Sweden bans uranium mining

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#860
4717
10/05/2018
Charly Hultén ‒ WISE Sweden
Article

All mining of uranium in Sweden will soon be outlawed. The ban also applies to processing of residual uranium in existing tailings, and processing of uranium unearthed in conjunction with extraction of other minerals, e.g. iron, base metals and rare earth elements. Unless Parliament says otherwise, the law will take effect on August 1.

The current Red-Green coalition government, with the support of the Left Party, tabled the proposal in March. But the parties are outnumbered by a four-party non-socialist 'Alliance', plus a pro-nuclear nationalist party, and the prospects of getting the bill through Parliament appeared slim. Then, the rural-based Center Party broke ranks with the Alliance and declared their support for the uranium ban. Spokeswoman Helena Lindahl defended the party's decision: "It's clear to us that 'the renewables society' is on the doorstep, and nuclear energy has no place in it. Which means no place for uranium mining, a hazardous business, either. All things considered, we see no future in it."

The main arguments put forward by proponents of the ban concern the environmental impacts of uranium exploitation and the risks that radioactive pollution poses to human health. A third concern is the acute anxiety communities in uranium-rich regions of the country, from north to south, have experienced from time to time ever since the 1970s. Interest in Swedish uranium rises and falls with fluctuations in world market prices for the metal.

Uranium will now be stricken from the list of concession minerals in the Minerals Act, which means that no permits to prospect for, to explore or exploit uranium deposits can be issued. Relevant passages in the Environmental Code will also be altered accordingly. The inclusion of exploratory activities in the ban comes as a great relief to these communities, who have had to maintain a preparedness to organize 24/7 on-site vigils and, on occasion, non-violent obstruction, to keep concession-holders from breaking ground.

Local governments in Sweden have the right of veto when it comes to land use, including exploitation of mineral resources. But, prospecting and exploration fall under the auspices of the Mining Inspectorate, a non-elected national institution founded in 1637 to promote the country's then-fledgling metallurgic industry. The Inspectorate has on several occasions granted concessions to international prospectors, despite unanimous opposition on the part of County and local government. Furthermore, local government's right to veto mining, while set out in law, has no foundation in the Swedish constitution. Protesters have been painfully aware that it would take no more than a vote of parliament to do away with that protection.

100% imports

Sweden has quite a lot of uranium, reputedly 80 % of EU reserves, and 15% of uranium deposits worldwide. Yet, all of the uranium fuel for Sweden's shrinking nuclear energy park is imported, principally from Canada and Australia. This fact figures in the debate around the ban – perhaps surprisingly, both pro and con:

  • Environmentalists are well aware that mining operations abroad are just as destructive there as they would be here at home. What is more, the impacts are borne by politically and economically disadvantaged groups. This, they reason, is yet another reason to phase out our country's reliance on nuclear energy. ASAP!
  • Some die-hard advocates of nuclear energy point to the same exploitation of landscapes and peoples abroad and find it "immoral" for us to let others suffer the consequences of mining. We should, they argue, exploit our own resources. Therefore, they oppose the ban.

Bitter experience

As in many other countries, Sweden's commitment to nuclear energy was a child of the Cold War, closely intertwined with plans through the 1950s and '60s to develop a 'nuclear defense capacity'. Those plans, long held secret, came to an abrupt halt with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968.

To ensure national self-sufficiency, an open-pit uranium mine was opened in Billingen, an alum shale ridge in south-central Sweden. Operations were short-lived; mining started in 1965 and ceased in 1969. Whether it was ever profitable is a matter of debate.

But the real 'bottom line' is this: In those four years of operation, the mine and processing plant produced a total of 215 tons of uranium. And 1,500,000 tons of radioactive tailings.

The tailings were stashed in a natural depression near the processing plant, an area of about 25 hectares, which subsequently turned into a man-made lake. Unfortunately, the effects of precipitation had been grossly underestimated. In 1990, a program to mitigate leaching from the depot got under way. The program was termed successful; radioactivity in and around the 'lake' had been brought under hazard thresholds in 2006. In 2007 the program had cost SEK 250 million. Further improvements, from 2008 to the near-present, have cost an additional 200 million, at least. (That translates into approximately €50 million / US$56 million in historical prices for the period as a whole). This past January the area was declared an 'environmental risk area'. The area remains polluted, but mitigation efforts will cease. It will continue to be monitored, and uses of the area restricted.

Sources (all in Swedish):

‒ Government Bill 2017/18:212, Förbud mot utvinning av uran. www.regeringen.se/496172/

‒ Lars Olof Höglund: Kunskapsläge om miljökonsekvenser av prospektering, utvinning och bearbetning av mineraltillgångar av uran [What is known about the environmental consequences of prospecting, mining and processing of uranium ores]. Kemakta AR 2010-07 (2010). www.naturvardsverket.se/

‒ Regeringen. "Regeringen vill förbjuda utvinning av uran i Sverige", 1 March 2018. (Press release) www.regeringen.se/pressmeddelanden/2018/03/regeringen-vill-forbjuda-utvi...

‒ Skaraborgs Allehanda: Deponi i Ranstad skyddas. 11 January 2018.

‒ Sveriges Radio/Ekot: Stöd för förbud mot uranbrytning. 19 April 2018.

‒ SWECO. Underlag för beslut om miljöriskområde för lakresthögen vid Ranstad [Supporting documentation for decision to declare the tailings at Ranstad an environmental risk area], Study commissioned by the County of Västra Götaland. 2016-11-23, revised 2017-05-10. www.lansstyrelsen.se/VastraGotaland/SiteCollectionDocuments/Sv/om-lansst...