The increased sourcing of raw uranium that will arise from nuclear new build is an ethical and environmental nightmare currently being ignored by the government.
The World Nuclear Association (WNA), the trade body for companies that make up 90% of the industry, admits that in “emerging uranium producing countries” there is frequently no adequate environmental health and safety legislation, let alone monitoring. It is considerately proposing a Charter of Ethics containing principles of uranium stewardship for its members to follow. But this is a self-policing voluntary arrangement. Similarly, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safety guide to the Management of Radioactive Waste from the Mining and Milling of Ores (pdf) are not legally binding on operators.
The problem is that transparency is not a value enshrined in the extractive or the nuclear industries. Journalists find themselves blocked. Recently, to tackle this issue, Panos Institute West Africa (IPAO) held a training seminar for journalists in Senegal which highlighted that only persistent investigation – or, in the case of the Niger’s Tuareg, violent rebellion – has a chance of uncovering the truth.
The co-editor of the Republican in Niger, Ousseini Issa, said that only due to local media campaigns was there a revision of the contract linking Niger to the French company Areva. “As a result of our efforts, the price of a kilogram of uranium increased from 25,000 to 40,000 CFA francs,” he said. The local community hopes now to see more of the income from the extraction of its resources.
IPAO has much evidence that in Africa the legacy of mining is often terrible health, water contamination and other pollution problems. IPAO would laugh at the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – an Orwellian creation launched by Tony Blair in 2001.
What is the effect of uranium mining? Nuclear fuel from fresh uranium is cheaper than from recycled uranium or recycled plutonium (MOX), which is why there is a worldwide uranium rush.
To produce the 25 tonnes or so of uranium fuel needed to keep your average reactor going for a year entails the extraction of half a million tonnes of waste rock and over 100,000 tonnes of mill tailings. These are toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. The conversion plant will generate another 144 tonnes of solid waste and 1343 cubic metres of liquid waste.
Contamination of local water supplies around uranium mines and processing plants has been documented in Brazil, Colorado, Texas, Australia, Namibia and many other sites. To supply even a fraction of the power stations the industry expects to be online worldwide in 2020 would mean generating 50 million tonnes of toxic radioactive residues every single year.
These tailings contain uranium, thorium, radium, polonium, and emit radon-222. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency sets limits of emissions from the dumps and monitors them. This does not happen in many less developed areas.
The long-term management cost of these dumps is left out of the current market prices for nuclear fuel and may be as high as the uranium cost itself. The situation for the depleted uranium waste arising during enrichment even may be worse, says the World Information Service on Energy.
No one can convince me that the above process is carbon-free, as politicians claim. It takes a lot of – almost certainly fossil-fuelled – energy to move that amount of rock and process the ore. But the carbon cost is often not in the country where the fuel is consumed.
And what of the other costs? Over half of the world’s uranium is in Australia and Canada. In Australia the government is planning to make money from the nuclear renaissance being predicted; uranium mining is expanding everywhere. Australian Greens are fast losing the optimism they felt when the Labor party won the last election.
In the Northern Territory plans to expand a nuclear dump at Muckaty station are being pushed forward with no regard for the land’s Aboriginal owners. The supposedly greener new Australian government Minister Martin Ferguson has failed to deliver an election promise to overturn the Howard government’s Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act, which earmarks a series of sites for nuclear waste dumps.
In South Australia, in August the Australian government approved the expansion of a controversial uranium mine, Beverley ISL. This was dubbed a “blank cheque licence for pollution”. Groundwater specialist Dr Gavin Mudd has examined the data from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and called for it to be “independently verified by people not subservient to the mining industry” (The Epoch Times September 2 2008).
Elsewhere in the Northern Territory, BHP Billiton plans to have the first of five planned stages of expansion at its Olympic Dam mine in production by 2013. This will increase production capacity to 200,000 tonnes of copper, 4500 tonnes of uranium and 120,000 ounces of gold. This is a vast open cast mine, from which the wind can carry away radioactive dust.
Not far away locals are fighting a new uranium mine 25 kilometres south of Alice Springs. At the Ranger mines, Energy Resources of Australia – 68.4% owned by Rio Tinto – expects to find 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes of ore in the Ranger 3 Deeps area. In October it agreed to supply uranium oxide to a Chinese utility, signing a safety accord. This is how safe the mine in fact is – and you won’t find such records at African mines: almost 15,000 litres of acid uranium solution leaked in a 2002 incident, and since then further leaks ranging from 50 to over 23,000 litres have been reported.