In part 2 of this series, we discussed the claim of Udo Bardi, an academic “peak oiler” out of the University of Florence, that uranium supplies are subject to exhaustion, this because, according to Bardi, and a correspondent evoking, if not actually citing, him in this space, extracting meaningful amounts of uranium from seawater, where its mass vastly outstrips the quantities obtained from domestic ores, is too expensive in terms of energy and cost. According to Bardi, we face “peak uranium” just as we face “peak oil,” the latter being Bardi’s main focus, although my cursory impression is that, many, if not most “peak oilers” are also “peak uranium” types. As a practical matter, I am really neither of these. I acknowledge that the world might run out of oil, but unlike most “peak oilers” as I understand them, I’m unconcerned about its consequences. As far as I’m concerned, the sooner we run out of oil, the better. In my opinion, the replacement of oil is straight forward, which is neither to say “easy” nor to say “cheap” but nonetheless, in the golden age of chemistry, clearly technically feasible, and clearly desirable. My problem with petroleum has to do with the status of the main dump for its waste, this being the planetary atmosphere. A secondary concern has to do with the diversion of oil to make weapons of mass destruction, a routine practice on this planet, as well as the hysteria about oil as a cause of wars of mass destruction, followed by a concern about oil terrorism, which among other things, lead to the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City.
Part 2 of this series was all about “peak indium,” inasmuch as it is involved in so called “renewable energy,” which in some cases, indium in “CIGS” (copper indium gallium selenide) thin film solar being one, is running out of key materials before it has become a significant form of energy. And let’s be clear: After half a century of jawboning about the subject, and after the expenditure of trillions of dollars to try to make it work, so called “renewable energy,” excepting hydropower, is not a significant form of energy.
Although overall this series is entitled “Sustaining the Wind,” we will not be focusing very much in this part on wind energy itself, but rather on this fuel for nuclear energy, uranium, considering very dilute sources, one of which will be seawater. Part 3 of this series is all about the concept of “peak uranium” as raised by Bardi and many others, including a vast segment of the population that knows nothing at all about nuclear energy, but hates it anyway.
There is good reason for doing this in a series on wind energy. First, if one spends any amount of time looking into the claims of those who advocate for so called “renewable energy” one will quickly see that for many of the advocates for this expensive, and thus far essentially useless form of energy, are often less interested in replacing dangerous fossil fuels than they are in displacing nuclear energy. (In Part 5 we will look at some prominent academics associated with this tragic anti-nuclear, pro-“renewable energy” rhetoric, focusing mainly on Mark Z. Jacobsen, Professor of Civil Engineering at Stanford University.) Since nuclear energy remains, despite much caviling, the world’s largest, by far, source of climate change gas free primary energy, easily outstripping all others, we should suspect that these advocates are spectacularly uninterested in climate change and other forms of air pollution, which I assure you, are far more dire catastrophes than the reactor failures at Chernobyl and Fukushima that so obsess this sort. Secondly, if nuclear energy is safe, clean, and infinitely or nearly infinitely sustainable, the rationale for constructing truly massive numbers of wind turbines collapses. As we have seen in parts 1 and 2, wind turbine construction involves digging up huge amounts of increasingly rare elements, as well as vast quantities of elements that are not yet rare but nonetheless involve significant environmental impacts to refine. Historically, as we shall see, uranium mining has been as problematic as the mining of other ores, probably not as odious as coal mining or petroleum mining, but, given that it occurred in an era – the last half of the 20th century – featuring a “once through,” waste mentality, nevertheless, leaving a scar on a future generation, specifically our generation. Herein we will suggest approaches to healing this scar and preventing new such scars.
Opponents of nuclear energy often lump it with dangerous coal, and the other two dangerous fossil fuels, dangerous petroleum and dangerous natural gas. While overall this is absurd, in one way it has a modicum of truth: Like dangerous petroleum, dangerous natural gas, and dangerous coal, uranium and thorium are irreversibly consumed when used for the generation of primary nuclear energy, and on the surface however, it would seem, therefore, theoretically that there are limits to the sustainability of access to these fuels.
When we looked at indium in part 2 we saw that because the ocean remains slightly basic despite the policy failures that are leading to its slow but steady acidification – one such policy failure is to regard fossil fuels as “transitional” while we wait, like D’Estragon waiting for Godot, for so called “renewable energy” to become a significant source of energy – and because indium hydroxide is one of the most insoluble hydroxides known, ocean water cannot be considered to be a dilute ore for that element. We saw that where indium is concerned, the only likely source is likely ever to be likely available are terrestrial zinc – and possibly lead – ores, as well as industrially insignificant quantities as a fission product of plutonium.
Bardi’s paper on the feasibility of mining seawater to obtain elements – I think is arguments and his conclusion that lithium is the only element that may so be obtained are very, very, very weak to say the least – is cited in a more recent, and frankly much better, if hardly comprehensive, paper on the subject of mining the sea for minerals. Despite the citation, almost all of Bardi’s conclusions are promptly more or less ignored except that the referring paper utilized Bardi’s figure for the mass of uranium in the ocean, which is 4.29 billion tons. Bardi’s internal source, from his paper meanwhile, for this figure seems to be from a website run by an organization called “seafriends”. I mean to cast no aspersions on the hardworking author of that website, who may or may not be highly accurate. (The site is still accessible as of this writing, August 28, 2015) Nevertheless were Bardi to appeal to the large number of primary sources from the scientific literature (as opposed to more ephemeral sources from the internet) or comprehensive secondary sources from the same literature for concentrations of the elements in seawater, sources referring to the utilization of modern techniques like ICP-MS or radiometric methods his paper would be infinitely stronger. After all, the point of all the speculation about the future of mining the sea for elements in the periodic table is designed to influence the decisions about research being conducted now. Happily, I think, there seems to be very little impetus for taking Dr. Bardi’s analysis seriously. As we will see, nothing he said in 2010 has caused abandonment of research into isolating uranium (and other elements) from seawater. The world had, in fact, moved past Bardi’s conclusion well before he came to it, his problem being that he didn’t look with anything even remotely approaching rigor at uranium extraction technologies (or the extraction of other metals) when he wrote about the subject.
Bardi concludes that copper, for instance, can never be isolated economically from seawater. By contrast, the authors citing him seem to have an almost breathless enthusiasm for mining the ocean. They drew or had drawn a nice cartoon showing the structure of a putative plant for obtaining all sorts of resources and energy from seawater. Here it is:
Their plant has all sorts of fun things, like forward osmosis systems for generating electricity using the inherent energy in salt gradients, an interesting way, by the way, of recovering some (but not all) of the energy associated with waste heat.
The authors also produce a very beautiful picture of a dendrimer for, um, isolating copper from seawater. Personally, as one of my many eccentricities, I happen to love pictures of dendrimers. therefore I also reproduce from their paper the structure of their dendrimer for copper, showing putative copper binding sites isolation below.
I should note, if one is enamored of biological sources of materials, that similar dendrimers may be constructed from the amino acid lysine which is currently isolated in vast quantities from grain in order to make animal feed. Commonly these types of lysine based dendrimers have been designed for drug delivery purposes, for instance to deliver cytotoxic agents of the anthracycline class, doxorubicin for example, to cancer cells, but there is no intrinsic reason that lysine polymers (or co-polymers of compounds like ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA) of controlled structure could not be utilized for the complexation of metals.
The use of copper carboxyl amino complexes in the organic chemistry of lysine is, in fact, very common, since it is strategy to differentiate the α-amino nitrogen from the ε-amino nitrogen. (I’ve actually carried out various reactions utilizing this complex myself.) Note that the complex pictured above contains a complex designated, “B2” which includes coordination with amide oxygen atoms as well as tertiary amines, more or less suggesting amino acids. Lysine, by the way, along with histidine, is the amino acid most involved in the biological fixation of carbon dioxide. Thus, the structure above, which contains no lysine but rather structures derived from ethylene diamine and β-alanine might be expected to have interesting properties relating to the capture of carbon dioxide, but that is another matter.
All this said, it is not immediately clear that this type of approach, the isolation of copper from, means that the use of copper is as infinitely sustainable as doing the same uranium. The case with uranium is very different, since the requirements for uranium are relatively small when uranium is used for producing energy, owing, again, to the extreme energy density of uranium when it is converted to plutonium. Copper, by contrast, is required in far larger quantities for use as a structural material, an electrical conductor, etc., etc. I want to be clear that my argument, irrespective of the views of the authors I cite, should be viewed as anything but cornucopian. Least I seem totally dismissive of Bardi, he may have a point about copper and seawater.
As for uranium in seawater, we can attempt to provide a better estimate than Bardi’s (with the understanding that this is also a blog post) of the situation with respect to the total amount of uranium in seawater: The literature connected with the isolation of uranium from seawater is motivated by the recognition by scientists around the world that the ocean naturally contains vast quantities of uranium. The issue has been studied for more than half a century. The total quantity of uranium in seawater is, of course, a function of the total amount of seawater, a somewhat slippery target. In recent times, many efforts have been undertaken to measure the mass and volume of the earth’s oceans, this connected with the desire to measure and record the rate at which seawater might inundate coastal land masses and low lying islands. These levels, again, of course fluctuate to a certain degree as a function of temperature, composition gradients, season and weather – the GRACE scientific satellite mission was designed to measure these fluctuations. Nevertheless a fairly sophisticated calculation based on measurement of the earth’s gravitational fields estimates that the mass of the oceans is 1.36 X 1021 kg. One can encounter in a myriad of papers the figure for the concentration of uranium in seawater, a concentration which is not necessarily homogenous, with respect to this element if not to its radioactive decay daughters; the generally accepted value is around 3.3 ppb. It follows, if these figures are accurate, that the oceans contain 4.5 billion tons of uranium, a little bit more than Bardi’s website generated estimate, although, um, 200 million tons of uranium is probably not trivial. This is not to imply that Bardi’s estimate is truly less accurate than that we have attempted here. As is noted in a far more serious analytical chemistry paper citing papers measuring range between 3.1 ppb and 3.3 ppb, the former figure making the estimate made web page used by Bardi correct.
Even if Bardi’s analysis proves ultimately correct with respect to the concentration of uranium in the oceans, this is insignificant compared to a larger issue:
Dr. Bardi’s calculation of the energy content of uranium, 40 MWh/kg, assumes, arbitrarily, that people in a putative nuclear powered world would be dullards who choose to isolate uranium from dilute sources and then choose to throw most of it, the 238U isotope which dominates the mass of terrestrial uranium, away. (This requirement – a culture of dullards in a nuclear powered world – is counterintuitive, given that the only way for a nuclear powered world to exist would be to have a generally scientifically literate population, a situation, regrettably, not generally observed at present.) For the record, the per kg energy content of a kg of plutonium (the 239 isotope into which 238U can be transmuted under breeder conditions) is 22,300 MWh/kg, suggesting that Dr. Bardi’s calculations are, um, a little off, by a factor of more than 550. If uranium should cost $460/kg, this would represent a raw material fuel cost, and if the uranium is consumed after transmutation into plutonium, of $0.00002 per kWh.
For comparative purposes, Germany and Denmark, two officially anti-nuke “pro-wind” countries which happen to feature the most expensive electricity in Europe, have electricity prices approaching $0.40 (US) per kwh, as opposed to US prices – which are rising with the inane or insane popularity of so called “renewable energy” – of roughly $0.12 (US)/kWh, and France, roughly $0.20 (US)/kWh. The overwhelming majority of the cost of nuclear energy has nothing to do with the cost of raw material uranium (or for that matter thorium) but is rather entirely a function of the cost of nuclear infrastructure, infrastructure that is required, arbitrarily and for no sanely justifiable reason, to be infinitely safer than any other source of energy, this despite the fact that all other forms of significant energy are experimentally unsafe by comparison to the current industrial practice of nuclear energy, including the results of Chernobyl and Fukushima. As it is, the one quoted current cost (as of May 2015) for uranium oxide in the form of U3O8 of $35.59/lb, which translates into a cost (as pure uranium) of $93.41/kg.
With gross errors greater than two orders of magnitude with respect to the energy content of uranium (transmuted into plutonium), distracted, sloppy frankly and absurdly narrow review of the literature, (as is described in Part 2 of this series) it is easy to see why no one, absolutely no one, least of all me, is inspired to stop a consideration of, or research into, isolating uranium from seawater because, to quote the blog poster (see Part 2 of this series) who inspired this series, “Ugo Bardi has in his study ‘Extracting Minerals from Seawater’ analyzed the economic viability of extracting various metals from sea water and found limited grounds for optimism due to huge energy cost…”
One of the more annoying things about “peak oilers” in general, in my view, is that they are conservatives: They believe that everything must be done exactly as it always has been done and that no new or different should be attempted, ever. This is why these people can’t imagine a world not run on oil, and why oil obsesses them, despite the fact that it is a pernicious and wholly unnecessary fuel.
In any case, the point is immediately meaningless. As I pointed out previously in an earlier post in this space, the energy content of the “depleted” uranium already mined and fully refined, if converted into plutonium and fissioned, along with thorium content present in lanthanide mine tailings from “renewable energy” waste dumps, if converted to 233U is easily sufficient to provide for all of humanity’s energy needs, probably for one to two centuries, depending on the living standards we provide for the planet’s citizens and the number of said citizens.
Even so, the point is that there probably is no such thing as “peak uranium,” no matter how far into the future as we would like to project, as disappointing as this might be to “peakers.” This is not because nuclear energy is “renewable” any more than wind turbines are “renewable.” Uranium is, again, irreversibly destroyed when used to make energy, fissioned into other useful elements. What makes uranium unique is that it is inexhaustible owing to the fact that for as long as the atmosphere contains both oxygen and carbon dioxide, it is sufficiently soluble in seawater as to be available for isolation. Again, this is only true because of the extreme energy density of uranium. For fuel purposes, one would only need to fission somewhat less than 15,000 metric tons per year to provide 800 -1000 exajoules of energy for a putative planetary population. (Current energy consumption is on the order of 560 exajoules per year.) Bardi, owing to his poor understanding of nuclear technology, indicates that we currently use 65,000 tons per year, as thus will always need 65,000 tons a year, but again, as a conservative who believes that no technology can be changed, he is relying on the “once through” fuel cycle with the requirement most of the uranium recovered from the sea be dumped somewhere.
But couldn’t we deplete the ocean’s uranium? Probably not. A geological cycle operates on earth, with uranium constantly washing off continental surfaces – where it is continuously deposited by volcanic action and concentrated by weathering, as well as leaching out of “MORBs” (Mid-Ocean Ridge Basalts) and in a process of continuous sedimentation, and crustal drift, subducting into the crust and mantle. The four to five billion tons of uranium found in the ocean represents only a tiny fraction of the uranium contained in this cycle, limited by the solubility of uranium’s carbonate complex, which, while higher than many other elements, is still rather low. The uranium in this cycle is actually has apparently isotopically fractionated, beginning about 600 million years ago when oxygen concentrations rose to a level to support the dissolution of uranium in seawater and is depleted with respect to the 235U isotope, and moreover is more dilute in total uranium than is the “bulk earth.” “OIB’s” (Ocean Island Basalts) are thought to originate from magma deeper in the earth’s mantle, perhaps from hotspots. Uranium concentrations in these rocks can be two orders of magnitude higher in concentration than MORB’s.
The potential for continuous continental recharge of uranium to the sea can be seen from the relatively high uranium content of relatively recent (at least on a geological time scale) lava flows. At Mono Lake in California, the dying lake mentioned in Part 1 of this series, examination of lava flows from the Long Valley caldera vents, dated by 238U/230Th disequilibrium to about 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, contain the mineral allanite with a composition of between 30 and 65 ppm of uranium, and interestingly, some samples containing up to 1% of the alternate nuclear fuel thorium have been analyzed. (Allanite also contains, like many thorium formations, significant lanthanides.) It is worth noting that the main reason that Mono Lake is dying – and it is dying – is the diversion of its water flows to Los Angeles. Some of LA’s drinking water percolates through (gasp) uranium formations. Similarly, some garnets in the ejecta of the well-known and more recent eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy which destroyed the city of Pompeii a little under 2000 years ago are uranium rich, with concentrations of approximately 20 ppm U and thorium concentrations which are slightly higher.
Riverine and to some extent wind driven dust and volcanic ash continually deliver this uranium on exposed and weathered surfaces to the ocean. For example, the rivers draining into Canada’s Hudson Bay, despite the fact that the flows – particularly from the Nelson River – have been reduced because of hydroelectric plants by up to 30%, and despite the fact that many rivers flow actively only seasonally, deliver 3.4 X 105 moles (about 80 tons) of uranium into the bay each year. Chabaux collected reported data from 33 major rivers and found that these rivers transport more than 5400 tons of uranium per year. Major rivers like the Nile, the Danube, the Volga, the Murray Darling, and the Colorado, for just some examples, weren’t included.
In the case of the Colorado, it’s just as well: The need for so called “renewable energy” as well as the exigent need to provide for water for fountains in Las Vegas, carwashes in LA, and golf courses in the Mohave Desert have completely destroyed the Colorado River Delta and its ecosystem and the river is almost always dried up before a drop of its water makes it to the Gulf of California. Thus the uranium in the river – which should be expected to be significant owing to the fact that the river snakes through a region of rich uranium ores, some of which have been mined – all ends up where the water ends up. This, of course, includes the agricultural fields of the Imperial Valley, the source of much of the winter table produce of the United States.
Interestingly four of the five rivers that carry the most uranium according to Chabaux’s paper have their source in the Himalayas, the top two being the Indus and the Ganges – which was discussed at some length in Part I of the series – at, respectively, 1176 tons per year, and the Ganges, at 900 tons per year. Rounding out the top five on this (limited) list are Yangtse (763 tons), the Brahmaputra (612 tons) and the Mississippi (530 tons). It has been estimated that the total flow of uranium from rivers alone is 42.5 +/- 14.5 million moles per year, which translates, at an atomic weight for uranium at 238 g/mol to about 10,100 tons per year. Riverine transport is not the only source of uranium flows into the ocean. Additional uranium flows into the ocean through the leaching of fresh ground water into the ocean, as well as from hydrothermal vents, submarine volcanos, volcanic ash, and drifting dust from rocks eroded from the wind, and remobilization of uranium containing sediments.
Estimates of the total uranium budget of the ocean have been made, with the assumption that the ocean is at a steady state with respect to uranium, with input matching output, the output being largely precipitation as sediment. The reported figures in the paper just referenced is that the input flux is between 34 and 60 million moles of uranium, which translates to between roughly 8,000 tons/year and 14,000 tons per year. The energy equivalent of this yearly uranium washed to the sea, if converted to plutonium and fissioned is between 640 exajoules and 1,200 exajoules. Recall from earlier parts of this series that the most recent figures we have for worldwide annual energy consumption from all sources of energy employed by humanity, all the coal, all the oil, all the gas, all the nuclear energy, now produced, including all the hydroelectricity, and all of the thus far unimportant wind, solar, and geothermal energy industries was about 560 exajoules per year.
One of the strong uranium removal sinks are coastal marshes, in particular salt marshes. Coastal uranium fluxes are on the order of 11 million moles per year (210 metric tons). As we have chosen to burn coal, oil and gas instead of uranium, and thus have chosen, among other things, to kill huge numbers of people every year with air pollution and to destroy vast swaths of natural habitat, we expect that many existing marshes around the world will be inundated with seawater and destroyed. In this case the uranium budget for the ocean will be correspondingly larger.
Thus even if removed from the ocean, uranium will be ultimately recharged to it. It’s clearly safe to assume that if the world was making and fissioning enough uranium (converted into plutonium) per year derived from seawater to fuel all of humanity’s energy needs, humanity would never run out of it. Seen this way, the ocean and the rivers draining into it are giant uranium continuously operating extraction devices, driven, ironically enough, from the decay heat of the vast quantities of uranium and thorium – and their decay daughters -contained in the planet’s interior. To repeat, because of the extreme energy density of uranium processed into plutonium, only small, manageable amounts of it are required. Thus because uranium is inexhaustible, it is therefore “sustainable.”
“Sustainable” and “renewable” are different words, by the way, and they mean vastly different things, irrespective of ill-considered current fashion to use them interchangeably. Only in the case where the ability to renew may be indefinitely maintained do they approximate equivalence. As I argued in part 2 of this series, the mass requirement for constructing so called “renewable energy” infrastructure is almost certainly not sufficient to make it “sustainable.” In fact, the use of the word “renewable” is this context is nothing more than doublespeak.
It is worth noting that naturally occurring mechanisms exist for the concentration of uranium from seawater (and for that matter, from fresh water). Although many, if not all, species of coral are likely to go extinct in the lifetimes of people now living as the ocean acidifies, the organisms are excellent concentrators of oceanic uranium. Specimens of coral analyzed in 2006 utilizing one of the more sensitive ICP-MS instruments available at that time, the Agilent 7500 instrument, were found to have uranium concentrations of 2,761.5 +/- 6.5 ppb, as compared to concentrations of uranium of approximately 3.1 ppb in seawater samples taken nearby. If we lose many, most or all coral species – cynical pessimist that I am, I worry that we will – it may be an option to preserve part of its genome for insertion into other species to accomplish the same task, algae for instance.
However, it may not prove necessary to discover the proteins – presumably they are proteins – and their coding genes in coral in order to engineer organisms that concentrate uranium. In a very interesting paper published last year, scientists at Beijing University, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory screened protein data bases to identify proteins containing structural motifs that seemed suitable for the complexation of the dioxouranyl (VI) cation. This cation, complexed with carbonate, is the ion found in seawater in an oxidizing environment. They searched for proteins containing five or six equatorial coordinating atoms displaying either a pentagonal of hexagonal bipyramid structure with a binding pocket of appropriate size. They wrote a program they called URANTEIN to conduct the search, whereupon they identified a protein found in a species of anaerobic bacteria, Methanobacterium thermoautotrophicum- isolated from sewage sludge in Urbana, IL – that fit the bill. Upon isolating the protein, they then engaged in a mutagenic exercise in which they optimized to protein (for the purpose of extracting uranium) by the use of synthetic genes with appropriate substitutions, inserted these into cells, cultured them, lysed them, and isolated the new protein, which was shown to concentrate uranium from solutions in the femtomolar range, far more dilute than seawater. It is easy to imagine inserting this gene into any number of organisms suitable for use in a particular set of circumstances: The protein is apparently quite rugged and exhibits high thermal stability.
In practice the authors engineered an E. Coli organism to display the protein on its surface, with the result that 60% of the uranium in synthetic seawater was extracted from it. As is noted in the news item accompanying the paper in the Nature Chemistry journal in which it appeared, it is possible of course, that chemists might steal a page from medicinal chemists and synthesize peptides (probably left in the solid phase and not cleaved from the resin used in the solid phase peptide synthesis) that mimic the epitopic region (or pseudoepitopic region – since the uranium coordinating site may not prove to be catalytic) to do the extraction. Otherwise they might further steal from medicinal chemistry by designing a peptidomimetic isostere (as are many of the new drugs designed by medicinal chemists) of the epitopic or pseudoepitopic region of the mutant protein they designed for the purpose of sequestering uranium. From my perspective however, an engineered organism is likely to be cheaper and more easily sustained, since by definition, living systems are self replicating.
This is a very elegant paper, I think.
Take that, Ugo Bardi!
In the real world, regrettably, genetic engineering of course is, like nuclear energy, the target of lots of harsh rhetoric from people who know nothing at all about it but hate it anyway, although the process of such engineering has been going on for billions of years. (It’s called “evolution.”) So, as is the case with nuclear energy, nuclear energy being, again, the last best hope of humanity, while it is almost certainly technically feasible to insert genes for the concentration of uranium into some organism, such a technology is likely to fail the political feasibility test. I remind the reader again, however, that political feasibility has nothing at all to do with ethics or sustainability. On the contrary, what is politically possible is often at cross purposes with what is good and just for humanity as a whole.
We’ll return below to some alternate technologies for the isolation of uranium from very dilute sources, including seawater, but first let’s talk a little about politics, which is often the cover word for the main drawback for the expansion of nuclear energy to a scale that can do whatever remains possible for saving the world: “Public perception.”
In recent times, politically, too much weight has been awarded to people and organizations that are pseudo environmental but in fact, serve only to foster ignorance, superstition, and paranoia that are entirely inconsistent with the achievement of environmental goals without the simultaneous wholesale abandonment of human development goals. One can only imagine, for example, the backward bourgeois benighted brats at Greenpeace, for instance, contemplating the insertion of soon to be extinct coral genes into bacterial or other organisms to collect uranium, or even more to the point of blowing their tiny little minds, a synthetic mutant gene into a bacterium, something that has already been demonstrated with E. Coli.
I am hardly innocent in the facilitation of this very dubious state of affairs. Let me discuss my own political views, irrespective of their relevance (although one should be aware of the biases of any writer).
I’m political liberal in the United States, but (and I hope this doesn’t sound oxymoronic), an old fashioned one. By “old fashioned” liberal, I mean that I am interested not focused entirely on the lives of the “most successful” citizens – if you count the accumulation of wealth for its own sake and no other purpose as “success” – but rather on fairness: decent living conditions; economic, political, and legal justice; openness of opportunity for precisely those citizens the most in need, as opposed to those citizens who already possess everything they need – or will ever need – but want more anyway. As such, I believe that the most important opportunity, not only for our youngest citizens, although clearly they should be the focus for anyone who cares about the future, but for all of our citizens, is the opportunity to educate oneself, not merely for economic advancement, but also as a source of what might be called, for lack of a better term, “spiritual” depth.
In saying this I am not necessarily appealing to putative noumenal universe, whose definition, including those faiths I have held, has been the source of so much trouble since the dawn of civilization, but rather for the intrinsic beauty of universe in itself, as seen by the tools applied to the “ordinary” senses (as if they were ordinary), as seen not only in the microscopic – one might also say “nanoscopic” or “picoscopic” or “femtoscopic” or “attoscopic” – universe, but of the macroscopic universe as well. In our age we are ever approaching new edges of spacetime, at the same time as we peer into a quantum universe with bizarre excitements beyond the ken of normal human experience. If one sees the universe, feels the universe, if one is allowed the privilege of doing so, one must be filled with transcendent, ineffable awe. My hope is that that anyone who desires to see this would be able to do so.
Without extending any real phenomenological import to their ideas, since being exposed to them, I have taken a certain liberating satisfaction – “spiritual” satisfaction if you will – in the concepts explored by Frank Tipler and John Barrow in their book, “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle,” an argument that the purpose of the universe is to be seen.
Thus my “liberalism,” such as it is, is about vision itself and as such, is very much connected to the idea that the future matters.
In the United States we have, really, only two political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, neither of which can really be imaginative within the constraints of banal politics, and neither of which can possibly reflect the real views of even the tiniest fraction of their members. It has come to my attention that a large segment, regrettably probably the majority, of the members of my party, the party for which I vote reflexively – that would be the Democratic Party – has a reflexive attachment, at least where energy is concerned, to ideas that are simply silly cant. I am speaking here of the dogmatically dullard view that so called “renewable” energy is more sustainable than nuclear energy, and that nuclear energy is somehow, at best, to be avoided, at worst eliminated. In these times these are very dangerous, very toxic, ideas. The people expressing these very dangerous ideas – “fatal ideas” might not be too strong a phrase – go so far even as to define so called “renewable” energy as “sustainable” energy although, as I have been endeavoring to show, it is neither sustainable or, in fact, renewable.
To be fair, the United States historically was once a pioneering country in nuclear energy, where once upon a time liberal thinkers were enthusiastic supporters of its industrialization. Most of these – Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg, in many ways the father of the commercial nuclear enterprise in this country, comes to mind – were Democrats. Times change. The fact is, many political liberals, many in the American Democratic Party, today are openly hostile to the sensible notion that nuclear energy is, in fact, not an anathema, but is rather our last best environmental hope. In short, many American Democrats are completely clueless about environmental issues.
To wit: We may contrast my “old fashioned” liberalism with what passes for “liberalism” in modern times , the banal, barely literate worship of billionaires like Egon Musk, whose Tesla car for millionaires and his fellow billionaires generates so much enthusiasm, even though it’s useless, unsustainable, and unavailable on any meaningful scale, liberalism we might define as “consumer liberalism” as if consumption itself were an environmental goal.
(None of my contempt for some ideas prevalent in the American Democratic Party, of which I am a member, is to imply that I am willing to vote for the other party, which in my view is comfy with racists, oil men and other oligarchs, this while being hostile to the very people we once advertised, by inscribing an excerpt of Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty, as being the very people we wanted in our country. Politically, I’m between a rock and a hard place, but I’m sure that many Americans feel that way, which is why so many of us, if not me, stay home during election days.)
In any case, if I claim I am interested in the future, that the future is my focus, well then, this claim certainly raises a serious issue of hypocrisy!
In the discussion above about the inexhaustibility of uranium, it would seem that I am advancing an argument that is essentially placing the onus for doing the things about which I speak with future generations, i.e. some centuries hence, when we’ve burned all the surface minable uranium. I freely confess that this bears an uncanny and unfortunate correspondence to those who drive in gasoline powered cars to solar rallies or who indirectly burn gas and coal (and some oil) to power websites telling us about the grand wind powered future replete with swell Tesla cars in which they our expect our grandchildren and their grandchildren will be required to live without being offered any other alternative.
Let me step away from that flaw in my focus and insert an argument that there is good reason for making artificial high quality uranium ores from dilute sources now as opposed to some far off future when terrestrial uranium ores are fully consumed. Now, of course, it is politically probably too much to ask of own generation possessed only with its transitory obsessions own luxury – the future be damned – but perhaps we can appeal to these obsessive self-interests to inspire ourselves to do the right thing and prepare these artificial uranium ores right now.
As is well known, many elements in the periodic table are toxic, and uranium, although it is ubiquitous, is one of them. Even if the radioactivity hazard of uranium when isolated from its decay daughters is trivial, the chemical hazard, is not. Like many other relatively common naturally occurring elements in the periodic table, again, lead for instance, cadmium for instance, selenium for instance, and in the case of many other examples, uranium is biochemically toxic.
As was discussed at some length in Part I, we have seen that the Ganges River, which we will discuss again shortly, is involved in arsenic flows, with the result that its delta has accumulated large amounts of this toxic element in fossilized groundwater in Bangladesh, where it has become a serious health threat associated with “the largest mass poisoning in history.” Bengalis have been drinking pumped groundwater and irrigating their rice fields with ground water in contact with significant mineralized arsenic.
As it happens, I live in an area served by groundwater. All the homes in my neighborhood, my own included, have private wells. Arsenic is not a naturally occurring contaminant in well water where I live – uranium and its daughters, radium and radon are, but arsenic is not – but nonetheless, I had my well tested for arsenic, mostly because of the wide use in this area which includes large suburban estates, some with significant fencing for horse corals or for deer fencing to protect agricultural fields and ornamental landscaping, of chromated copper arsenate as a wood preservative on fence posts, telephone poles, and wooden retaining walls.
As I considered the question of whether my well would have arsenic above the WHO defined limit of 10 μg/L, I began to think about how I would remediate the problem, should it exist. Commercial arsenic removal systems are sold; what they are essentially is finely divided particulate iron oxides, since these oxides have a high affinity for arsenic. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the average American family uses about 300 gallons of water a day for home use; let’s say, for my home, 1000 liters per day. If my home were just at the action level, 10 μg/L, each day my system would collect about a milligram of arsenic, and each year, something approaching 400 mg, which is about two lethal doses of arsenic for an adult human being. In this case – in the end it turned out that my water was not that contaminated – I would have been wise to replace the filtration system every year or so, lest the arsenic somehow got re-mobilized. Of course, then I would need to dispose of the filter, which would contain potentially toxic doses. In fact, the matrices of arsenic separation have been evaluated for leaching after disposal, and they do, in fact, leach arsenic.
The point is this: Since arsenic cannot be destroyed (except in the esoteric and impractical case where it would be transmuted in a neutron flux into selenium, which is also toxic) I would be ultimately creating a new problem for anyone in a future generation living in the vicinity of the landfill where my used arsenic filters were dumped. In the case of the town where I live, the landfill in question is not all that far from where I live, and I would not be surprised to learn that some of the groundwater where I live has at least some landfill leachate contained in it.
Suppose we lived in a civilized world as opposed to the one in which we actually live, where a massive international effort were made to address the much greater problem of arsenic in the poor nation of Bangladesh, where, again, tens of millions of people are being poisoned by naturally occurring deposits of the element. Supposed we filtered all affected water in Bangladesh to remove arsenic. The collection filters, whatever technology they involved, would contain prodigious amounts of arsenic; we may imagine scales on hundreds, thousands of tons being collected, a massive accumulation of highly toxic “waste.” On the other hand, in Part 2 we saw that in at least one of the periodic tables we saw that arsenic is listed as one of the elements that is expected to face serious threats to its availability in the next century. Be that as it may, arsenic, which is an important constituent of many semiconductor devices, as well as having other uses (including, ironically enough, some medical uses) is actually quite an inexpensive element, with prices that are generally lower than $2,000 (US) per metric ton, with the US demand for the element being on the order of 6,000 metric tons per year.
It’s conceivable that arsenic demand may rise: In Part 4 of this series, we will look at yet another periodic table like those we saw in Part 2, this one on the subject of what elements are actually truly recyclable from the products which they are used to manufacture, and which are, in fact, irreversibly dissipated. As it happens, it has been claimed that the “record” efficiency for solar cells – many of these claims, if not this one, are dubious – are based on gallium arsenide. Let’s pretend for a moment that solar PV energy someday becomes a significant source of energy – it won’t, but let’s pretend – then in this case, to the extent that gallium arsenide is used, distributed energy will become distributed arsenic, and to the extent that such arsenic is “distributed” it may also become, as well “dissipated.”
According to one account the requirement for irrigation water in Bangladesh is about 33 cubic kilometers. Suppose that the mean concentration of arsenic in this water was exactly at the action level, 10 µg/L – actually many wells have levels that exceed this amount by more than 500% – and that some of the available technologies for arsenic removal were employed for all of this water, with a recovery of 90% of the arsenic. It follows that about 300 metric tons of arsenic would be collected each year, a modest amount. The value of this arsenic, at current prices, would also be modest, about $600,000 (US). Nevertheless, depending on the technology used for separating it, assuming that said technology would allow for reversible elution of the arsenic, the sale of the arsenic would certainly not come close to paying the cost of removing the arsenic for health reasons, it might help to defray some costs, especially the cost of disposal, by selling the arsenic to people who are interested in utilizing arsenic to make gallium arsenide semiconductors. Further, the sale of arsenic collected from the river would have a hidden economic and ethical benefit inasmuch as the arsenic collected would be arsenic that would not need to be mined. And let’s be clear, arsenic mining should not be expected to be devoid of health effects on miners, far from it.
In some cases for uranium, a few of which we will examine below, this is the result of anthropomorphic activities associated with mining and processing for the manufacture of nuclear armaments as well as for industrial nuclear power, but in others it a simple fact of geology. Neither can we claim that anthropomorphic sources are solely limited to nuclear armaments and nuclear power: For example, as things stand right now, rather large quantities of uranium are routinely distributed on agricultural fields, owing to the affinity that uranium displays for phosphates. (Historically these phosphate ores were evaluated as potential sources of uranium, but higher grade ores were found. Had they been exploited for nuclear fuel purposes, of course, the uranium they contained would not have ended up on agricultural fields, but no matter…)
Earlier in this document we saw that the Ganges River, the Indus and the Brahmaputra which transport combined, almost 2700 tons of uranium per year. Presumably – almost certainly – considerable amount of the waters of these rivers are diverted for irrigation of agricultural fields with their uranium content accumulating in the fields. Suppose the Indian government decided to remove this naturally occurring uranium from the rivers for health reasons, as opposed to the desire to collect uranium, using something like retrievable amidoxime functionalized resins simply placed in the rivers with their waters allowed to flow over them. Suppose too, that the goal was to remove 90% of the uranium. In this case, India would be collecting about 2400 tons of uranium per year. Converted to plutonium – India has newly constructed breeder reactor capacity, as well as the capacity to utilize 233U derived from its large thorium reserves in heavy water reactors – the recovered uranium would be able to provide close to 200 exajoules of energy per year, nearly twice the energy consumption of the United States. The cost of this uranium would not matter; selling it would merely offset the cost of improving the quality of Indian river water by removing naturally occurring radioactive materials (often referred to in the literature as “NORM”), from its rivers.
If one refers to Ugo Bardi’s weak argument about the cost of isolating uranium from seawater – I actually think it’s not worth the time to do so – one will encounter an elaborate comparison of collecting putative uranium resins from the sea to the cost of collecting fish from the sea. In the case just described, of course, the argument would be meaningless. India, which surprisingly given the magnitude of its riverine water flows – probably tied to the historically high oxygen content of the river – has no real high quality uranium ores, and intends to rely on thorium, for which it has large reserves, would then have sufficient uranium to meet all of its domestic energy needs simply by cleaning its rivers. The resins might be hauled in and out of the rivers (or irrigation canals, or near intake pumps) with simple winches. Were this to happen, India’s thorium, along with uranium collected in a “clean up” process, could make India an energy exporter rather than importer.
There is no technical reason that this could not be done next year, not only in Indian rivers, but in all of the other places where uranium contaminates water supplies, whether the reason is associated with NORM type uranium or whether it is the result of residual anthropogenic uranium leaching resulting sloppy primitive uranium mining or processing technologies that were employed in the mid twentieth century.
A recent review of the subject, relying heavily on uranium extraction technologies whose only goal is to produce uranium (see the notes attached to reference 10) that the estimates of the cost of these technologies come in at between $400/kg – $1000/kg as compared to terrestrial (mined) uranium costs of approximately $100/kg. Although the author refers, if obliquely to the possibility of such collection as a side product of other efforts – the idea of using ocean going ships (conceivably nuclear powered) to collect oceanic uranium as they transport goods – it is clear that the approaches discussed miss an important point.
As an environmentalist, I personally regard the whole desalination scheme – if adopted widely as it may well be – with deep suspicion. Certainly changing the saline gradients of the oceans will not have only huge ecological effects, but will also affect ocean currents, and in so doing, further destabilize already destabilized weather patterns. On the other hand, as a humanist, I consider that desalination may be required, perhaps in many places, for human survival. (We are in a bad place until we figure out how to manage our numbers.)
This year, a one billion dollar desalination plant in Carlsbad, San Diego County, California will be completed as a result of the near collapse of that state’s traditional water supplies, run off from the Sierra Nevada mountain snows. The desalination plant will intake about 378,000,000 liters of water per day, consuming, as average continuous power about 40 MW of electricity, and isolate about half of its intake as drinkable fresh water, dumping the other half, concentrated brine – diluted with industrial waste water – back into the ocean. The plant’s capacity is said to be capable of providing just 7% of the fresh water consumption of San Diego County. The plant will operate out of a lagoon maintained by a power plant which burns the single most important source of primary energy for the generation of electric power in that increasingly anti-nuke state of California, dangerous natural gas. Using the figures above, one can show that the amount of uranium that could be recovered from this oceanic water intake is about 450 kg per year. Converted to plutonium, this uranium would produce an average continuous power output of primary energy of around 1100 MW. In this case uranium (and possibly other metals) would be obtained as a side product in the isolation of water refining, much as indium, as described in Part 2 of this series, is obtained as a side product of zinc refining, thus reducing the cost of indium to a lower value than is suggested by the “Sherwood Plots” described in Part 2.
As an aside, an interesting approach to desalination – however dubious it is from an environmental perspective – is by raising seawater to supercritical temperatures and pressures. (The supercritical phase is a phase in which there no distinction between a liquid and a gas.) In reverse of the property of liquid water, most salts are insoluble in supercritical water. The case has been recently discussed, as an approach to “brine free” salt separations from seawater, in a very interesting paper, although the process has performed, at least where this paper is concerned, only on a lab scale. In the case where supercritical water is provided by nuclear heating, the expansion/phase change of the supercritical water to give superheated steam released against a turbine, might give a series of Rankine cycles (as the emerging steam would still be hot enough to boil water) operating at high efficiency to provide electricity. Alternatively this heat might be used for thermochemical splitting of water to provide hydrogen for the captive synthesis of fluid fuels. Thus, since supercritical water exists at temperatures in excess of 373oC and pressures of roughly 22 MPa, about 217 times atmospheric pressure, the energy of desalination is partially recovered.
We’ll discuss uranium collection from other dilute sources shortly, but another of my trade mark asides:
In Part 2, we noted that even though it is fairly small scale, and just getting underway, there have already been two fatalities, and a high incidence of illnesses and injuries from working with either recycled or fresh indium tin oxide. A recent paper evaluating the desirability of recycling solar cells, including CIGS (Copper Indium Gallium Selenide) solar cells, makes no reference whatsoever to the health implications of indium recycling, nor should it, since this may interfere with the official internationally endorsed notion that solar energy is “green” and thus without risk. Interestingly, the authors of the paper suggest that the recycling of CIGS solar cells will “only” reduce the energy payback time by 3% for these cells, despite professed agnosticism on what the indium recycling technology might involve. This, of course, is just another example of “hand waving.” Indium recycling is a fairly hot topic, given the expected shortages of the element. A recent process evaluation of indium recycling suggests finely grinding ITO coated glass and oxidizing the indium in it and oxidizing the indium with hydrochloric acid in the presence of manganese dioxide. This is a dangerous enterprise.
Now, if anyone dies from the indium processing involved in making – or possibly recycling – solar cells, they will be largely ignored. No one will care. This is very different than the situation I am about to describe with respect to historical uranium mining.
As I prepared this work, I took some time to wander around the stacks of the Firestone Library at Princeton University where, within a few minutes, without too much effort, I was able to assemble a small pile of books on the terrible case of the Dine (Navajo) uranium miners who worked in the mid-20th century, resulting in higher rates of lung cancer than the general population. The general theme of these books if one leafs through them is this: In the late 1940’s mysterious people, military syndics vaguely involved with secret US government activities show up on the Dine (Navajo) Reservation in the “Four Corners” region of the United States, knowing that uranium is “dangerous” and/or “deadly” to convince naïve and uneducated Dine (Navajos) to dig the “dangerous ore” while concealing its true “deadly” nature. The uranium ends up killing many of the miners, thus furthering the long American history of genocide against the Native American peoples. There is a conspiratorial air to all of it; it begins, in these accounts, with the cold warrior American military drive to produce nuclear arms and then is enthusiastically taken up by the “evil” and “venal” conspirators who foist the “crime” of nuclear energy on an unsuspecting American public, this while killing even more innocent Native Americans.
I am an American. One of my side interests is a deep, if non-professional, reading of American History. Often we Americans present our history in triumphalist terms, but any serious and honest examination of our history reveals two imperishable stains on our history that we cannot and should not deny. One, of course, is our long and violent history of officially endorsed racism, including 250 years of institutionalized human slavery. The related other stain is the stain of the open and official policy of genocide against Native Americans: There is no softer word than “genocide.” Both episodes, each of which took place of a period on a scale centuries, were policies with open and “legal” sanctioning of the citizens of the United States and their “democratic” government, and were often justified by some of our most educated and influential leaders. I cannot reflect on my country without reflecting on these dire facts. I am not here to deny the role that genocide played in our history, and I note with some regret that the last people born within the borders of the United States to achieve full citizenship rights – this took place only in 1924 – were the descendants of the first human beings to walk here, our Native American brothers and sisters.
Still, one wonders, was hiring Dine/Navajo uranium miners yet another case of official deliberate racism as the pile of books in the Firestone library strongly implied?
A publication in 2009 evaluated the cause of deaths among uranium miners on the Colorado Plateau and represented a follow up of a study of the health of these miners, 4,137 of them, of whom 3,358 were “white” (Caucasian) and 779 of whom were “non-white.” Of the 779 “non-white” we are told that 99% of them were “American Indians,” i.e. Native Americans. We may also read that the median year of birth for these miners, white and Native American, was 1922, meaning that a miner born in the median year would have been 83 years old in 2005, the year to which the follow up was conducted. (The oldest miner in the data set was born in 1913; the youngest was born in 1931.) Of the miners who were evaluated, 2,428 of them had died at the time the study was conducted, 826 of whom died after 1990, when the median subject would have been 68 years old.
Let’s ignore the “white” people; they are irrelevant in these accounts.
Of the Native American miners, 536 died before 1990, and 280 died in the period between 1991and 2005, meaning that in 2005, only 13 survived. Of course, if none of the Native Americans had ever been in a mine of any kind, never mind uranium mines, this would have not rendered them immortal. (Let’s be clear no one writes pathos inspiring books about the Native American miners in the Kayenta or Black Mesa coal mines, both of which were operated on Native American reservations in the same general area as the uranium mines.) Thirty-two of the Native American uranium miners died in car crashes, 8 were murdered, 8 committed suicide, and 10 died from things like falling into a hole, or collision with an “object.” Fifty-four of the Native American uranium miners died from cancers that were not lung cancer. The “Standard Mortality Ratio,” or SMR for this number of cancer deaths that were not lung cancer was 0.85, with the 95% confidence level extending from 0.64 to 1.11. The “Standard Mortality Ratio” is the ratio, of course, the ratio between the number of deaths observed in the study population (in this case Native American Uranium Miners) to the number of deaths that would have been expected in a control population. At an SMR of 0.85, thus 54 deaths is (54/.085) – 54 = -10. Ten fewer Native American uranium miners died from “cancers other than lung cancer” than would have been expected in a population of that size. At the lower 95% confidence limit SMR, 0.64, the number would be 31 fewer deaths from “cancers other than lung cancer,” whereas at the higher limit SMR, 1.11, 5 additional deaths would have been recorded, compared with the general population.
Lung cancer, of course, tells a very different story. Ninety-two Native American uranium miners died of lung cancer. Sixty-three of these died before 1990; twenty-nine died after 1990. The SMR for the population that died in the former case was 3.18, for the former 3.27. This means the expected number of deaths would have been expected in the former case was 20, in the latter case, 9. Thus the excess lung cancer deaths among Native American uranium miners was 92 – (20 +9) = 63.
I had a friend whose parents were each diagnosed with lung cancer – they were cigarette smokers – within a few weeks of each other. (They were descended from Irish immigrants, had no Native American blood, and neither had mined uranium, although the father was an executive at a company that sold petroleum products for home heating.) The father, the second parent diagnosed, informed the mother that his case was much worse than hers.
“Why is that, honey?” the mother asked.
“Because it’s mine,” he replied.
(Remarkably, the father survived for more than 30 years after his diagnosis, the mother died within a few years of hers.)
My father was a cigarette smoker by the way, and lung cancer killed him. It is a horrible way to die, gasping for air while your lungs fill with blood and other fluids.
“Because it’s mine…”
Statistics are no comfort to a family member who has watched a family member die of cancer. It’s a gut wrenching process, and, trust me, the emotions connected with it never go away. One learns to live with these emotions, but they never go away: (Personally I still despise cigarette companies and all the people who work in them.)
I’m sure that nearly every member of the families of the 92 Native American uranium miners who died from lung cancer despises uranium mining, even if there is, crudely, without any more sophisticated Bayesian type analysis, a (92-63)/92 = .33 probability that the particular cancers were not caused by uranium mining. We can probably add the families of the other 54 Native Americans who died from cancers other than lung cancer to this list, even if fewer Native Americans died of other cancers than would have been expected in a similar sized population. This is human nature. I’m quite sure if you heard their stories personally, if you’re a human being, you would be moved. And you can hear their personal stories anytime you want; like I said, people never tire of writing books about the Native American uranium miners who died from lung cancer.
On the other hand, roughly 7 million people will die this year from air pollution. Of these, about 3.3 million will die from “ambient particulate air pollution” – chiefly resulting from the combustion of dangerous coal and dangerous petroleum, although some will come from the combustion of “renewable” biofuels. Every single person living on the face of this planet and, in fact, practically every organism on this planet is continuously exposed to dangerous fossil fuel waste, and every person on this planet and practically every organism on this planet contains dangerous fossil fuel waste. The only way to stop dangerous fossil fuel waste from accumulating in your flesh is to stop breathing, which is, of course, what some people do as a result of such accumulation, many of them as a result of, um, getting lung cancer. This means that about 6.3 people die every minute, on average, from “ambient particulate air pollution.” Seen in this purely clinical way, this means that all of the Native American uranium miners dying from all cancers, 93 lung cancer deaths and 54 deaths from other cancers, measured over three or four decades, represent about 23 minutes of deaths taking place continuously, without let up, from dangerous fossil fuel pollution.
The total number of deaths of air pollution – including both ambient particulate (outdoor) air pollution, ambient ozone and indoor air pollution, resulting largely from burning “renewable” biofuels (along with some dangerous coal) indoors – is 70 million in the last decade, more people than died in the Second World War. Again, in a few minutes of walking around the Princeton University library I was able to collect five books on the subject of Native American uranium miners, a ratio of roughly one book for every 20 miners who died from lung cancer. If we cared as much for the 70 million dead as we do for Native American uranium miners, the library would need to contain something on the order of 3.5 million such books, easily overwhelming the library’s space. (The Princeton University libraries are huge; the university’s library system is probably one of the best library systems in the world.) Were we to care as much for the tens millions who died as compared to the roughly one hundred Dine uranium miners who got lung cancer, I could spend my whole lifetime collecting such books, without ever pausing to open one up and actually read the pathos inspiring accounts within.
Now, some of the uranium mined by the Native American miners was utilized in the American participation in the exceedingly stupid (and expensive) international effort to wire the planet to blow itself up. Happily the number of people actually killed by the nuclear weapons at the core of this wiring exercise which took place after 1945 is zero, which is 70 million lower than the number of people who died from air pollution in the last ten years. On the other hand, some of this same uranium also ended up in American nuclear power plants, more than 100 of which operated over the last half of the 20th century, preventing the release of billions of tons of dangerous fossil fuel waste while preventing the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives that would have been otherwise lost to the effects of air pollution if coal and been burned to displace the uranium (and plutonium) fissioned. Seen in this way, the 93 Native American uranium miners gave their lives so that others might live, a practice seen in many ethical systems as exceedingly noble, which is not to say that the miners agreed to this trade-off, or even that they or anyone else at all recognized that this outcome would ultimately be obtained but still…still…
There is, by the way, some notice these days of the problem of coal mining on Native American lands in the same general area of the uranium mines as although I have no idea if anyone actually writes books about the subject. Without appeal to any knowledge of the composition of the specific coal ash from the Kayenta (and other) coal mines on Native American lands, I would expect that this ash is particularly rich in uranium, given that the area contains large amounts of naturally occurring ores of the element. It has been argued that in some cases the uranium content of coal ash has a larger energy value than the coal from which it originated.
The area mined on Indian lands, by the way, still contains significant uranium “contamination” from uranium and its decay daughters as well as a number of other elements, including arsenic. On the Dine reservation, there are thought to be about 1100 abandoned uranium mining sites. The authors of the paper just cited note that there are many unregulated water sources in the areas of these abandoned mines and they set out to measure the concentration of these elements in a few representative water sources near one such abandoned mine. They evaluate spring water some 5 km from the mine as well as water seeping the abandoned mine. In the two seeping water sources they evaluate, they find uranium concentrations that are 163 and 169 μg/L and from the two springs they find uranium concentrations that are 67 and 135 μg/L. The WHO guideline for uranium content in water is 15 μg/L. Thus the mine seepage is about 11 times higher than the recommended upper limit proposed by WHO, and the two springs are about 4 and 9 times higher than the recommended amount. The fact that the springs have such concentrations by the way suggests that uranium exposure has always been an issue for the Dine people, long before there was any mining of the element on their land, indeed long before Klaproth discovered the element in the 18th century. Clearly though the data suggests that the uranium mining has mobilized the naturally occurring uranium significantly, clearly increasing the risk to the Dine citizens of the area.
What to do about it?
Sometimes, when one reads about the “contamination” associated with uranium mine tailings one reads of proposals to truck them somewhere, in other words to move the dump. One can’t make this stuff up. It ought to be intuitively obvious, if not officially obvious in the regulatory sense, that the diesel exhaust involved in such trucking is far more likely to kill more people than any run off that may take place.
It should be intuitively obvious that the very same solution suggested above for the Ganges and Brahma might be able to work elsewhere. Let’s consider the case for the Native American lands where uranium, both endogenous and that mobilized by historical mining, is ubiquitous.
Probably the least expensive way of dealing with uranium contamination in these places would, in fact, be by bioremediation, that is by inoculating these waters with species that demonstrate uranium uptake and concentration. As long as the species are not eaten by animals or humans this would in effect remove uranium exposure. An engineered organism along the lines described above, of course, would also serve; quite possibly significantly better perhaps a species of algae that grows in films on rocks. When organisms containing uranium die, by the way, the uranium in them – generally uptake of uranium in organisms occurs in the fairly soluble +6 oxidation state – tends to be reduced by the organic matter to the far less soluble +4 state. Sediments formed by such dead organisms will be enriched in uranium, probably not to the level of commercial ores, but certainly at the level making recovery feasible.
Another possibility would be place uranium solid phase extraction materials in any streams or arroyos functioning in the area, as well as to locate small pumps in remote ponds identified with having such issues, but relatively still water to recirculate water over such materials. Since any such pumps would require a power source, many people, most people I would guess, might think this an excellent place to utilize solar cells as a power source. I would disagree, at least in the case of the nuclear utopia of which I often speak. Solar cells, and batteries designed to cover them when – as surely they would be in the Four Corners region of the Southwestern United States – would have a profound reliability problem, given the snows, dust bearing wind, and of course, the existence of something known as “night time.”
In my admittedly utopian view of a nuclear powered world, a better alternative would involve the use of RTG’s like those that power the wonderful spacecraft sent recently to Mars and Pluto, substituting the Pu-238 in the space craft with the fission product strontium, specifically the Sr-90 isotope which has a half-life of 28.79 years. Sr-90 is a pure beta detector, as is its daughter radioisotope yttrium-90, with a half-life of 64.0 hours, with the latter accounting for a significant portion of the heat generated in such devices. The ultimate decay product is isotopically pure, non-radioactive zirconium, Zr-90, zirconium being a metal of tremendous utility, notably in nuclear reactors, but in many other places, including utilization, as its oxide, in thermal barrier coatings in very high temperature systems like those found in thermally efficient combined cycle dangerous natural gas plants. Freshly fissioned strontium has a higher energy output, and is less diluted by non-radioactive strontium isotopes like Sr-88, Sr-87, and Sr-86. The isolation of strontium in situ in nuclear reactors is best accomplished in fluid phased reactors, types of which have been built and operated without ever being commercialized. I briefly evoked my favorite among these types, the LAMPRE, utilizing liquid plutonium metal, elsewhere. In a reactor built around technology first explored in the small LAMPRE in the 1960s, inspiring technology which has regrettably been more or less totally forgotten but might be rediscovered by a generation more sensible than our own, the separation of strontium (and other fission products) from the fuel is spontaneous and continuous, a fact that might be explored in visions of these types of reactors similar to those I imagine. Be all that as it may, strontium based RTG’s were built and operated by the Soviets in the 1950’s for use in beacon lights in the Arctic as well as other applications. Apparently they were forgotten and ultimately lost, without, apparently, any health consequences whatsoever. As of 2015, the amount of strontium-90 still present in the forgotten RTG’s is slightly less than 27% of what was present in 1960.
Finally in this overly long and overly delayed piece, let’s look at the recently discovered fact that a new example of the anthropogenic mobilization of uranium that has nothing to do with uranium mining. Naturally occurring uranium can be mobilized by nitrate, and it appears that this is happening in areas that represent the major portions of the American agricultural regions in California and more importantly, in the American Midwest, the latter region of which in many places utilizes irrigation by fossil and artesian ground water. Nitrate, of course, is the result of the utilization of industrial fertilizers without which it would be impossible to feed humanity. As these fertilizers leach into the groundwater (and elsewhere) uranium that has been present for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years, begins to leach into the water. Maps from the cited paper are quite evocative about the scale of this problem, which, given the scale of water use in agriculture, represents yet another case wherein an environmental problem with serious health implications might be converted into an opportunity to collect the inexhaustible supplies of uranium for the betterment and survival of the human race.
Blowups of the Nebraska, Kansan, and the Texas and Oklahoma “panhandles” as well as California’s San Joaquin Valley are here:
The correlation maps between nitrate concentrations and uranium in ground water are also suggestive:
The opportunity to collect uranium for future generations, even if the depleted uranium (as well as mined thorium) already mined and isolated should be obvious from these maps. Uranium collected by solid phase extraction from agricultural waters that already require pumping might well be stored in a concentrated form for use centuries, even millennia for now. This is clearly technologically feasible and almost certainly wise, even if one doubts that reserves of wisdom might match reserves of uranium.
Note that the United States is hardly the only place facing the issue of natural ground water uranium, even if the example is indeed evocative.
This concludes Part 3 of this series. I apologize to any interested readers for the long delay in completing this work, but, well, life happens. I will not promise the completion of the revisions of Part 4 and Part 5 as quickly as I might like, but they are currently under revision.
Have a nice day.
References, Notes and Comments
 I reproduce, for convenience, the entire text of reference 19 in the Part 2: S. Krishnaswami and J. Kirk Cochrane, eds. U-Th Nuclides in Aquatic Systems. Vol 13 of the Radioactivity in the Environment Series, Chapter 7, U and Th-Series Nuclides as Tracers of Particle Dynamics, Scavenging and Biogeochemical cycles, byM.M. Rutgers van der Loeff and W. Geibert, Elsevier, 2008.
The solubility of U isotopes and Th isotopes in seawater, including those in the two uranium decay series are discussed on pg. 228 (uranium) and pg. 230 (thorium). The generally accepted value for the concentration of uranium in seawater is 3.3 ppb. Back calculating from the figures in this text expressed as dpm m-3 determined from nuclear decay – internally referring to two different papers from 1986 and 2002 – I calculate 3.7 ppb for the cited numbers. The solubility of uranium is, however, not actually uniform in the oceans, being a function of salinity and thus density, which likewise varies with depth, temperature and location, as well as well as also dynamic carbon dioxide concentrations, and this may account for any discrepancies. In any case, this fascinating volume will tell you everything you want to know about the members of the three naturally occurring extant actinide decay series in the hydrosphere and atmosphere, the 232Th decay series, the 235U decay series, and the 238U decay series, and the use of their components as tracers for a wide variety of atmospheric and oceanographic processes. (The fourth series, the 249Cf/237Np/233U series is, of course, extinct on earth, although many people would like to revive it.) An interesting thing I learned in this text was that there is disequilibrium in the 234U/238U ratio of 1.14 in seawater, and other matrices apparently related to the injection of 234U into seawater and other matrices as a result of the recoil velocity associated with the decay of its parent 234Th, itself the daughter of 238U found in rocks. (See page 228.) This fact could surely be useful in estimating the surface area of submarine rocks, and thus recharge rates of uranium to seawater directly from exposed submarine rock, were the seas in fact “mined” by solid phase extraction to obtain uranium for fuel purposes.
 For a very early discussion on the topic of obtaining uranium from seawater, see Davies, Kennedy, McIlroy, Spence and Hill Nature 203, 1110-1115 (12 September 1964) This, and a small sample of papers on the subject can be found in the internal references found in NNadir, Atomic Insights: On Plutonium, On Nuclear War, On Nuclear Peace although the list therein cannot be considered even remotely comprehensive. Since the 1960’s, many thousands of interesting papers on the subject have been published, and kg quantities of uranium have been collected from seawater as is discussed in reference 1 of this text. None of these technologies thus far developed have been competitive with land based uranium mines however, although it has been demonstrated that the technology would be feasible to use with very little impact on the price of nuclear energy.
 Don P. Chambers, John Wahr, and R. Steven Nerem GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 31, L13310, doi:10.1029/2004GL020461, 2004
Harry Lindner, Erich Schneider Energy Economics 49 (2015) 9–22 Lindner as Schneider use the 3.3 ppm figure in their review and evaluation of the costs associated with various technological approaches to the isolation of uranium from seawater. Their internal reference is a little old, however, dating from 1984. Unlike Bardi, they utilize a reasonably large survey of technologies, although, truth be told, their survey is already outdated by the development of new technologies. Their figure of “13,000 years” for what they regard as 4.5 billion tons total, the number I use in the text, the amount time that oceanic could sustain the use of nuclear energy is however, completely wrong, apparently relying on a “once through” scheme. If uranium were not recharges to the ocean, and could be completely removed from it and converted to plutonium, it would be sufficient to supply all of human energy needs at current levels for more than 600,000 years. The point is irrelevant in any case, since uranium in the ocean represents only a small portion of the uranium being cycled through the crust, as we shall see. Their estimate for the cost of uranium obtained from seawater is between $400/kg and $1000/kg, although the technologies they propose involve ships and – ironically – wind turbines that are dedicated to uranium collection. Herein the argument will suggest a better approach, that of uranium collected as a side product of other operations, including operations designed to enhance human health.
 Chuan-Chou Shen, Huei-Ting Lin, Mei-Fei Chu, Ein-Fen Yu, Xianfeng Wang, Jeffrey A. Dorale Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems, G3, Volume 7, Issue 9 (2006) Q09005
 US Energy Information Agency (EIA) Webpage: Electricity prices in Europe. (Accessed August 29, 2015)
 Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen Environ. Sci. Technol., 2013, 47 (9), pp 4889–4895
 NNadir Current World Energy Demand, Ethical World Energy Demand, Depleted Uranium and the Centuries to Come. (Accessed September 5, 2015.)
 Op cit., S. Krishnaswami and J. Kirk Cochrane, ed U-Th Nuclides in Aquatic Systems. Pretty much the whole book is about the uranium and thorium geochemical cycles.
 Morten B. Andersen, Tim Elliott,Heye Freymuth, Kenneth W. W. Sims, Yaoling Niu & Katherine A. Kelley Nature 517, 356–359 (15 January 2015) For the data comparing uranium content of MORB specimens with OIB specimens see supplementary table 1 available free of charge at the online web page for the paper.
 Stephen E. Cox, Kenneth A. Farley , Sidney R. Hemming Earth and Planetary Science Letters 319-320 (2012) 178–184
 Sarah Aciego, B.M. Kennedy,Donald J. DePaolo, John N. Christensen, Ian Hutcheon, Earth and Planetary Science Letters 216 (2003) 209-219
 Op. cit. S. Krishnaswami and J. Kirk Cochrane, eds. U-Th Nuclides in Aquatic Systems, Chapter 3, by F. Chabaux, B Bourdon, and Jiotte, U-Series Geochemistry in Weathering Profiles, River Waters and Lakes, pp. 49-104.
 F. Chabaux, J. Riotte, and O. Dequincey Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry, January 2003, v. 52, p. 533-576, See Table 1 on page 555.
 The main sink for agricultural water runoff in the Imperial Valley is the Salton Sea, which at various times in geological history has gone in and out of existence, depending on the every shifting location of the Colorado River Delta. (Currently the delta effectively no longer exists.) In its current incarnation it was first reformed in 1905 during an accidental diversion of the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley, most of which is below sea level, during the construction of irrigation canals. Engineers using great effort were able to stem the flow before the entire Valley was filled with water with the (then) free flowing Colorado River, but in any case the Sea did not immediately evaporate, and was maintained subsequently by agricultural runoff from the irrigated fields of the Imperial Valley. Uranium has been measured in the sea’s sediments where the soluble uranyl cation (UO22+), U(VI), is reduced under nutrient excess related anoxic conditions to insoluble neutral species UO2, U(IV). See Lawrence A. LeBlanc and Roy A. Schroeder, Hydrobiologia (2008) 604:123–135. The concentration of uranium in the sediments is ranges from about 3μg/g to 5.7μg/g, (see table 4 in the reference), or roughly from just under1000 times higher higher than the concentration of uranium in seawater to nearly 2000 times higher.
With the California drought, the Salton Sea is now disappearing, and there is some concern that, among other things, the dusts wind-blown from the dried sea bed will lead to health problems in Southern California owing to the high concentrations of toxic selenium deposited by the runoff over the years into the sea as well as pesticides, arsenic and other materials deposited during the sea’s history as an agricultural run-off sink.
 Op.Cit. Krishnaswami and J. Kirk Cochrane, eds. U-Th Nuclides in Aquatic Systems. Chapter 10, J. Kirk Cochrane and David Kadko, page 293. See also Dunk, R. M., R. A. MiUs, and W. J. Jenkins. Chemical Geology 190, 45-67 (2002)
 Op.Cit. Shen, Lin, Chu, Yu, Lu, Wang and Dorale, G3, Geochem. Geophys. Geosys. Vol 7., Iss. 9, 2006 Q09005 (See Table 2 in the text.)
 Or maybe we won’t lose coral. Israeli scientists, noting the seeming contradiction that coral evolution seems to predate previous acidifying mass extinctions, examined two Mediterranean species and showed that these organisms can apparently revert to their free swimming unicellular forms. Maoz Fine and Dan Tchernov Science 315 (2007) 1811 This may or may not be applicable for other coral species. For a discussion of some species of coral that manage to resist decalcification by creating locally basic environments, see Malcolm McCulloch, Jim Falter, Julie Trotter & Paolo Montagna, Nature Climate Change 2, 623–627 (2012)l
Despite these encouraging caveats, coral is a huge concern with respect to the partially dangerous fossil fuel driven mass extinction now underway. For a review of threats to marine life from ocean acidification and other effects of dangerous fossil fuel waste, and comparison with past mass extinctions see Paul G. Harnik, Heike K. Lotze, Sean C. Anderson, Zoe V. Finkel, Seth Finnegan, David R. Lindberg, Lee Hsiang Liow, Rowan Lockwood, Craig R. McClain, Jenny L. McGuire, Aaron O’Dea, John M. Pandolfi, Carl Simpson, and Derek P. Tittensor, Trends in Ecology and Evolution (2012) 27, 11 609-617. It bears noting that the number of observed extinctions, as opposed to postulated or theoretical extinctions, owing to the half century of commercial nuclear power operations is zero.
 Greenpeace is rather famous for trivializing serious environmental issues, notably climate change, with puerile stunts. For my money, one of the most evocative of such stunts is the rather insipid exercise in which 600 members of that pixilated organization drove – and I very much doubt it was in solar or wind powered cars – to the edge of a glacier in order to be photographed naked by Spencer Tunik, an artist who makes his living, um, photographing crowds of naked people in various contexts. They produced a tortured explanation to prove that somehow this stunt is a protest against climate change. If you just have to look, here’s the link: Greenpeace: 600 people get naked on a glacier. (Accessed September 4, 2015.)
One imagines that just after they took the picture, huge masses of them ran to their cars to start and run their engines to get the heaters going so they could to warm their cold little bourgeois butts. The “protest” is evocative inasmuch as it subliminally suggests the real agenda of this awful organization for the promotion of stupidity, which is that huge masses of humanity end up cold and naked while still leaving serious environmental issues untouched by doses of reality. It should be intuitively obvious that a bunch of people driving to the edge of a glacier to be photographed naked in order to protest climate change are clueless.
 John D. Barrow and Frank Tipler, “The Anthropic Comsological Principle” Oxford University Press, 1986. ISBN-13: 978-0192821478
 Daily Kos “Consumer Reports calls latest Tesla best vehicle they’ve ever tested, right wing goes nuts.” Apparently, according to the “leftist” journalist – an embodiment of the unfortunate scientific illiteracy that dominates journalism today – who wrote this piece, modern political “thought” in the United States has now degenerated into the automotive preferences of the right and left wings. Politics now amounts to car ads. Somehow I imagine that car ads and car consumerism are not the keys to addressing the serious issues before humanity, but I could be wrong about that.
 The book held by “Lady Liberty” in New York Harbor displays an excerpt of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus.”
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The poem was written to raise funds for the erection of the statue – the statue itself a gift from France – on “Liberty” Island in New York Harbor in the late 19th century.
Times and attitudes have definitely changed in the United States since then. We’re still fond of “golden” things here, but we ought to replace the poem with a car ad, or maybe a swell Tesla electric car ad, or an ad for a Trump gambling casino, or an ad put forth by anyone who can bid high enough to market to tourists inclined to visit the statue that was once dedicated to our now trivialized history as in immigrant nation.
 Chuanyong Jing, Suqin Liu, Xiaoguang Meng Science of The Total Environment, 389, (1) (2008) 188–194
 Jonathan Grandidier, Dennis M. Callahan, Jeremy N. Munday, and Harry A. Atwater IEEE Journal of Photovoltaics, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp 123-128
 N. Yamaguchi⁎, A. Kawasaki, I. Iiyama, Sci.Tot.Environ.407, 1383–1390 (2009). Other references on the topic of uranium in fertilizer can be found in my guest post on Rod Adams’ Atomic Insights: NNadir, Uranium Catalysts for the Reduction and/or Chemical Coupling of Carbon Dioxide, Carbon Monoxide, and Nitrogen
 Nakano et al, Journal of Occupational Health 51, 513-521, (2009)
 Xianlai Zeng, Fang Wang, Xiaofei Sun, and Jinhui Li ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng., 2015, 3 (7), pp 1306–1312
This reference was included in Part 2 of this series, whereupon I expressed my concern for the health of the poor graduate students who likely did the actual lab work.
 a) Bennally, Harrison, and Stillwell, Interviewers, Memories Come to US on the Rain and the Wind: Oral Histories and Photographs of the Navajo Uranium Miners. Boston, MA : Navajo Uranium Miner Oral History and Photography Project, c1997. b) Doug Brugge, Timothy Benally and Esther Yazzie-Lewis eds. The Navajo people and uranium mining. Foreword by Stewart L. Udall, former US Secretary of the Interior. Published/Created: Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, c2006. c) Traci Brynne Voyles, Wastelanding : legacies of uranium mining in Navajo country. University of Minnesota Press, 1981. Minneapolis, MN. d) Judy Pasternak, Yellow dirt : an American story of a poisoned land and a people betrayed, Free Press, NY, 2010, e) Ann Cummings, Yellow Cake, Houghton Mifflin 2007.
 Claudia Rowe, Huffington Post, 6/6/13: Coal Mining On Navajo Nation In Arizona Takes Heavy Toll (Accessed September 11, 2015.)
 Johanna M. Blake, Sumant Avasarala, Kateryna Artyushkova, Abdul-Mehdi S. Ali, Adrian J. Brearley, Christopher Shuey, Wm. Paul Robinson, Christopher Nez, Sadie Bill, Johnnye Lewis, Chris Hirani, Juan S. Lezama Pacheco, and JoséM. Cerrato Environ. Sci. Technol., 2015, 49 (14), pp 8506–8514
 Uranium in Drinking-water, WHO background document for the development of drinking water Quality (2004) (Accessed September 12, 2015.)
 Carter, E., Hinnemann, B. and Marino, K. PNAS, 108, 14, 5480-5487 (2011) One of the interesting points about this paper – the lead author, the outstanding scientist Emily Carter, is the director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, where many of the lectures nonetheless are about the Godot-evoking solar utopia that never actually comes – is the role of yttrium in stabilizing ZrO2 based thermal barrier coatings. Sr-90 always contains Y-90 after isolation, with the radioequilibrium ratio, the point at which it is decaying as fast as it is formed, being reached in about one month. However, it is not relevant in the present case, since the crystal structure would be randomized, (as opposed to regular) as well as yttrium depleted, and because, in any case, SrO, which is highly soluble – in the presence of water it forms the dihydroxide – and corrosive would be a very poor choice for use in an RTG. Many insoluble strontium compounds are known. Among the most interesting of these are the oxygen conducting perovskites, some of which contain both strontium and zirconium, which have been evaluated in many settings of potential technological interest including reforming operations for the conversion of organic compounds into extremely useful syn gas. See, for example, Hui Lu, Jianhua Tong, Zengqiang Deng, You Cong, Weishen Yang, Materials Research Bulletin 41 (2006) 683–689) Yttrium – whose only stable isotope, Y-89, can be isolated from used nuclear fuel in significant quantities – has also be utilized in oxygen conducting perovskites and a thought stimulating example of such a perovskite is described in a paper, V.V. Kharton, I.P. Marozau , G.C. Mather , E.N. Naumovich and, J.R. Frade Electrochimica Acta 51 (2006) 6389–6399. This perovskite does not contain a zirconium oxide matrix, but is rather a cerium (IV) based oxide; however the similarities in the chemistry of ZrO2 and CeO2 is suggestive, even if, to my knowledge, the oxygen permeability of a mixed oxide of zirconium, yttrium and strontium has not been evaluated. Oxygen permeable perovskites only conduct oxygen at high temperatures, and I have often mused to myself that this might represent a wonderful application for a technological application of Sr-90, which self generates heat.
 Ibid, reference 16.