Czechs see brighter future in uranium
Large pneumatic drills smash rock in search of uranium. An industry once associated here with forced labour, tragic deaths and terminal decline is staging a dramatic comeback.
By year’s end, the Czech government is hoping to approve a plan to extend the life of this sprawling underground site – Europe’s only large-scale, functioning uranium mine – and has identified eight other suitable locations elsewhere. It also wants to increase the number of nuclear reactors from six to nine.
With Germany announcing plans to shut down all of its nuclear power plants by 2022 in the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster – but still hungry for power – the Czechs believe they are in a position to cash in by selling nuclear energy. They have an estimated 110 000 tons of uranium left to exploit, which would be enough to provide nuclear fuel for the country’s reactors for an estimated 100 years.
The Associated Press has learned that other nations are also planning similar ventures: EU countries such as Sweden are exploring their uranium deposits while others, including Hungary, have sought the Czechs’ advice. Fact-finding missions from as far as Argentina, Brazil, China and Vietnam are regular visitors, with experts sent to the School of Uranium Production at the Czech state-run uranium monopoly Diamo.
Some are appalled at the project, mindful of the Communist era in then-Czechoslovakia when about 40 000 unprotected political prisoners were forced to work in the uranium mines. At least 500 died. Many others unknowingly contracted cancer from radiation exposure.
Czechoslovakia became the sixth largest producer of uranium in the world as it fed the Soviet nuclear programme during the Cold War.
“Given the experience we have with uranium mining, it’s not a good idea,” said Bedrich Moldan, the director of Prague’s Charles University Environment Center. “It poses serious risks.”
Jan Rovensky of Greenpeace called the plan “absurd, useless and damaging for the environment”.
But many experts point to new technologies and strict rules on mining and say there is no cause for alarm. Robert Vance of the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said he could understand why people “have a bad feeling about it”. But he added: “Today, it can be mined safely and be managed safely.”
Uranium traditionally has been extracted here by a method that involves pumping sulfuric acid into uranium ore to dissolve the radioactive materials. In former mines near the northern town of Straz pod Ralskem, almost 5 million tons of acid were pumped directly into the ground over decades, causing large-scale environmental damage and contaminating some 370 million cubic metres of underground drinking water.
Officials at Diamo said the cleanup started in 1996 will not be completed before 2037 at an estimated cost of 50 billion koruna (R20bn).
Josef Jadrny, a leading opponent of new uranium mines, is angered that one of the proposed mine sites is just to the east of Straz pod Ralskem in an area that has one of the largest natural underground resources of drinking water in the country. “We can do without uranium but we can’t do without water,” Jadrny said.
Diamo officials say less questionable methods could be used to extract uranium such as carbon dioxide, oxygen or ozone. At Rozna, mined ore is first transported to ground level, where uranium is extracted with sulfuric acid – a safer method than injecting the acid directly into the ground.
The Nuclear Energy Agency’s Vance said mines in Australia and Kazakhstan, which operate the sulfuric acid method known as “in-situ leaching”, took sufficient precautions to ensure the acid did not come into contact with ground water.
“Regulators in these countries are very well aware of the problems that this type of mining produced – particularly in the Czech Republic,” Vance said. “They’re not going to license mines unless they can be sure that this can be conducted safely and is not going to affect ground water.”
But the Czechs aren’t about to gamble with sulfuric acid again. The Industry and Trade Ministry said its use was “out of the question”, although it did not specify what methods it would approve for future sites. It calls uranium a “super strategic” commodity and uranium mining “a strategic advantage for the Czech Republic”. – Sapa-AP