Uranium ore is a term used to describe minerals from which uranium can be extracted. Although many types of minerals contain uranium in small quantities, far fewer hold enough extractable uranium to be economically useful for mining operations. The mining of the ore is the first step toward usable uranium production, which can be refined into a variety of products with both military and civilian value.
Of the minerals which are often referred to as uranium ore, uranite, also called pitchblende, is the most reliable source of extractable uranium. Other minerals commonly mined for uranium include ancilite, monazite, carnotite, and coffinite. Uranium, which is naturally formed during supernovas, is relatively common on Earth, being more plentiful than tin, mercury, and silver.
Several countries have large deposits of uranium-bearing ore that lead to extensive mining operations. As of the early 21st century, Canada mines the most uranium in the world, although Kazakhstan, Australia, and Russia contribute a considerable amount as well. In the United States, uranium ore is found throughout western states such as Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. Although mines have existed off and on during American history, US uranium mining has always been relatively minor.
Uranium ore is mined through a variety of techniques, depending on the minerals present and technology available. Traditionally, the ore is best mined through open-pit mining. In this relatively primitive form of mining, ore is simply extracted by digging it out of the ground, leaving a large pit or gorge in the landscape. Pit mines are excavated until the mineral sought vanishes, then abandoned or used as landfills. Some uranium is also mined by a practice called leaching, where chemical solutions are poured through small fissures in the rock in order to suck the uranium from the mineral and bring it to the surface for collection.
Once uranium ore is mined, it is usually ground and processed to remove the uranium from the surrounding rock and mineral. The extracted material is then further processed to create usable uranium. Uranium extracted from ore is a major factor in the production of nuclear energy. Many nuclear power plants run primarily on uranium. The material can also be used in the creation of nuclear bombs and other military weapons.
Uranium ore is a finite resource on the Earth, and carries considerable danger. Although the refined product can create abundant energy, its radioactivity can potentially be a source of contamination and is dangerous to humans. Additionally, the mining process can be severely destructive to local ecosystems; in 2008, the United States government enacted a protective measure for the state of Arizona, for fear that mining uranium ore could adversely affect the scenic Grand Canyon. In addition to the environmental dangers and health risks posed by uranium, some experts also urge cautious use, as the mineral is not renewable. As a naturally occurring element created by supernovas, uranium exists only in finite deposits on Earth which will eventually run out due to overuse.