Saturday, February 07, 2009

out with the uranium?

The Czech Republic has some of the largest uranium deposits in the world - eighth largest in the world, it is estimated. The mining of uranium, used in the nuclear industry, dates back to the mid-19th century in the Czech Republic. After World War II, uranium mining was of significant interest to the Russians. In fact, the Czech Republic was then the only source of uranium for the Soviets, who controlled its extraction and imported the Czech uranium exclusively until the fall of communism in 1989.

The two dominant types of mining technology have been used here: conventional underground mining (much of it done by political prisoners in the 1940s and 1950s as forced labor) and in-situ leaching with sulfuric acid. In a nutshell, the method consists of injecting a leaching liquid, in this case sulfuric acid, through wells into the ore deposit, and then pumping uranium bearing liquid from other wells.

In-situ leaching supposedly reduces the possibility of accidents and radiation for the miners, but the environmental risks are great. Unfortunately, the Czech Republic can attest to the detrimental environmental risk of uranium leaching. As a result of the uranium extraction, whole aquifiers have been contaminated. Just imagine: over the approximately thirty-two years of the chemical leaching of uranium, more than 4 million tons of sulphuric acid and other chemicals had been injected into the ground at North Bohemian in-situ leaching site of Stráz pod Ralskem.

The chemical leaching of uranium has been put to a halt in 1996, though uranium extraction continues using different, "remedial" techniques. Meanwhile, the contamination of ground water endures and the company responsible for government-mandated clean-up is the same company that polluted the area and still, as the only uranium mining company operating in the European Union, continues to extract uranium to this day.

The plans are for the state-run mining company DIAMO to close shop permanently in the foreseeable future. However, with the hopes of earning a good fortune some day when commodity prices rise again as they did up until 2007 before coming down sharply, and with the push for energy self-sufficiency spurred by the recent natural gas shortage caused by Russia turning off its supply to the West, DIAMO has approached the Czech government with a request to continue mining. The deposits could, according to the director of DIAMO, supply the Czech Republic with enough nuclear energy for the next 150 years. At present, The Czech Republic has 6 nuclear reactors generating about one third of its electricity.

Many locals are opposed to the continued uranium extraction, passionate about water quality over profit and afraid of radioactivity. The ministry of environment agrees the extraction must end soon. We will see who wins out in the end. Before the contract is renewed, I'd bet that following the latest trends, the state-run mining company will be privatized. Australia's Uran Ltd has already expressed interest in conducting the uranium exploration and extraction operations in the Czech Republic. So far, their offer has been rejected by the ministry of environment. In my opinion, it's only a matter of time...

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