Uranium myth used to blackmail citizens

Ownership of raw uranium in any amount will not secure independence for the Czech Republic from nuclear fuel suppliers

Čestmír Klos 20.5.2011

Dolování uranu v Rožné za rok skončí, dvanáct let po původním záměru. Prodlouženo bylo i proto, aby lidé na Vysočině měli práci. foto: © ČTKČeská pozice

Dolování uranu v Rožné za rok skončí, dvanáct let po původním záměru. Prodlouženo bylo i proto, aby lidé na Vysočině měli práci.

An extension of uranium mining in the Czech Republic “could ensure the stabilization of the securing of fuel for nuclear power plants,” according to a draft update of the State Energy Concept, drawn up by Industry and Trade Minister Martin Kocourek (Civic Democrats, ODS). This would be true if it were possible to shovel the semifinished product — called yellow cake — directly into a nuclear reactor, similar to how one would shovel coal into a traditional power plant.

But this is not the case with uranium. There is no direct link between mining crude uranium and ready-to-use reactor fuel. These are two commodities that, so far, have always entered the market separately. The extracted uranium ore has always been bought on the basis of long-term contracts by someone other than those who supply the fuel.

The fuel rods used by each of the Czech nuclear reactors are currently being supplied by the Russian  firm TVEL, a joint-stock company that is 100-percent owned by the Russian state through holding company Atomenergoprom. In the past, the Czech state-run firm Diamo sold uranium ore to the German-based uranium tradiong firn Urangesellschaft, with which it has a contract. Czech Position has not been able to verify whether this contract is still effective. Urangesellschaft is a 100 percent subsidiary of France-based energy company Areva.

No more blackmailing of citizens for business

That is why the pressure put on mayors and people living in areas with uranium deposits — by claiming that if they did not agree to mining, this would hamper fuel deliveries and the development of the nuclear sector as a whole — is nothing more than blackmail. Ownership of whatever amount of crude uranium will not bring the Czech Republic independence from nuclear fuel suppliers. It is a myth that these two areas of the uranium business are inextricably linked.

Independent nuclear expert Dalibor Stráský has pointed out that it is a myth that these two areas of the uranium business are inextricably linked. He used to be energy adviser at the Ministry of the Environment, but the current ministry occupants were not interested in his services and continue telling each other myths. Stráský was discovered by the Austrians and from next month he will be acting as the anti-nuclear representative of the state of Upper Austria.

Uranium is an “allocated mineral,” meaning that the state is under legal obligation to protect uranium deposits — even against persons owning land atop of these deposits. Although the state has to declare every found deposit a “protected deposit area,” it is by no means under obligation to extract the uranium. The deposits can be left to future generations and might in the course of years lose in significance, as it is possible that the uranium somehow ceases to be exceptional and demand for it diminishes.

If, however, yellow cake is met with market demand, then the projected profitability is the deciding factor for whether it would be advantageousness to start mining operations. “Patriotic” pressure on municipalities to agree with mining, however, should be absolutely out of the question. It is up to the municipalities to decide whether the mandatory mining fee they will be paid is worth the trouble.

Currently, yellow cake is being sold for roughly Kč 130 per kilo. Potential investors have to weigh whether they will see a return on the huge investments necessary for research into deposits and future extraction. It is up to the municipalities to decide whether the mandatory mining fee they will be paid is worth the trouble represented by changes in the landscape, loss of farmland, detours around large swathes of land occupied by exploration probes used for chemical extraction or by mining towers, slag heaps and industrial buildings if traditional mining methods are applied.

To begin with, no mining activities should be allowed to destroy precious nature areas on the surface or drinking water resources under the surface. There is no sensible reason to destroy the landscape for some uncertain commercial deal or for some patriotic tag provided by the state.

No more uranium mining

There are aspirations in the air to move uranium mining from the exhausted Rožná mine in the Vysočina region to Český Dub and Stráž pod Ralskem. Jiří Jež, the general director of Diamo, told daily Lidové noviny: “If we consider further mining activities then the Stráž region comes into question. The ore there is of good quality. There aren't many deposits like that in the world. We have requested this deposit be protected, as the law prescribes, but the government needs to provide the first impulse for mining activities to commence.”

He added that he was sure mining will go ahead. “These are deposits amounting to up to Kč 500 billion. No state in the world would leave that under the ground. The only question is when. In my view it won't happen earlier than in several tens of years. First they'll have to switch off people’s freezers and televisions.”

Also Australian prospectors from the Czech-Australian firm Urania Mining are crowding into the most promising localities of Osečná and Ploučnice. Already for the second time in quick succession they have requested permission to conduct geological surveys — as if they had not already been refused by a previous minister of the environment. Are they counting on the current less experienced minister to sign it off for them?

Regardless of who will be allowed the possibility to conduct surveys, the town of Český Dub is emphatic that it will defend itself against it. It refuses to accept any decision by a public body that would enable future mining. The town stresses that it is obliged to take care of the overall development of its area and the needs of its citizens, and that it does not intend to back down. Osečná and the hamlet of Kotel are equally adamant. The inhabitants of Stráž still have the consequences of chemical extraction right in front of them.

The inhabitants of Stráž still have the consequences of chemical extraction right in front of them. An area of 24 square kilometers is still affected by contamination from mining. Between 1967 and 1996, when the practice of pumping sulfuric acid into boreholes was terminated, the biggest contamination of underground drinking water reserves in Czech history happened there. On a surface area of 628 hectares more than 9,000 boreholes were drilled to a depth of 220 meters. Sulfuric acid was pumped into the ground through boreholes while through another set of boreholes the uranium leach was pumped out. Until now there are 4 million metric tons of dissolved contaminants under the ground. Pumping continues to prevent these poisonous agents from spreading.

None of the locals want something similarto happen in the future in an adjacent area — especially if the extracted uranium would not guarantee the production of high-quality fuel.

What the east winds will bring

In Slovakia people have not succumbed to the Kocourek myth, nor are the authorities trying to spread it among the citizens. One of the largest mapped uranium deposits with the highest quality of uranium mineralization with a high metal content is located near the municipality of Kurišková. Canadian company Tournigan Energy is eager to mine there but the Slovak Economy Minister Juraj Miškov, said: “Stop it! Slovakia is not planning any uranium mining for the foreseeable future.” There is no need to. And does the Czech Republic have to?

Perhaps the Czech Republic will have to — that is at least Josef Jadrný's impression. He is the representative of the civic association Naše Podještědí. In the course of his continuous contacts with nuclear technicians he became convinced that they expect a victory for the Russians in Temelín. And this, in his view, would reflect itself in the further aims of the Diamo and further mining. “The biggest threat to the Podještědí region would be a Russian presence in Temelín,” Jadrný said.