Because injecting mysterious chemical cocktails deep underground to release hard-to-reach deposits of natural gas hasn't proved controversial enough, miners are staking out a new frontier: uranium fracking.
Yep. Uranium Energy Corp., a Canadian company with extensive operations in the "uranium belt" of South Texas, is pioneering the process.
"Fracking for uranium isn't vastly different from fracking for natural gas," Forbes explains in its February issue. "UEC bores under ranchland into layers of highly porous rock that not only contain uranium ore but also hold precious groundwater. Then it injects oxygenated water down into the sand to dissolve out the uranium. The resulting solution is slurped out with pumps, then processed and dried at the company's Hobson plant."
There are some important differences between fracking for gas and fracking for uranium. On the one hand, the latter simply involves water, which poses little danger to groundwater. On the other hand, the material being extracted is the radioactive raw material used to make nuclear weapons.
It's the radioactivity that's worrying neighbors. Uranium deposits sit 400 to 800 feet under the earth, about as deep as groundwater, whereas shale gas is closer to two miles. And uranium, if ingested, can cause serious health problems, like kidney and liver cancer.
Some of the neighbors have sued. UEC argues that its process is safe and that the groundwater is already contaminated by radioactive elements. It also argues that the process is necessary as the United States competes with China and other rising powers for the uranium it needs to supply power plants and nuclear weapons.
"The U.S. is more reliant upon foreign sources of uranium than on foreign sources of oil," UEC President Amir Adnani said. His company plans to fill the gap with domestic uranium, much of it fracked from South Texas.