Thursday

23rd Nov 2017

Investigation

Political failure inflames eastern EU's uranium problem

  • IAEA inspectors visit power stations, but the agency supplies only non-binding guidelines about radioactivity around mines (Photo: IAEA Imagebank)

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.

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  • The former mine headquarters in Ciudanovita is contaminated, but remains intact (Photo: Adrian Mogos)

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.

Tailings ponds are still accessible to the public in the Czech Republic (Photo: Adrian Mogos)

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.

The Soviets turned concentration camps into uranium mining facilities (Photo: Adrian Mogos)

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.


The first part was about environmental destruction and health problems that Romania and the Czech Republic are still struggling to deal with.

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