Environmental concerns, memories of communist-era forced labor unearthed
Following months of discussions where it has become increasingly clear the government will look to significantly expand the use of nuclear energy to meet a large part of energy demand in the next 60 years, a proposal has emerged that encourages the expansion of uranium mining to fuel new reactors and capitalize on a forecast increase in global uranium prices.
Uranium mining has a long history in the Czech Republic, where industrial-scale uranium mining was pioneered, and the environmental as well as emotional scars from the industry where many political prisoners were forced to labor under the communist regime make the question of revamping the industry fraught with anxiety and pessimism.
The draft commodity strategy, which was leaked to Reuters Dec. 12, cites a forecast increase in uranium prices and calls for extending the life of the country’s only remaining uranium mine, Rožná, in the Vysočina region, past its scheduled shutdown date in 2014, as well as exploring sites in the northwest that might have rich uranium deposits. The Industry and Trade Ministry declined to comment on the leaked information.
“The Czech Republic must consider opening some of the more promising sites to be able to provide long-term feedstock for nuclear power, which is an absolutely fundamental part of the Czech energy portfolio,” Reuters reported the draft as saying.
After the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, Germany chose to shut down a number of reactors and accelerate the closure of all of them by 2022. That has left a gap in German energy that the Czech Republic hopes to fill by exporting its own nuclear power.
In a draft that was similarly leaked to Reuters following Germany’s nuclear decision, officials proposed extensive expansion of nuclear energy to meet as much as 80 percent of national energy needs. After experts rejected the proposal as unrealistic, two scenarios have emerged that will be decided on by the end of the year; one calls for some expansion of renewable energy sources, while the other for heavy reliance on nuclear energy.
At the heart of talks over the past decade that extended the life of Rožná on multiple occasions and considered the possibility of the expansion of uranium mining, is the rising price of uranium, which some say could see its price on commodity markets rise as much as 20 percent by 2015.
“It is desirable in terms of energy security to have plans for the completion of the Temelín and Dukovany nuclear plants … supported by exploiting a domestic source of uranium,” the draft read according to Reuters.
Advocates of uranium mining point to the needs for better energy security and less dependence on imports of uranium from Russia, as well as the rising costs of uranium as developing countries take advantage of nuclear energy.
“People are not sure at the moment what to expect from the uranium market in the next years,” said Peter Diehl, a uranium expert with the World Information Service on Energy (WISE), an organization against the use of nuclear energy. “On one hand, you have a shortage looming because secondary forces that provide for about one-fourth of uranium needs on the world market, like uranium recovered from nuclear weapons, will expire.”
However, with Kazakhstan rapidly increasing its uranium output, prices have dropped significantly since their 2007 peak of $140 per pound.
“[The Czech Republic] would have to export some of the uranium and compete with Kazakhstan, where there are very low production costs, and they are producing the next environmental disaster at the same time. This is something you wouldn’t be able to do in Central Europe anymore,” Diehl said.
Uranium mining hit its peak in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, when around 3,000 tons per year were mined. During that time, uranium was extracted by pumping millions of metric tons of sulfuric acid into uranium ore. The environmental damage was extensive.
In the town of Stráž pod Ralskem, in the Liberec region, state-owned uranium and coal mining company Diamo is involved in an extensive effort to keep 370 million cubic meters of contaminated ground water from spreading. The project has been under way since 1996 and will not be completed until 2037 at the cost of around 50 billion Kč. More than 500 laborers died in the mines during this heyday and an unknown number later from cancer.
Today, the only functioning mine is the Rožná mine, where about 300 tons of uranium are extracted each year through conventional underground mining. Uranium ore is brought to the surface, where it is then treated with sulfuric acid to dissolve radioactive materials.
Afterward, uranium is brought for enrichment to the Netherlands or France, turned into nuclear fuel in Russia and then shipped back.
For residents of former uranium mining towns, expansion of uranium mining holds the lure of jobs, but also fears from the past.
“Mining is and will always be dangerous. … I do not believe preventive measures work 100 percent,” said Karel Dvořák, mayor of the town of Nová Včelnice, south Bohemia, which used to be home to a uranium mine.
In another former mining village, Okrouhlá Radouň, there was recently a referendum regarding the building of a nuclear waste repository, with 98 percent of residents voting against it.
“I guess this is comparable. I think most people would be against it,” said Mayor Zdeněk Leitner. “The only positive aspect was that it brought employment. But until now, the landscape re-cultivation has not been finished. The water is still contaminated.”
Over the past five years, there have been numerous requests for exploration of uranium sites from private uranium mining companies. Executives at Russian state-owned company Rosatom also expressed interest in taking part in uranium mining in the Czech Republic during a visit in October. They did not specifically say where or how.
The government has maintained it will not use sulfuric acid in the ground again, and has continuously rejected applications from the Czech branch of Australian company Urania, most recently in 2010 by Environment Minister Tomáš Chalupa, which wanted to explore sites near the area where the toxic cleanup is under way, some potentially for chemical mining.
However, the technique used for mining is determined by a number of factors, including the richness of the ore at a site, geographical location and, of course, cost.
“Without further detailed technical and technological parameters, the mining method cannot be determined, or specify whether it is possible to use conventional underground mining extraction or leaching. In principle, both procedures are possible,” said Diamo Deputy Director Marian Böhm.
As recently as 2009, Diamo submitted proposals to restart mining, possibly by chemical means, near Stráž.
“We can with sufficient confidence state that any further uranium mining and production would be carried out with great emphasis on ensuring all the required limits in terms of environmental protection,” Böhm said, citing Diamo’s near 20 years of experience with remediation.
In general, the technique of pumping chemicals into the ground, called in-situ leaching, is cheaper than underground mining, and it’s one of the most widely used by major uranium mining companies in other parts of the world amid arguments that it is actually less damaging to the environment than standard mining, because it doesn’t result in gaping holes in the ground.
However, despite new technology, the risks of contamination persist, and the costs of remediation for cleaning the water flushed through the mines with the acid are high, critics say.
“The government has to fund all this reclamation work. They can make companies liable, but experience shows that doesn’t work,” Diehl said.
– Klára Jiřičná contributed to this report.