Uranium mining is a dirty business that we didn’t clean up but sourced out to less demanding countries, so why isn’t this being discussed in any debate about nuclear energy asks NICK MEYNEN
Amidst all the fuss about Hinkley C and other planned nuclear power plants in the EU and US, does anyone knows where the stuff that keeps these reactors buzzing comes from? Here’s a fun fact: no other country supplies so much uranium to the EU than … Russia. Putin has more than the gas valve if he wants to play games with Europe. And the degree to which the US has become dependent on non-stable foreign sources of uranium is also unprecedented.
Let’s churn on a couple of numbers first. The US now depends on imports of uranium for 94% of their total demand. For the EU it’s even 97%. More than a quarter of all uranium used in the EU comes from Russia, up from 10% in 2005 – when more befriended countries like Australia and Canada used to supply 46% of all uranium to the EU. Their combined share of exports to the EU has dropped to under 30%. These trends have geopolitical implications.
One issue is security. Reciprocal sanctions between Russia and the EU are now in place for over two years. If some recent polls in the US become reality and Trump becomes the new US president, things will get worse for the EU. Trump already hinted that a grim scenario (or much worse) could play out in Latvia or Estonia, EU countries with a Russian minority of over a quarter of the whole population. How hard can the EU bite in the hand that feeds it with the gas and uranium it so desperately needs? Putin will answer: not that hard.
Another issue is the future supply risk. Any power plant envisaged today will need uranium in 40 years from now. But both Russia and Kazachstan, the two biggest uranium exporters to the EU have plans to build new nuclear power plants for themselves. Kazachstan has gone from zero to hero: in 20 years it went from no production to supplying 40% of the world’s uranium. But aside from their own future needs, and those of nearby befriended Russia, analysts fear that mismanagement is likely to lead to a collapse in exports.
The great outsourcing to the “underpolluted” countries
But the bigger issue should be that uranium mining is just a very dirty business that we didn’t clean up but source out. France used to have 200+ uranium mines but thanks to better care for environment and workers the last one closed in 2001. Instead, new ones were opened in places like Niger, Namibia and Malawi. In short: places where we can shift the real costs from uranium mining to the people and environment. As a matter of fact, CEOs in the business are quite frank about that. The former CEO of Paladin, John Borshoff, an Australian uranium producer who opened mines in Namibia, said that Canadian and Australian environmental norms are “over-sophisticated”. What he actually means is that in African countries you don’t need to pay much or anything at all to “protect” either your workers or the people living in the vicinity from dying from cancer due to exposure to uranium.
He’s just implementing the Lawrence Summers Principle. This ‘principle’ originates from a 1991 memo written or dictated by Summers whilst he was the World Bank’s chief economist. In this memo, he promoted dumping toxic waste in the Third World for economic reasons: “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs? A given amount of health impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”
The uranium sector squared up to that. But for how much longer will it get away with that?
Last time rebels in Mali came too close to the AREVA mines in Niger for comfort, France suddenly sent in their army. Under some humanitarian pretext. And if rebels don’t succeed in capturing these remote mines, the global environmental justice movement might just succeed in closing a couple of them down.
The legacy from uranium mining
Being part of that movement, I’ve had the ‘pleasure’ of making a toxic tour around a now closed uranium mine in Bulgaria. Massive amounts of toxic sludge were stored behind a weak dam that showed signs of distress after heavy rains caused a spill in 2009. Old EU money was still keeping the dam up but as we’re talking about radioactive waste, money will need to keep flowing to dam repairs for millennia to come.
Since 1992, when the mines closed, and for time immemorial, that will be public money. And that’s how it goes with uranium mines in places with weak or no legislation: short-term private profits followed by perpetual public losses. In Bulgaria the people are still lucky enough to be in the EU with at least some environmental regulations and EU money for environmental protections. The same goes for other EU countries like France, which has dozens of zombie mines: dead but still active. The US also has plenty more zombie mines. The lands of the Navajo Nation include over 500 abandoned uranium mines as well as homes and drinking water sources with elevated levels of radiation. Despite the fact that they stopped operating in 1986, new and related lung cancers, bone cancers and impaired kidney functions keep appearing.
But while EU and US now have enough safeguards to keep most of their own uranium safe under the ground, there’s nothing of that in Namibia or Niger. These two countries are rising players on the uranium market, both exporting their uranium to the EU. Niger has now produced more uranium than France ever did in it’s whole history. It’s here that UK-Australian and French companies are doing the dirty digging that destroys local environment and populace.
Three reports from the EU-funded EJOLT project deal with the environmental and social issues related to uranium mining. One deals with the impacts, one concentrates on a mine in Malawi and the third dwells on the examples of successful resistance to big mining in general.
Bruno Chareyron, a French nuclear engineer who authored most of these reports, has been carrying out toxic tours along uranium mines for the last two decades. That’s not always an easy job, with for example the police confiscating most of your measuring equipment upon arrival in Niger. Nevertheless, Bruno was able to measure that radioactive scrap metal from the mines and mills is sold on the market. Waste rocks from the mines were used to pave roads, build homes and even at the local hospital where the radiation was 100 times above normal. Piles of radioactive waste were left in open air, unprotected, next to two cities with a total population of 120.000.
The missing piece of the puzzle
Where is uranium in the whole debate about nuclear energy? It’s usually only mentioned when the industry says: uranium is only a tiny part of the total cost of our energy model, unlike the situation in the gas and oil industry.
Well, there’s a reason why it’s only a tiny part of the total cost and it’s called cost shifting.
Ecological economists have given names to processes witnessed in the uranium sector: accumulation by contamination, ecologically unequal exchange and ecological debt. More and more, people all over the world are coming together to resist against environmental justice.
Our EU and US based nuclear power is currently coming at the cost of poisoning people in Africa. But it begs the question: are we ready to face that reality?