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.