MAC: Mines and Communities

Uranium mining legacy in Eastern Europe

Published by MAC on 2016-03-19
Source: EUobserver (2016-03-15)

The Soviet Union mined uranium for decades, leaving a legacy of social and environmental damage.

Although the UK governmnent has said it will close coal mines, it's still of course planing to open up a massively costlye new nuclear reactor in Somerset, and this will of course require uranium.

At present it's generally assumed this will come from debt-laden AREVA's mines in Africa, buit it's conceivbale that new or reopened mines in eastern Europe (Romania and Czech Republic) might meet at least some of the uranium supply.

The Soviet Union mined uranium outside its own borders for decades, which has left a legacy of social and environmental damage.

The metal was extracted in Straz pod Ralskem, in the Czech Republic, but the chemicals used leaked into the nearby river for more than a decade.

In Romania, 23 uranium mining sites have been shut down, leading many to believe that a slow-burning environmental disaster is taking place.

After German reunification, the uranium production legacy included 48 mine dumps, 311 billion litres of waste rock, 160 billion litres of radioactive sludge in tailings, and 15 sq km of waste dumps. Much of this was in or around densely populated areas.

A map of the uranium mining legacy in eastern EU can be viewed at: https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/embed?mid=zeABDGHqafcs.kE8_QG7jiiq0

For previous article on MAC see: Fear Darkens Czech Uranium Mining Town

The Soviet uranium mining legacy that blights eastern EU

Adrian Mogos and Michael Bird

EUobserver - https://euobserver.com/investigations/132406

15 March 2016

The Soviet Union mined uranium across its empire for decades, leaving a legacy of environmental damage, social breakdown and widespread health issues. In the first of a two-part investigation, we reveal how the devastating effects are still being felt in Germany, Romania and the Czech Republic.

“We live here, with radon [radioactive gas] across the road and with chalk dust from down in the valley – God damn it – it will kill us all,” says 53-year-old Vasile Mocanu, a former miner.

He is describing how his life has been trapped between two sources of pollution – a uranium mine and a chalk mine. Baita Plai, an ex-Communist workers’ colony built by the Soviets in the 1950s, lies on the edge of the Transylvanian countryside, 500km north-west of Bucharest.

The Soviets exploited uranium at this site – one of the richest reserves in the world – as reparations after World War II, during which the Romanians fought against the USSR. The uranium was first extracted from two surface pits, before the mine moved underground.

“For us it was dangerous work,” says another former miner, 74-year-old Florian Covaci. “We travelled an hour to the pit on a bus, then by train underground for 8 km. We were working wet to the skin to make holes in the rock with water. It was like in a labour camp.”

Beginning in 2000, the mine slowly declined. The workers left, either voluntarily or were pensioned off. Today most of the apartments in the four blocks in Baita Plai are empty. Just 100 people live there now, but only four are former miners. Nobody wants to live near to slag heaps and noxious mines.

In this area, 4.6 million litres of radioactive waste has been deposited. Romania’s track record of cleaning up its uranium legacy is a history of decay, abandonment and ignorance. (There will be more about the multiple failures of public authorities to deal with the issues in the second part of this investigation.)

'Most died younger than 50'

One of the major threats to human health – the risk of cancer from radiation – has not been analysed by Romanian officials so the casualties of cancer due to uranium mining and its legacy in the country are unknown.

Vasile Mocanu, who likes to be known as Doru, worked in the uranium mine in Baita Plai for many years, then stayed on as a security guard for a private firm that supervises the mine and deposits of radioactive material.

Doru says his body has become used to radioactivity and he hopes “with all his soul” that he will reach a pensionable age, because many of his former colleagues died early.

“Many died before they reached 50,” says Doru. “A former colleague recently died at 57. These diseases put many young people in the ground.”

Experts agree that radiation causes cancer, and Romania’s ministry of health admits that the main route of radioactive exposure for uranium miners is through inhaling radon, a radioactive gas that has been classified by International Agency for Research on Cancer as carcinogenic to humans.

Radon is second only to smoking as a cause of lung cancer, and recent studies have investigated a possible relationship between radon and leukaemia.

A study carried out in Baita Plai by researchers from the University of Babes-Bolyai, Cluj-Napoca and the University of Cantabria in Santander argued that between 1,000 and 3,000 deaths each year in Romania could be caused by radon.

Although those who worked in the mines were at greatest risk, locals in Baita Plai who never set foot in the tunnels are still exposed to radon even while they are in their homes because, as the local mayor explains, Romania allowed materials from uranium mines to be used for buildings in Baita Plai.

During the 1960s and 1970s, stones from the mine dumps were used for building foundations, walls, road kerbs and even animal shelters. The waste was also used to build roads in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

However, miners elsewhere in Romania have other theories to explain the early deaths of former miners.

'Those who leave, die'

The Soviet-built former workers’ colony at Ciudanovita in south-west Romania once boasted its own football team - and the stadium is still visible near the entrance to the mine, which is closed with concrete.

Now, the population numbers about 300. The school, once filled with children, has only a handful of pupils. Former miners come to the run-down post office to pick up their pensions because the town does not have any ATMs.

Behind a housing block, a woman is sleeping next to some crates of beer. A man on a balcony talks to us about radiation. He believes poison from the mine is a fairytale.

“I worked in the mine and I have 11 kids. If there had been radiation, I wouldn’t have been making so many,” he says.

There is a legend that people who leave the zone become sick and die, while those that stay remain healthy. Two old men, also former miners, drinking beer on a bench say those who left the town died from lung disease. Others, who could not accustom themselves to a life in another place, returned to the town.

Deep contamination

In the Czech Republic, similar to Romania, there is no national strategy for monitoring the health of former miners or locals.

“Hundreds of miners died as a consequence of having worked in the uranium mines and the impact on the landscape is among the worst environmental disasters in the Czech Republic,” says a spokesperson for campaign group Association for the Preservation of the Environment (Calla).

In Straz pod Ralskem, 100km north of Prague, uranium was extracted between 1967 and 1993 using a process called in-situ leaching (ISL). This involved digging more than 7,000 wells and pumping more than four million tonnes of sulphuric and nitric acid and ammonium into the mine through metal tubes. Uranium was then extracted in solution.

But these chemicals leaked from the production area into the nearby river for more than a decade, contaminating millions of litres of underground water close to drinking-water reservoirs.

Meanwhile, dozens of hectares of tailings ponds – pools of water designed to hold waste material from the mines – have been left freely accessible to the public. Only a small sign hidden behind some trees warns visitors this is an area exposed to radiation.

The estimated cost for repairing the environmental damage – a process known as remediation – is almost €2 billion, with an expected completion date of 2037. In many cases the European Union covers up to 85 percent of the costs of remediation.

A local official of Diamo – the state-owned firm responsible for the mines – said that up to September 2015 almost €1 billion had been invested in the region for remediation and liquidation of the former treatment plant.

“All the scrap is being verified in terms of radioactive contamination,” explained the official.

Josef Jadrny, deputy governor of the Regional Authority of Liberec, said contaminated material was being disposed of in tailings ponds at a rate of 100,000 litres a day.

“The contamination in this region is reaching as far as 300m in depth,” he said.

Nature returns

Some 66 sites have been exploited for uranium mining in the Czech Republic, leaving behind 6.33 sq km of tailings ponds. Except Straz pod Ralskem, the only mining production continues at Dolni Rozinka, south-east of Prague, which produces 224 tonnes of uranium per year.

Public trains pass daily beneath the Dolni Rozinka plant’s conveyor belts. Beyond a layer of trees many unprotected tailings ponds lie hidden. The plant is due to close in 2017, and nature has already started to take back the land.

Agriculture is taking place just metres from sites that were used for decades to dump contaminated waste including concrete, scrap, oil and tyres. A flock of wild ducks is nesting in a tailings pond connected to pipes from which yellow chemicals are pumped.

But the Czech authorities now want to build the largest deposit of radioactive waste just a few kilometres away.

Diamo also intends to reopen an old mine in Brzkov about 50km west. The town’s mine, which was closed in 2004, boasts good quality uranium.

But Brzkov mayor Ales Boril is critical of the move. He describes Dolni Rozinka as a "sad place" and wants to avoid sharing its fate.

"I am interested in the future of this place and we want to protect the environment, not destroy it," he says.

He accuses Diamo of putting pressure on politicians to support their plans.

Josef Jadrny, the deputy governor of the Regional Authority of Liberec, says politicians argue that reopening the mines will provide jobs, but they pay no heed to the environment.

“It is a political reason why this company survives, not the interests of the people. It’s a Russian system: mine, mine and mine with no care about the environment and health.”

Diamo failed to put forward any senior official to reply to these allegations, despite repeated attempts to arrange an interview.

Waste dumps to sand traps

Eastern Germany is often viewed as the best example of remediation following intensive uranium mining. Land from the vast network of Soviet-era mines has been transformed into a spa, golf-course and horticultural exhibition.

However, there are still problems.

The total amount of uranium mined in East Germany is only surpassed by production in the USSR, the US and Canada. Wismut, a Communist-era institution, ran mines across the Erzebirge mountains and the Vogtland mountains.

After German reunification, uranium production was stopped and Wismut passed from Soviet control into the hands of the German state. In the 1990s, Wismut changed its role from a mining company to a business dealing with decommissioning, cleaning up, and rehabilitating uranium mines and processing sites.

However, the mining legacy included 48 mine dumps, 311 billion litres of waste rock, 160 billion litres of radioactive sludge, known as tailings, and 15 sq km of waste dumps. Much of this was in or around densely populated areas.

The expected cost for cleaning up the mines was estimated at €7.1 billion, of which around €6 billion has already been spent – compared with €20 million so far spent on rehabilitation in Romania.

The town of Schlema, once the site of a dump, has been restored as a spa town with a golf course over six sq km of waste dump. Wismut prides itself on having the biggest mining rehabilitation project in the world.

However, 3,700 cases of lung cancer among miners in eastern Germnay have been recognised as “occupationally caused” since 1991. A report by Central German Broadcasting (MDR) in 2012 claimed that 100 workers had contracted cancer of the larynx and 2,800 workers suffered from pneumoconiosis, a lung disease often caused by exposure to dust in mines.

This indicates that a connection can be made between uranium mining and occupational diseases – a link that has not been explored properly in the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Romania.

Nevertheless, there are still issues, says uranium expert Peter Diehl.

“In spite of all the planning and expertise applied, there have occurred odd failures, such as slumping slope covers and excessive radon releases from drying waste pile covers,” says Diehl, referring to inadequate attempts to cover radioactive waste.

“In the waste rock pile covers of Schlema, there has been rising radon emissions from Wismut's reclaimed waste rock piles.”

He said these radon emissions had led to public doses above 1 millisievert a year – a measure of the health effect of low levels of ionising radiation on the human body.

The International Commission on Radiological Protection recommends that public doses should not exceed 1 millisievert a year, not including medical and occupational exposures.

Critics have suggested that Wismut is failing to act on this because the 1 millisievert limit is only a recommendation and will not become law until an EU directive is enacted in national legislation in 2018.

Wismut officials refused to be interviewed for this article.


Political failure inflames eastern EU's uranium problem

Adrian Mogos and Michael Bird

https://euobserver.com/investigations/132453

16 March 2016

The EU requires member states to decommission former uranium mines – a move not being honoured by all members. It also requires states to build infrastructure for safe and responsible management of radioactive waste – which is also not being respected.

In the European Union, there are only two countries that produce uranium in large proportions: Romania and the Czech Republic. Their output covers just two percent of the uranium needed to power the EU’s nuclear plants.

But there are moves to open new mines in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Small quantities from the reserves of mines are also produced in France, Germany and Hungary.

However, there is a lack of international oversight of radiation levels in EU member states. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) only collates data that members send.

It has some publications and safety guides on mine reclamation practice, but German uranium expert Peter Diehl stresses that “these are just recommendations and not legally binding”.

The European Commission is the only independent body that monitors radioactivity in air, water, soil and foodstuffs in EU countries. But the number of countries monitored by the Commission’s Euratom agency decreased from eight in 2012 to five in 2015.

A commission spokesman explained that the number of verifications depended on “the availability of qualified staff and budget”, adding that five more were planned for 2016.

The last verifications in Romania were in 2012 and 2008. Slovakia was monitored in 2014, 2008 and 2005. The Czech Republic was inspected in 2010 and 2005.

The verifications, which take just four days to complete, are supposed to include uranium mines, processing facilities and nuclear fuel factories.

The sites in these countries are in remote locations, very far from each other. It is hard to see how the inspectors could have completed a comprehensive analysis of all the sites in such a short period.

One thing is for sure: they never talked to the former miners in the Romanian town of Baita Plai (for more on the situation there, see the first part in this investigation).

'Significant environmental hazards'

Former uranium mines need a stringent, professional and expensive regime of closure and decommissioning, followed by rehabilitation in which nature is allowed to reclaim the mining land.

Throughout this period, the radioactivity must be monitored to ensure that waste and radon gas is not entering into the water supply or air.

Yet in Romania, just two of 23 uranium mining sites have been shut down in this way. Many mines stand inactive or suffer delays and staggered works, leading many to believe that a slow-burning environmental disaster is taking place across the countryside.

An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on uranium mining since World War II claims that many of these projects did not have an appropriate level of concern for environmental issues because production was the major priority.

The sites were frequently abandoned at the end of mine life with little or no remediation, the formal term for repairing environmental damage.

“Waste rock containing sulphides (even at very low concentrations) can oxidise and release heavy metals and radioactive decay products,” the report said.

“Unless managed correctly, they have the potential to adversely impact the environment for decades if not centuries to follow. Many of these sites have not been remediated and still present significant environmental hazards.”

New 'exposure pathways'

In the Romanian regions of Baita Plai and Ciudanovita, several places are still visible where mining exploration took place before 1989.

The mine dumps and waste were not placed into any programme of ecological rehabilitation, and there has been no analysis of waste rock piles.

The role of restoration has been abandoned by man and slowly taken over by nature. Rainwater helps to erode the waste dumps, allowing toxic pollutants to enter the human food chain through drinking water or locally grown crops. Plants and wild animals feed from waste rock piles, helping disperse the dump materials.

On wet days even without a strong wind, higher levels of radon can be detected. Yet, there have been no studies about the quantity of elements transported by animals, the wind or through water.

Officials from the Romanian ministry of the environment and climate change agree that the main impact on the environment from the mining industry comes from mine dumps and tailings ponds – pools of water containing liquid waste from mines.

Although rehabilitation of the contaminated sites should be designed to provide protection to water resources, food security and human health, this does not happen.

Dr Eberhard Falck, an expert in the long-term management of uranium mining legacies, said the failure to cover residues properly could lead to exposure through “outgassing” - the release of a gas that was dissolved or trapped in another material.

"If the residues are not covered, or if the cover has been breached, contaminants may be leached and may reach surface water and groundwater, creating thus a potential exposure pathway," added Dr Falck, of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines University near Versailles, France.

As well as the former mines, there are also 23 uranium ore dumps in Romania. Some material from these dumps has been scattered in farmland, and animals drink water from streams that contain heavy metals and radionuclides.

Yet the authorities analyse only the drinking water. An environmental official said there was “no limit” regarding levels of radionuclides in water for wild animals or plants.

'Positive' inspections

The closure of the mines is a difficult procedure that involves many Romanian institutions.

Conversmin, a firm belonging to the ministry of economy, supervises inactive mines until they begin a process of closure. The National Uranium Company (CNU) oversees uranium resources. The National Council for Controlling Nuclear Activity (CNCAN) approves all licences for supervising and closing the mines, and monitors the decommissioning.

Responding to the issues highlighted in this investigation, CNCAN officials insisted they had followed the law on individual radiation monitoring of people exposed in their jobs and had centralised data on the doses, which were within the allowable limits.

They said environmental radioactivity caused by mining and processing of uranium was also within the legal limits, and added that Euratom had checked the radiological situation at the perimeter of closed uranium mines in 2012 and 2008, and the results were “positive after the ending of both missions”.

The Romanian government has promised to invest €220 million in the closure of 23 uranium sites, but so far only 10 percent of this figure has been absorbed.

Since the end of the Soviet era, only five mines have been used in Romania. Initially, all were meant to be closed and rehabilitated by 2009. This date was pushed back to December 2015 because of a lack of funds. Now, an exact date for closure is unknown.

No transparency

In Ciudanovita, 500km west of Bucharest, uranium waste deposits have been spread over 37,000 square metres, the size of five Olympic stadiums. The nearby mine of Lisava is one of the main sources of pollution in the country.

CNU, the state-owned mining firm, was fined in 2001 roughly €2,000 for not fulfilling the environment criteria for exploitation, and in 2002 a further €4,500 for not rehabilitating the dumps from mining exploitation.

These mines were the first to be included in the closure plan from 1999, but the works were never finished. Now the road out of Ciudanovita passes through the uranium unloading station. The buildings have not been decommissioned, and their construction looks unfinished.

Rehabilitation works had to be stopped periodically because of a lack of funding, causing the initial works to degrade. The works then have to start again from scratch.

Meanwhile, radiation levels in underground water in Ciudanovita and Lisava has grown by three to four times.

The bidding process for the rehabilitation work has been widely criticised for a lack of transparency in Romanian media.

Gheorghe Mois, an entrepreneur well known for his wide political connections, won most of the decommissioning contracts. He failed to reply to requests to be interviewed for this investigation.

'Crushed tyres and ash'

The Czechs are spending billions on the rehabilitation of the landscape – many times more than the Romanian authorities.

Unlike in Romania, where a network of government agencies is responsible for the process, a single state-owned firm is responsible for remediation, radiation monitoring and running the existing mines.

The firm, Diamo, also plans to open a new mine.

Czechs have widely questioned the wisdom of this arrangement, suggesting Diamo has a serious conflict of interest.

During the Soviet era, all of the mineralised uranium rock from mines in Czechoslovakia was transported to either the USSR or to uranium processing plants in Mydlovary and Dolni Rozinka, now in the Czech Republic.

Mydlovary, a small village 150km south of Prague, is one of a number of areas near to the capital that faces problems related to uranium mining. A chemical treatment plant for uranium ore has largely destroyed Mydlovary's landscape and ecology.

The plant was open between 1962 and 1991, creating hectares of contaminated sludge. After the closure of the reprocessing uranium plant, the waste sludge was placed in lignite (brown coal) mine shafts.

This radioactive sludge contained heavy metals like mercury and lead, as well as arsenic, and spread into the surrounding landscape and villages, the air and groundwater. Some €150 million has been earmarked to rehabilitate the site.

It is often not a uranium mine’s residual radioactivity that poses a problem for the environment, but rather “other heavy metals or constituents such as arsenic originating from the mineralogical matrix”, according to uranium-mining legacy expert Dr Eberhard Falck.

Experts attack the “slow” progress of works on the massive estate of tailings ponds, which started almost 20 years ago but is not due to be finished until 2024.

A group of local mothers formed an NGO, South Bohemian Mothers, to call for more responsible rehabilitation.

The NGO's Monika Machova Wittingerova accuses Diamo, which is in charge of the rehabilitation, of using “crushed tyres and ash from heating plants to solidify the sludge”, then burying it under soil.

She emphasises that waste needs to be isolated to prevent water with heavy metals and radioactive substances spreading into the groundwater and surface water.

Diamo has not responded to these criticisms.

But for Wittingerova, and many other campaigners, these local issues are just symptoms of a much wider problem.

She feels she has been lied to by those who say nuclear processes can provide clean energy.

"The solution globally is to stop uranium exploration, and to focus on more environmentally friendly ways of energy production," she says.

This article is the second part of an investigation on the legacy of uranium mining in eastern EU countries, developed with support by Journalismfund.eu.

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