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Uran stumbles in wooing towns

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Don’t tell Uran that getting at the uranium buried beneath the Czech Republic isn’t worth it.

It has been more than a year since the government rejected the Australian company’s bid to operate and expand the Rožná mine in west Moravia. Since then, Uran, undeterred and motivated by the soaring commodity price of uranium, has made repeated bids to explore uranium deposits dotting the countryside.

“If further exploration is permitted and positive, we would expect expenditure on development and mining of many tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Kate Hobbs, Uran’s managing director.

It would seem that “if” is the operative word for Uran. The company has had little success in its hunt for exploration permits.

In 2007, the Czech company Timex Zdice lodged applications for four exploration permits on behalf of Uran. Three of these bids have been declined and one still awaits an appeal verdict.

Now, Uran has reapplied for three of these permits via its Czech subsidiary, Urania Mining; it is also seeking two permits in north Bohemia. So far, these repeated efforts have only mirrored last year’s failures.

The Environment Ministry has turned down the bids for permits in Jamné and Polná, said spokesman Jakub Kašpar. The remaining application, eyeing uranium in Vysočina at the Věžnice site, and the two north Bohemia bids are still to be assessed, he added.

“According to the official state mining policy, uranium mining in the Czech Republic will not continue,” said Kašpar, adding that revival of uranium mining is not on the short-term agenda.

However, some other ministries are of a different opinion. In fact, nuclear energy and its attendant local uranium seams are a political issue sharply splitting the ruling coalition.
The Greens, a minor coalition partner controlling the Environment Ministry, are against nuclear energy, while the Civic Democrats (ODS), the government’s largest party, are vigorous nuclear power advocates.

“It makes sense to continue uranium mining,” Industry and Trade Minister Martin Říman (ODS) told journalists after visiting Rožná in February 2007.

“Whereas in the 1990s, the state subsidized uranium mining, mainly to retain employment, today it is a lucrative venture independent of state support,” he added.

Last May, Říman pushed through the extension of mining operations at Rožná indefinitely. According to the government’s decision, the Rožná facility, Europe’s only operating underground uranium mine, will be run as long as mining proves profitable. Originally, Rožná had been expected to close down by the end of 2008.

The government’s stance on nuclear energy is decisive for the fate of uranium mining. Although the possibility of expansion of the country’s two nuclear power plants has been blocked by the Greens, nuclear energy has recently garnered popularity across the political spectrum.

Like the Civic Democrats, the Social Democrats, the senior opposition party, have spoken in favor of nuclear energy. And, in March, the Vysočina region declared support for the expansion of the Dukovany nuclear plant.

Uran is closely following the country’s nuclear debate.

“If the government decides to expand its nuclear power capacity, it must also consider where it will obtain the necessary uranium,” Hobbs said.

“The Czech Republic has a unique opportunity in Europe not only to increase its self-sufficiency in energy, but to become a significant seller of electricity to Western Europe,” she added.

Win the towns

Uran failed in its first exploration bids for several reasons, one of which “was the clear disapproval of affected municipalities,” Kašpar said.

Learning its lesson from last year, Uran has attempted to connect with towns close to its envisaged exploration drilling, hoping to win them over for its projects. However, despite offers from the company to boost the towns’ budgets, its effort fell on deaf ears.

“We have declined to support uranium exploration twice already,” said Jan Štefáček, mayor of Přibyslav. The town of some 4,000 people is close to the Brzkov site, for which Uran sought an exploration permit in 2007.

Last year, Přibyslav town councilors said no to exploration and, several weeks ago, they repeated their negative stance, refusing Uran’s promise of funding, he said.
“Uran offered us $50,000 [809,000 Kč] a year for approving the exploration project,” Štefáček said.

Other towns said they have received no offers of financial compensation.

“No official talks have been held between the town and the Australian company,” said Jaroslav Sobotka, deputy mayor of Polná, about 10 kilometers south of Přibyslav.

Even if Uran had offered a donation, the town would probably not have endorsed its projects, he added: “Last year, the town said no to exploration and this stance is still valid.”

Sobotka fears that once exploration is permitted, Uran will have a better position in negotiating about expanding into commercial mining. “The company could argue that it invested a lot of money in exploration works,” he said.

That is a development the town does not want.

“Mining would have a negative impact on our residents and the environment,” Sobotka said.

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