CLEANUP: A RESPONSIBILITY ABANDONED
Uranium mining is never a benign process. It leaves behind radioactive and toxic waste with decay products that are even more hazardous than the mined uranium. However, there is virtually no management of these old mines.
Mining is the oldest method developed by humans to extract riches from the earth. Once the so-called mineral resources are depleted, a gaping hole is left behind, and this has grave consequences, especially when it comes to uranium mining.
Whether uranium is mined below ground or through open pit mining, both methods leave behind enormous amounts of residue. These residues include the decay products of the uranium chain, many of which have half-lives of see-mingly infinite duration. Problems are created from the start, beginning with the exploration process: Thousands of test drills are conducted in areas where uranium deposits are anticipated. The drilled shafts connect below ground where uranium seeps into groundwater and can then contaminate the drinking water, even in a region where uranium was never mined. Wind and rain can carry radioactive particles over large regions, whether they emanate from drill holes, waste dumps, tailings dams or abandoned mines. This effectively contaminates the soil and the produce grown in those areas. This problem could be minimized by covering the waste with clay, but this is rarely done as it costs money.
In addition, rivers transport radioactivity downstream from uranium mines, even after the mining operations have ceased. Nuclear radiation does not know man-made borders. For example, radioactive dust originating in Australia has been detected in the Arctic, according to South Africa-based geologist Stefan Cramer. Since the 1990s, below ground and open pit mining has been supplemented by in-situ leaching (ISL). About half of today’s uranium extraction is conducted using this method. In ISL, sulfuric acid or ammonium bicarbonate is injected into underground deposits to separate the uranium ore from other elements. The extracted uranium is mixed with water and pumped above ground. When the chemicals used for ISL breach subterranean aquifers, long-term monitoring is required, but there is practically no way to fix the problems created by ISL.
While decommissioned mines have usually undergone at least some form of effective sealing procedure, such measures are not possible at “abandoned” mines. The operators of thousands of former mines that were worked during the “uranium rush” era of the 1950s and 1960s – mostly located in the southwest of the United States – simply disappeared and left the mines completely unattended. Today, that legacy is still marked by rusting structures in danger of collapse as well as abandoned open pits and shafts. Even when they appear in US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents, these “abandoned mines” are not clearly marked.
While requirements and guidelines for the cleanup of contaminated landscapes are in place for mining operations in general, there is no special status for uranium. As Paul Robinson, the mining expert at Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico describes the situation: “The company gets the gold, the community gets the shaft.” The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, demands at least a minimum degree of cleanup from companies in the US. However, there is no such law in African states and only to a limited extent in Australia where cleanup commitments are purely voluntary. Once a corporation declares bankruptcy, the population is stranded with the mess. That is why an increasing number of civil society groups are starting to fight for their rights.
For example, in Australia there are three active uranium mines as well as 30 iron, 40 copper and 40 gold mines; seven nickel, five bauxite and 10 lead and zinc mines; plus about one hundred coal mining areas. The resistance of the Indigenous population is not only directed at uranium mining and its legacy, but also at coal and bauxite pits.
Like Australia, South Africa’s economy is based on mining. At the same time, uranium is an issue even where it is not mined, as Anthony Turton, professor for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State observes: “Johannesburg is the most radioactive city in the world, since intensive gold mining extracted between 10 to 100 tonnes of uranium with each tonne of gold.” In his estimation, around 600,000 tonnes of rock containing uranium are spread across the city and its surroundings. Says Turton: “To be honest, even today we don’t know how to deal with this problem.”
Cleanup of uranium mines generally fails because of the unwillingness of nuclear companies and governments to spend money on this problem. Although the cleanup of the Wismut uranium mining legacy in the German Democratic Republic – where the area was returned to an almost green field status – is considered an international best-practice project, even here there are deficiencies. Miners had extracted a total of 231,000 tonnes of uranium there, but more than 300 million cubic meters of rock debris, and 160 million cubic meters of radioactive sludge, were left behind.
By the end of 2018, the German Federal Government had spent 6.4 billion euros of taxpayers’ money on the cleanup. This sum is expected to grow to eight billion euros by 2045. Despite this immense effort, the radioactive contamination cannot be completely eliminated because leachate containing uranium leaks out in many places and pollutes small rivers.
In almost all other regions of the world where uranium is mined, this problem is not even addressed. Neither mining companies nor governments are willing to provide the billions of dollars needed. That is why people continue to demand: “Keep uranium in the ground!”
● Tailings: wise-uranium.org, key word: Uranium Mill Tailings Inventory
● Buddha Weeps in Jadugoda: documentary by Shri Prakash, 1999, on Youtube