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Distribution of Uranium in world coals.

Jharkhand coal contains trace amount of Uranium in North

Karanpura coal field of India.
Dr. Nitish Priyadarshi

Coal is largely composed of organic matter, but it is the inorganic matter in coal—
minerals and trace elements— that have been cited as possible causes of health,
environmental, and technological problems associated with the use of coal. Some trace
elements in coal are naturally radioactive. These radioactive elements include uranium
(U), thorium (Th), and their numerous decay products, including radium (Ra) and radon
(Rn). Although these elements are less chemically toxic than other coal constituents such
as arsenic, selenium, or mercury, questions have been raised concerning possible risk
from radiation.

Uranium association with coal has a long history. There is a continuing interest in
uranium in coal, because it is a source of radioactivity and because it may be an
economic source of uranium. It is just 200 years since the discovery of uranium by M.H.
Klaproth. The first detection in coal was by Berthoud (1875) who found up to 2%
uranium in coal from near Denver, USA. The samples were collected from a mineralized
section of the coal-bed. This mine was soon abandoned.

Subsequent field studies have proven several areas with high uranium coals, especially in
the United States, mainly in the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and New
Mexico (Vine,1956). It seems that uranium is carried into the coal swamp in solution as
carbonate complexes (Breger, et. al. 1955), which then release uranyl ions to form
uranyl-organic complexes. In many coals, especially low-U coals, Uranium is
predominantly organically bound.

After World War II, a very intensive uranium search was initiated. The measurement of
coal radioactivity were performed in many countries; however only a few are
documented. For example, in year 1967 scientists have measured uranium concentration
in lignites from Spain (Huesca, Lerida, Ternel, Galicia, Murcia) and reported
concentration values 20 to 1200 parts per million (ppm).

Gott (1952) has determined uranium distribution in lignites, shales, and limestones from
throughout the US, and a possible mechanism for uranium accumulation in lignites was
suggested. Highest uranium concentrations were prevalent in lignites from the Dakotas,
Wyoming, and Montana (0.01%), and from high ash Nevada lignite which contained up
to 0.05 % uranium. It was postulated that uranium was possibly concentrated in lignite by
the action of percolating surface waters after having been leached from volcanic ash.

Uranium bearing coal in the Red Desert area in Wyoming has been studied by Masursky;
his findings are documented in several reports. In the first report in year 1952, core and
channel samples taken from the Red Desert area in Wyoming were used to investigate
the origin of uranium in the coal of the region. Specific uraniferous zones examined
included the Sourdough, Monument, Battle, and Luman zones. Areas which were
topographically higher and in which coal was overlain by conglomerate showed the
highest uranium concentration. Studies of core samples revealed that uranium
concentration in the coal beds correlates well with the degree of permeability of adjacent
rocks. Where coal beds are overlain or underlain by sandstone, the greatest
concentrations of uranium occur at the top and / or bottom of the bed.

J.R. Gill and others in the year 1959 have studied uranium bearing lignite in South
Dakota and Montana. They have reported some lignite deposits containing as much as
0.1% uranium.

Coal samples were analyzed for uranium concentration in the coals from the Western
United States and approximately 300 coals from the Illinois Basin. In the majority of
samples, concentrations of uranium fall in the range from slightly below 1 to 4 parts per
million (ppm). Coals with more than 20 ppm uranium are rare in the United States
(http://energy.er.usgs.gov/products/databases/ CoalQual/intro.htm).

Results for the uranium in world coals are as follows (Swaine,1990):

1. Australia- 0.01-4.5 ppm

2. Brazil- 2.7-19 ppm
3. Canada- 0.2-7.2 ppm
4. China- 0.16-21 ppm
5. Germany West- less than 1 – 13 ppm
6. India- 1.1-3.6 ppm.
7. New Zealand- 0.015-0.46 ppm
8. South Africa- 1.2- 7.3 ppm
9. Turkey- 1.4-6.4 ppm
10. UK- 1.1- 3.0 ppm.

Traces of uranium have been also found in the Permian coals of Jharkhand State of India.
Areas are KDH, Dakra, Rohini, and Rai Bachra in the North Karanpura coalfield.
Channeled samples were analyzed with the help of XRF instrument.

Occurrence of uranium in coals:

Three hypotheses advanced to explain the occurrence of uranium in some coals were
described by Denson (1959) as follows.

1. Syngenetic: Uranium was deposited from surface waters by living plants or in

dead organic matter in swamps prior to coalification.
2. Diagenetic: Uranium was introduced into the coal during coalification by waters
bringing the uranium from areas marginal to the coal deposits or from the
consolidating enclosing sediments.
3. Epigenetic: Uranium was introduced in the coal after coalification and after
consolidation of the enclosing sediments by groundwater deriving uranium from
hydrothermal sources or from unconformably overlying volcanic rocks.

Uranium is associated with clays, zircon and phosphates and may also be organically
bound in coal. The accumulation of uranium in coal may vary markedly from place to
place, and the occurrence of uranium in each deposit should be interpreted in relation to
the geologic history of the region. Field evidence favors the epigenetic hypothesis of the
origin of uranium in U.S. western coals. Secondary concentration of uranium in coal may
occur when solution of small quantities of uranium by groundwater from overlying
volcanic rocks is followed by downward percolation of these waters through previous
strata until the uranium is taken up and retained by the highest of the underlying lignite
beds. Application of this theory led to the discovery of uranium-bearing coal in
Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and New Mexico.

Most thorium in coal is contained in common phosphate minerals such as monazite or

apatite. In contrast, uranium is found in both the mineral and organic fractions of coal.
Some uranium may be added slowly over geologic time because organic matter can
extract dissolved uranium from ground water. In fly ash, the uranium is more
concentrated in the finer sized particles. If during coal combustion some uranium is
concentrated on ash surfaces as a condensate, then this surface-bound uranium is
potentially more susceptible to leaching. However, no obvious evidence of surface
enrichment of uranium has been found in the hundreds of fly ash particles examined by
USGS researchers.

Most coal also contains potassium-40, lead-210, and radium-226. The total levels are
generally about the same as in other rocks of the Earth's crust. Most emerge from a power
station in the light flyash, which is fused and chemically stable, or the bottom ash. Some
99% of flyash is typically retained in a modern power station (90% is some older ones),
and this is buried in an ash dam.

The amounts of radionuclides involved are noteworthy. In Victoria, 65 million tonnes of

brown coal is burned annually for electricity production. This contains about 1.6 ppm
uranium and 3.0-3.5 ppm thorium, hence about 100 tonnes of uranium and 200 tonnes of
thorium is buried in landfill each year in the Latrobe Valley. Australia exports 235 Mt/yr
of coal with 1 to 2 ppm uranium and about 3.5 ppm thorium in it, hence up to 400 tonnes
of uranium and about 800 tonnes of thorium could conceivably be added to published
export figures (http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf30.html).
Other coals are quoted as ranging up to 25 ppm U and 80 ppm Th. In the USA, ash from
coal-fired power plants contains on average 1.3 ppm of uranium and 3.2 ppm of thorium,
giving rise to 1200 tonnes of uranium and 3000 tonnes of thorium in ash each year (for
955 million tonnes of coal used for power generation). Applying these concentration
figures to world coal consumption for power generation (7800 Mt/yr) gives 10,000
tonnes of uranium and 25,000 tonnes of thorium per year(http://www.world-


Berthoud, E.L. 1875. on the occurrence of uranium, silver, iron etc., in the Tertiary
Formation of Colorado Territory. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., Philadelphia, 27, 363-365.

Breger, I.A., Deul, M. and Meyrowitz, R. 1955. Geochemistry and mineralogy of a

uraniferous subbituminous coal. Econ. Geol., 50, 610-624.

Bouska, V. 1981. Geochemistry of Coal. Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, New


Denson, N.M., 1959. Uranium in coal in the Western United States, U.S. Geological
Survey Bull. 1055.

Gill, J.R. 1959. Reconnaissance for uranium in the Ekalaka Lignite field, Carter County,
Montana. US Geological Survey, Bull. 1055.

Gott, G.B. 1952. Uranium in black shales, lignites and limestones in the United States.
Selected papers on uranium deposits in the United States. U.S. Geological Survey,
Circ.220,Washington. 31-35.

Swaine, D.J. 1990. Trace elements in coal. Butterworths, London.

Valkovic, V. 1983. Trace elements in coal. CRC Press, Inc. Florida.

Vine, J.D. 1956. Uranium-bearing coal in the United States. US Geol. Surv. Prof. Pap.,
No 300, 405-41.