Uranium mining operations in Africa are being monitored actively by a wide range of organisations worldwide. After the last international uranium mining conference in Tanzania, November 2010, several reports have been published on the topic by various organisations.
A February 2011 study on financial benefits from uranium mining to African host states, Radioactive Revenues (Nuclear Monitor 727, May 27, 2011) published by the Dutch Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, SOMO, in collaboration with WISE Amsterdam, is now followed by a more extensive study on mitigation of social and environmental impacts. The new report analyses what mitigation measures are taken by companies and governments in the Central African Republic, South Africa, and Namibia, and compares these practices and results with the situation in Canada and Australia. The report, entitled Uranium From Africa. Mitigation of Uranium Mining Impacts on Society and Environment by Industry and Governments, will be published July 1, 2011
Reason for this study to be undertaken was the observation that the sudden increase in uranium prices in 2005/2006 has led to an augmentation of uranium mining activities in Africa. This uranium rush followed a uranium price increase, which developed after secondary uranium stocks - from superfluous Cold War nuclear weapons – started to decrease and the nuclear industry hoped to begin their often-mentioned but never-realized ‘Nuclear Renaissance’. The uranium rush has had its effects worldwide: hundreds of uranium prospection and exploitation companies were quickly established by speculators, who all have put claims on uranium deposits. However, with the most attractive deposits already claimed by the large players, and unfavorable conditions in some countries (Australia, rich in uranium, has several provinces which have put moratoria on uranium mining), Africa has received much attention from the industry. The lack of strict regulations and the absence of pressure on companies to be accountable for the effects of their operations in Africa are likely to influence Africa’s popularity.
Uranium mines are notorious for their impacts on environment and health. Processing of the radioactive uranium ores to produce a marketable product, uranium ore concentrate, inevitably leads to a release of uranium and its toxic and radioactive decay products, as well as other heavy metals, into the environment. In the best case, only soils become contaminated. In reality, radioactive contamination of ground and surface water, soils, and air, is commonly measured near uranium mines worldwide. Inhalation and ingestion of toxic and radioactive elements can lead to various diseases in humans.
In the study, behavior of companies and governments was analyzed by use of a questionnaire on the mining operations. The questionnaire was sent to NGOs, governments, and the industry. Topics that were treated in the questionnaire were:
* General policies, which concern agreements with host governments, documentation, certification, stakeholder engagement, grievance mechanisms, closure planning;
* Economy on the economic impacts and revenue transparency. The economic part on revenues and revenue transparency was used for the report Radioactive Revenues, the joint SOMO/WISE publication published in February 2011.
* Environment, impacts from mining in general, and uranium mining specifically. Special attention wass given to tailings, the mining waste. Piles of waste rock and ponds of tailings are toxic and radioactive and need to be handled with special care. Isolation from the environment is required. Questions were asked about energy use, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water consumption, biodiversity, radiological surveys in the region.
* Labour rights on issues such as number of workforce, ethnicity and gender, discrimination, strikes, lock-outs, wages, occupational health and safety, and radiation protection for workers.
* Society considered participation of indigenous peoples and communities; Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, forced resettlements, security forces, public policy, corruption and compliance.
A selection of operations was analyzed: in the Central African Republic, Areva’s Bakouma mine; in South Africa, AngloGold Ashanti’s Vaal River operations, as well as First Uranium’s Ezulwini mine and MWS tailings reprocessing operation; and in Namibia, Areva’s Trekkopje mine, Paladin’s Langer Heinrich mine, and Rio Tinto’s Rössing mine.
In all operations, problems were paramount. Ranging from irresponsibly high water consumption in the desert, to hiding the deaths of workers, to absolute non-communication and denial of the public to the right to participate in decision-making processes; many worrying situations were observed.
The report concludes: ‘The question ‘What do industries and governments do to mitigate the negative impacts caused by uranium mining?’ cannot always be answered properly for every mining operation. Lack of transparency and accountability keep important information shielded from the public eye. This is a worrying signal. It has been widely recognised that accountability and transparency are crucial factors in whether or not populations can benefit from their natural resources. The lack of accountability and transparency observed in the Central African Republic, South Africa, and Namibia, can and does lead to mismanagement, and possibly also to corruption.
Company behaviour and Corporate Social Responsibility performance are highly variable. Environmental and social impacts remain significant; but addressing these issues can help prevent the worst case scenarios. Rio Tinto’s prior poor performance is improving by the use of extensive Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility programmes. AngloGold Ashanti seems to be following the same strategy. Both companies do address their negative impacts and have installed structures and projects to mitigate these. Areva is still highly centralised and is giving little attention to local issues such as stakeholder communication and public participation. Mitigation measures which were described by the company were minimal, which is surprising for a large nuclear energy company, rich in resources and experience. First Uranium performs poorly, especially on public participation and transparency. Claims of good corporate behaviour are not based on disclosed evidence, and are weakened even more by the company’s refusal to communicate openly and acknowledge real concerns of affected populations. Paladin Energy is not giving any proof of active and effective mitigation of their negative impacts.
The negative consequences from uranium mining were known before the writing of this report. Yet the current mitigation (or ‘greenwashing’) behavior of industry and responsible governments had so far not been described. The current report will therefore be helpful to point the nuclear industry as well as Northern and Southern governments at the underperformance of the uranium miners, and provide African NGOs with accurate information on relevant processes and issues in their countries. It can be used as a tool to inform stakeholders, to put pressure on companies, and to enhance awareness on the negative impacts of nuclear energy consumption. Public concern about nuclear energy in the EU is generally not focused on uranium mines in Africa, but it can become a main topic if the public is well-informed about the current situation and behaviour of mining companies they are familiar with.The study was undertaken by WISE Amsterdam in collaboration with SOMO and can freely be obtained by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
The February 2011 study Radioactive Revenues, on financial benefits from uranium mining operations for African host states, can still be downloaded from http://somo.nl/publications-en/Publication_3629/
U-mining in DR Congo; a radiant business
Another new June 2011 study, by the Ecumenical Network Central Africa (ENCA), entitled Uranium Mining in the DR Congo. A Radiant Business for European Nuclear Companies? Focuses on AREVA’s practices in the Katanga mining province in the DRC and makes the connection with Siemens and German banks. It can be downloaded from
A Cameroonian network of organisations has recently published an information brochure with practical information on uranium in Cameroon. Among others, the Center for Environment and Development (CED) and the Network of Struggle against Hunger (RELUFA) have worked on the brochure – both Cameroonian organisations which give much attention to the topic of uranium mining. The brochure contains some general information on the advantages and drawbacks of uranium mining, and poses some fundamental questions to the government. According to the brochure, the Cameroonian government needs to ‘consider the exploitation of this resource with much discernment in order to take a decision which will meet the interests of the population in the best possible way.’ The brochure concludes with the questions ‘When comparing the possible advantages of a uranium project with the negative impacts, is the risk of an imbalance in favor of negative impacts not too important? In the current context, do we need to exploit this resource, or should we leave it in the ground?’
The brochure can be found at http://www.relufa.org/documents/BrochureURANIUMCameroun.pdf
Source and contact: Fleur Scheele at WISE Amsterdam