on the dose received, the duration and type of exposure, and the nature of the radioactivity involved. Thus, intense and/or prolonged exposure can have immediate effects such as burns or nausea, or possibly lead later on to effects such as genetic pathologies (cancer, leukemia).
The biological effects of radiation are identical at identical doses, regardless of whether the source is natural or artificial. Scientists have observed effects on health for exposure exceeding 100 mSv.
- Mining waste: Earth, sand and rock that must be removed to reach the orebody. Mining waste contains either no uranium or quantities too small to process. Radioactivity is extremely low or non-existent.
- Mine tailings: Very fine, wet sand that is left after the uranium ore is processed. The tailings contain all the other minerals originally in the ore, including the radionuclides that have not been extracted. They are stored near the processing plant. The disposal and monitoring of the tailings is a critical part of mining site remediation..
- CSS: Commission de Suivi de Site (Site Monitoring Commission). The CSSs were created in 2012 to provide a framework for communication between the mine operator and civil society. They are progressively replacing the CLISs..
- CLIS: Commission Locale d'Information et de Surveillance (Local Information and Surveillance Commission). They are made up of all components of civil society (activist organizations, public officials, government administrations).
- GEP: Groupe d'Expertise Pluraliste (Multidisciplinary Experts Group).
- DREAL: Direction Régionale de l'Environnement, de l'Aménagement et du Logement (Regional Department for the Environment, Development and Housing).
- ASN: Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (Nuclear Safety Authority).
- ARS: Agence Régionale de Santé (Regional Health Agency).
- ALARA: As Low As Reasonably Achievable.
- IRSN: Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire (Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety).
- ICPE: Installation Classée pour la Protection de l'Environnement (Classified Installation for Environment Protection).