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Conditions affecting the release of thorium and uranium from the tailings of a niobium mine

Li, Zhizhong, Hadioui, Madjid, Wilkinson, Kevin J.
Environmental pollution 2019 v.247 pp. 206-215
calcium, colloids, environmental impact, fulvic acids, ionic strength, leaching, magnesium, mine tailings, mining, niobium, pH, processing stages, sodium, thorium, uranium
Determinations of the mobility of metals from tailings is a critical part of any assessment of the environmental impacts of mining activities. The leaching of thorium and uranium from the tailings of different processing stages of a niobium mine was investigated for several pH, ionic strengths and concentrations of natural organic matter (NOM). The pH of the leaching solution did not have a noticeable impact on the extraction of Th, however, for pH values below 4, increased U mobilization was observed. Similarly, only a small fraction of Th (0.05%, ≤15 μg kg−1) and U (1.22%, ≤6 μg kg−1) were mobilized from the tailings in the presence of environmentally relevant concentrations of Ca, Mg or Na. However, in the presence of 10 mg L−1 of fulvic acid, much higher concentrations of ca. 700 μg kg−1 of Th and 35 μg kg−1 of U could be extracted from the tailings. Generally, colloidal forms of Th and dissolved forms of U were mobilized from the tailings, however, in the presence of the fulvic acid, both dissolved and colloidal forms of the two actinides were observed. Single Particle ICP-MS was used to confirm the presence of Th (and U) containing colloids where significant numbers (up to 107 mL−1) of Th and U containing colloids were found, even in 0.2 μm filtered extracts. Although mass equivalent diameters in the range of 6–13 nm Th and 6–9 nm for U could be estimated (based upon the presence of an oxyhydroxide), most of the colloidal mass was attributed to larger (>200 nm) heterocomposite particles.