MAC: Mines and Communities

South Africa: how a desert uranium mine got stopped

Published by MAC on 2019-05-28
Source: Karoo Times, Beyond Nuclear International (2019-05-26)

"Nature" - however we may characterise it - may have the power to de-rail some of the worst schemes of mines and men.

The discovery by a farmer's wife of a rare plant species triggered a number of other developments, leading to the abandonment of a prospective uranium  mine in South Africa

 

The tiny plant that helped save a desert from uranium mining

beyondnuclearinternational/ Karoo Times

26 May  2019

South Africa’s Karoo has been spared nuclear desecration — for now

By Stefan Cramer

People all over the Karoo were deeply shocked when they found out way back
in 2014 that their backyards had been licensed for uranium exploration.

Farms from places as far as Prince Albert to Murraysburg, from
Steytlerville to Merweville, were suddenly earmarked by an unknown
Australian mining company called PENINSULA ENERGY.

They reckoned that they were sitting on a world-class deposit of the
“nuclear stuff” only a few metres below the dry Karoo surface. Sure, there
had been attempts in the last century. However, nothing had come of it
except for a few ugly holes around Beaufort West, still polluting the
environment until today.

At that time people knew or had heard about fracking. Yes, there were
consultations and a public outcry about the oil and gas industry suddenly
carving out large chunks of the Karoo. Actually, the entire Karoo was
marked for drilling and fracking for natural gas from the shales deeply
buried in the Karoo. Some landowners got together to voice their
opposition, others signed petitions and attended meetings. But uranium was
on nobody’s radar screen.

Yet, the uranium industry was miles ahead. When the news broke, they had
basically finished their exploration exercise, had drilled thousands of
boreholes, and were already applying for mining licenses all over the
place.

But uranium is potentially a much bigger, more imminent and more dangerous
prospect: hundreds of farms were marked for open-pit mining, potentially
creating large plumes of radioactive dust blowing over the Karoo and
contaminating the few groundwater resources that are left here for
agriculture.

However, things changed quickly in 2015 when word spread, and people
started to realize the impending threat. This was just in time, as the
application processes for exploration and mining licenses allowed for
public input.

Suddenly, hundreds of submissions flowed to the Department of Mineral
Resources, whereas in the past there was a slow trickle of only two or
three. More and more, these submissions were high-powered, arguing
scientifically and with legal weight and institutional support.

Then one thing happened that nobody expected.

One good morning after a beautiful rain, a farmer’s wife near Aberdeen
discovered a tiny little plant in the veld, only a few millimetres high
and which she had not seen before.

A quick check by botanical specialists revealed that this was a rare
species of Nananthus, a tiny succulent never studied in these areas. The
botanical survey of the developers — it turned out — had missed it,
including many other endemic plants. The entire environmental impact
assessment was delayed, and botanical studies had to be redone.

That bought us enough time to organize a group of some twenty concerned
South African scientists to develop a more systematic submission arguing
forcefully why uranium mining is not an option for the Karoo. The
developers were fuming.

Meanwhile, things also didn’t go well for the Australian-based company at
their main mine in Wyoming in the USA. There, they had chosen the wrong
technology and the mine yields were plummeting. Yet, prices for uranium
were and are still so depressed, as nobody had built nuclear power
stations in the last twenty years and the appetite for more is low after
Fukushima.

Technically, the company was broke, if it were not for the deep pockets of
their Russian backers. But even Russian oligarchs have no money to waste –
and so eventually they pulled the plug on the Karoo adventure, after
having burnt more than 10 million US-dollars in legal fees and consultants
– and sure some splendid banquets for the politicians involved.

In October 2017 the company finally threw in the towel and announced it
would completely and permanently withdraw from the Karoo. Being unable to
even sell their share in this project to any bidder, they had to cancel
the entire application processes.

They now have to use the proceeds from the sale of the 300,000 hectares of
farm lands around the proposed uranium mines in the Karoo for their
rehabilitation obligations.

We have to watch out to ensure it is done properly, as the stakes are
high, and it will be easy for them to skip the more demanding tasks of
rehabilitating the Rest Kuil Mine (near Rietbron) or the Rietkuil pit
between Beaufort West and Merweville, if residents are not vigilant.

It is still not clear whether this is a permanent victory for the
integrity of the Karoo. While any new contender will have to think twice,
after such deep pockets failed, there is another scenario on the horizon.

If the Russian and Chinese manage to build the next generation of nuclear
power stations across the world and the price of uranium shoots through
the roof again, some desperados may feel inclined to test the Karoo case
again. It is therefore imperative to continue the struggle against nuclear
power and nuclear weapons, back home in the Karoo and everywhere else.

Dr. Stefan Cramer is science advisor to Southern African Faith Communities
Environment Institute.

 

 

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