Czech legacy of uranium mining

2008-06-16

in Politics, Science, The environment

If I ever visit Prague again, I will be a bit more nervous about the drinking water. The water is drawn from the North Bohemian Cretaceous Basin and only active pumping is keeping that basin from being contaminated by radioactive acids. These originated in a Soviet uranium mining operation that ran from 1974 to 1996. The mine used a technique called ‘in situ leaching,’ which uses injected sulphuric acid deep underground to seperate the uranium from surrounding rock. Unfortunately, this process was undertaken imperfectly and with little respect for the environment. Too much acid was injected and the 15,000 injection wells were installed such that they penetrate an important freshwater aquifer.

The ‘dynamic containment’ now being used involves both the constant injection of fresh water on one side of the contaminated area and the extraction and treatment of contaminated water from the other side. If either process was interrupted, the contamination could spread into water supplies used for drinking or agriculture. At the present pace, the contamination should be stabilized by 2035 (not cleaned up, more than one million tonnes of contaminants will remain underground). Cleanup costs up to that point are expected to be about 1.85 billion Euros.

As with many other cases of nuclear contamination – from the Hanford Site to Novaya Zemlya – the legacy of past activities is long-lived. That should give pause to those rushing to endorse nuclear power as the solution to climate change, particularly when the level of oversight provided by the governments supervising mining, the nuclear power sector, and waste share the Soviet Union’s lack of prudence and environmental concern. Even in better regulated places, it is very difficult to make the nuclear industry internalize such costs. Whenever the damages created become excessive, it is a fair bet that the taxpayers of the future will end up paying.

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan June 16, 2008 at 7:20 pm
Anonymous June 17, 2008 at 4:18 pm

Nobody expects the military or the Soviet Union to manage nuclear materials well.

We might legitimately have higher expectations in relation to private firms.

. June 20, 2008 at 2:29 pm

Big bad boom
Radioactive deja vu in the American West
Posted by David Roberts at 12:38 PM on 20 Jun 2008

Today, we know better but, unbelievably enough, the Mining Act of 1872 still rules. That Act is, in fact, the Methuselah of taxpayer boondoggles. It obligates the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management to approve applications for exploratory drilling without environmental review. Once ore is found and taken, no payment of royalties is required. The giant mining conglomerate, Phelps Dodge, recently acquired the mineral rights to national forest land in Colorado for just over $100,000. The company expects to extract $9 billion in molybdenum from the land. If, to speculators, the prospect of mega-profits is like sex, the Mining Act of 1872 has always been their Viagra.

To add insult to injury, the Act makes taxpayers responsible for any clean-up of the land after the mining companies are through extracting its mineral wealth. Utah, for instance, has 5,000 abandoned uranium mines that have yet to be cleaned up. They were simply abandoned after the first boom 50 years ago.

A massive uranium tailings pile between Arches National Park and Moab sits right beside the Colorado River, leaking radioactive and toxic debris into water that is eventually used for agriculture and drinking by 30 million people downstream in Arizona, Nevada, and California. Because one enormous flashflood could wash tons of that radioactive milling waste into the river, a $300 million federal clean-up is underway. Taxpayers will pay for 16 million tons of uranium milling waste to be moved away from the river.

. June 20, 2008 at 2:30 pm

Nuclear power is now offered as an alternative to coal power. But, in actuality, Big Nuke is Big Carbon’s mad-scientist cousin. Both externalize their costs: To the land, to the atmosphere, to miners, to consumers, to communities near the mines and refining facilities, and especially to future generations who will live with the long-term consequences of our short-term gains. The damage that both do is, of course, justified as necessary and unavoidable.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Previous post:

Next post: