African action highlights uranium risks
The global uranium sector remains hard hit by the market fallout from the continuing Fukushima nuclear crisis with the uranium price falling 50% and severe cuts to the share value and profitability of uranium producers since March 2011.
Given this reality and the global financial crisis induced lack of access to easy and cheap cash, uranium producers in many parts of the world are cutting costs, corners and operations. They are also increasingly looking to traditional areas of low cost and governance as the place for a new wave of uranium development and exploitation − as a result Africa is firmly on the atomic agenda.
The thinking behind the renewed industry push into Africa was starkly expressed in 2006 when John Borshoff, the bullish and increasingly embattled CEO of Paladin Energy − an Australian company with highly contested operations in Malawi and Namibia − outlined the corporate rationale underpinning the renewed African push by uranium hopefuls: "The Australians and the Canadians have become over-sophisticated in their environmental and social concerns over uranium mining, the future is in Africa."
This type of thinking bodes ill for both people and the environment should uranium mining plans become a reality in the growing number of places in Africa where this trade is either expanding or gaining a foothold.
In response to the growing pressure for increased uranium mining in Africa, a group of Tanzanian and European environment, public health and legal rights organisations recently conducted an ambitious uranium awareness initiative in Tanzania to highlight nuclear concerns both there and more widely across and throughout Africa.
The initiative − which took place in early October 2013 − began with a field visit to exploration sites around the Dodoma/Bahi region in central Tanzania − the site of extensive, and contested, uranium exploration.
The country is dry with low rocky ranges, lots of scrubby plains and clay pans and a key feature is an intermittent wetland basin known as the Bahi swamp that supports lots of community and economic activity and food production including cattle herding, fishing and rice.
Much of the exploration is being undertaken by the Australian company Uranex and there is a high level of community concern over possible future impacts on land access and use and water concerns.
Despite being both lawful and widely supported by the local community, the field trip attracted the attention of the local authorities with police arriving and arresting a key community organiser from CESOPE, a Tanzanian environmental organisation that has been leading much grassroots work aimed at increasing awareness of the impacts of uranium mining.
Through a combination of group solidarity, with 50 visiting delegates and participants refusing to leave the local police station, and the intervention of a national parliamentarian and human rights lawyer, all was resolved. But the incident was a direct and potent insight into the everyday difficulties faced by local organisers and communities.
The site visit was followed by a major community meeting on the health and environmental impacts of uranium mining. Because of a directive from the local authorities this had to be relocated at short notice from the affected village area to the nearby town of Dodoma, the Tanzanian national capital. Despite this attempt to derail the event, the meeting was strong and positive with over 500 people attending and actively engaging.
The keynote presentations from visiting medical and industry experts and critics from North America, Europe, Australia and across Africa were well received and interspersed with songs, chants, enthusiastic Swahili campaign exhortations and theatre pieces and the day generated considerable energy, media and community attention.
Following this meeting the initiative returned to Tanzania's principal city, Dar Es Salaam, for a major international conference exploring the health and environmental impacts of uranium mining. The event attracted a lot of national media and stakeholder and government attention. It also attracted the attention of the Tanzanian national security service − again it was clear that the uranium issue is very sensitive at this time.
Conference delegates also met with and briefed a range of Tanzanian based stakeholders including the Mines Commissioner, industry regulators, journalists, diplomats and civil society representatives to raise concerns and experiences in relation to the uranium and nuclear industries in their home countries and any lessons and implications that these may have for African nations and communities.
African Uranium Alliance
The conference was followed by a positive meeting of the African Uranium Alliance, a continent-wide group of nuclear free activists who meet annually to share stories and strategies to strengthen effective opposition to the uranium and wider nuclear sector across Africa and to promote the vision of a secure energy future for the continent that is renewable, not radioactive.
As the majority of delegates departed Dar Es Salaam some Swiss, French, German and Australian visitors joined with Tanzanian civil society representatives on a journey to Songea in the far south of the country to meet with people affected by Mantra Resources Mkuju River project, Tanzania's most advanced uranium project. Mantra Resources was an Australian company but has been bought out by an international consortium from Russia, Canada and South Africa and now is the project operator rather than owner.
The trip involved long hours of road travel and, despite earlier assurances, a combination of major bureaucracy and miner trickery meant the delegation was unable to actually visit the site. This disappointment again highlighted the lack of transparency surrounding the uranium sector in Tanzania, and elsewhere.
The visit provided a much clearer understanding of both the political and geographical landscape and the opportunity to meet with a range of regional faith, labour rights and environmental representatives who shared their concerns around the threat of uranium mining in the region.
The last two days of the initiative were spent travelling some pretty remote and dusty roads that are slated for a major infrastructure upgrade to facilitate the development of the extractives industry − including planned multiple uranium projects in southern Tanzania. All the signs are there − road camps, clearing for electricity transmission lines, new signage and planned regional port upgrades to handle hazardous materials.
Those who are working for a nuclear free future in Tanzania − as is the case elsewhere − face challenging times. But if the road ahead for the miners is half as bumpy as the one we travelled then they too will face some real hurdles.
The Tanzanian uranium initiative was an important, well-grounded and positive contribution to charting a course to a nuclear free future in this country and across Africa. The initiative grew from the vision and hard work of Tanzanian civil society groups including the grass roots CESOPE, NaCUM (the National Coalition on Uranium Mining Tanzania) and the LHRC (Legal Aid Human Rights Centre), supported by the European based chapters of the Uranium Network and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and facilitated by donors including the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.
These groups − and the many people on the ground working daily for a cleaner and safer future − deserve our recognition and respect. And the industry that fuels their concern and global radioactive risk demands our resistance.
More information: www.uranium-network.org/index.php/conference-in-bahi-dar-es-salaam
Author: Dave Sweeney − Nuclear Free Campaigner, Australian Conservation Foundation