Knowledge of the behavior of technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials derived through the decay of U and its daughter products, and their subsequent fractionation, mobilization and retention, is essential to develop effective mitigation strategies and long-term radiological risk prediction. In the present study, multiple state-of-the-art, spatially resolved micro-analytical characterization techniques were combined to systematically track the liberation and migration of radionuclides (RN) from U-bearing phases in an Olympic Dam Cu flotation concentrate following sulfuric-acid-leach processing. The results highlighted the progressive dissolution of U-bearing minerals (mainly uraninite) leading to the release, disequilibrium and ultimately upgrade of daughter RN from the parent U. This occurred in conjunction with primary Cu-Fe-sulfide minerals undergoing coupled-dissolution reprecipitation to the porous secondary Cu-mineral, covellite. The budget of RN remaining in the leached concentrate was split between RN still hosted in the original U-bearing minerals, and RN that were mobilized and subsequently sorbed/precipitated onto porous covellite and auxiliary gangue mineral phases (e.g. barite). Further grinding of the flotation concentrate prior to sulfuric-acid-leach led to dissolution of U-bearing minerals previously encapsulated within Cu-Fe-sulfide minerals, resulting in increased release and disequilibrium of daughter RN, and causing further RN upgrade. The various processes that affect RN (mobility, sorption, precipitation) and sulfide minerals (coupled-dissolution reprecipitation and associated porosity generation) occur continuously within the hydrometallurgical circuit, and their interplay controls the rapid and highly localized enrichment of RN. The innovative combination of tools developed here reveal the heterogeneous distribution and fractionation of the RN in the ores following hydrometallurgical treatment at nm to cm-scales in exquisite detail. This approach provides an effective blueprint for understanding of the mobility and retention of U and its daughter products in complex anthropogenic and natural processes in the mining and energy industries.
- U-decay chain