Tuesday, January 15, 2008
January 11, 2008
Building nuclear power stations will have an impact that reaches far beyond our borders - to the places where the fuel for them is mined
The politicians' eyes will not be on those who suffer - and the conflicts caused - by their decision to give the green light to new nuclear power stations.
Now the government has announced its decision on nuclear power, perhaps we can begin to get a more widespread discussion of the issues, some of which have been below the radar for most of the public in the last two decades.
Let's hear, for instance, about where the uranium comes from. Renewable energy is free and delivered to the generator with no cost or impact. But nuclear fuel, alas, is not. Would consumers really want nuclear power if the reality of the uranium mines was brought home to them? Would the cabinet, in fact, like to work in one?
All over the world, greedy companies like the French Areva and the Australian Paladin are striking deals to plunder uranium with a haste not seen since the 1950s, and similar disregard for consequences. This is creating conflict between locals and governments, who are rushing to do deals with scant regard for the wellbeing of the people affected in the mines' locality.
One of the world's top producers of uranium is Niger. Last year, it mined 3,500 tonnes and issued nearly 100 exploration licenses. This year it plans to double production, opening two new mines. China is hovering around like a jackal, but its presence has made it a target for rebels who briefly kidnapped a Chinese mining executive in July. These rebels are the Tuareg nomads who roam in northern Niger's arid landscape, banded under the Nigerien Movement for Justice (known by its French acronym MNJ).
Their leader is Seydou Kaocen Maiga, and he accuses the Niger government of being a government of criminals. "The government extracts all the uranium without asking permission of the nomadic people and without giving anything to them," he claims. The MNJ has attacked an Areva facility. "For 40 years, Areva has extracted uranium while giving nothing to the people of the north," says Maiga.
The conflict is helping create a "belt of insecurity" that stretches across the Sahel, a remote, poorly governed swath of Africa awash with arms, says Olly Owen, a risk analyst at Economic Associates in Lagos, Nigeria. "There has been a kind of domino effect, with insecurity erupting in one country after another. And in Niger there are a lot of strategic interests involved and they are increasing that insecurity."
In Malawi, finance minister Goodall Gondwe said on January 9 that huge amounts are expected to flow into his coffers over the next decade from uranium mining, which starts next year. "The IMF and our treasury officials say, at current prices, uranium could generate output for a decade worth about $1.6 billion," he said.
But civil society groups in Malawi have asked Paladin to halt mining operations at Kayerekera in Karonga district until legal challenges initiated by the non-governmental organisations on the mining are concluded. Paladin claims that a settlement has been reached but unhappy NGO coalition members have indicated they will "continue with legal action to protect the Malawian people's constitutional rights, unless and until the company is willing to enter negotiations to change its proposal in a way that addresses the flaws, gaps and problems in the project that pose serious public health and environmental risks".
In India, The ministry of environment and forests has allowed Uranium Corporation of India to mine uranium in Meghalaya. But the local Grassroots Democracy Advisory Council appealed to the government not to allow it "at any cost" for the sake of future generations while calling all the national and state political parties to "specify in clear terms their stand on this serious matter". On October 30 last year, members of a special operations team of Meghalaya police killed five militants of the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council, claiming that they had planned an attempt on the life of Khasi Hills autonomous district council chief executive member H S Shylla for being in favour of uranium mining in Meghalaya.
In the Czech Republic, on December 30 2007, several hundred people held a demonstration at Osecná against the securing of the Osecná-Kotel uranium deposit for future mining. The state-owned company Diamo is attempting to secure the deposit for future opencast mining. The surrounding communities are opposed to this, instead being in the process of making the area into a recreational resource. They are still dealing with the legacy of the large-scale uranium mining carried out during the cold war era.
And in Namibia, Areva has no scruples about taking advantage of Namibia's very special regulatory regime: people have just two weeks to respond to planning applications such as the draft environmental and social impact assessment report for Trekkopje uranium Project.
This mine is to work the Klein Trekkopje deposit which is approximately 15 kilometres long and up to three kilometres wide and is located in the Namib desert 35 kilometres north of the long-standing Rössing mine. The deposit is very shallow - at a maximum depth of 30 metres - and covered with a layer of topsoil just one or two metres thick. It grade is less than half of that at the Rössing mine - which makes it much more energy-intensive (and therefore carbon-intensive) to process.
The rate of extraction proposed is astonishing: ore is to be mined from an open pit at 100,000 tonnes per day. The ore is crushed and then stacked on a heap leach pad with a capacity of 30m tonnes, 2.2 square kilometres in area, where it is leached with a sodium carbonate/bicarbonate solution. This leachate will be able to spread into the environment. After leaching, the spent ore is placed on unprotected waste dumps and/or back in the pits, and fresh ore is placed on the heap leach pad. The mine will require 20m cubic meters of water per year which is to be supplied by a desalination plant to be built at the coast at Wlotzkasbaken. The pipeline that will connect the mine to this plant will traverse and threaten unique lichen fields only found in this area, according to Professor Norbert Juergens, head of the BIOTA-Africa project.
Canadian mining company UraMin will sell 35% of the mine's output to China. Who cares about the environmental impact of this? Few people who have the power to do anything about it, as it is far from the prying eyes of consumers, tourists or campaigners.
There are many more examples of this type of frenzied activity - in South Africa, Zambia, Somalia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Russia, North and South Korea and so on. If you're interested, the World Information Service on Energy keeps tabs on it all. It's clear that Brown's cabinet sees nuclear power as good for business. They're oblivious to the fact that worldwide renewed demand for uranium that can only be accelerated by their decision.