Energy:  Uranium

Every day the world uses 15 terawatts of power- enough to simultaneously power 150 billion light bulbs?
Each person in the UK uses 1985 kilo watts of energy per year?
That the UK is reliant on over 40 countries across the globe for fuel to produce energy?
That every time you switch on a lamp, charge your phone, make a cup of tea or cook dinner you use energy sourced from some of the poorest African countries including Niger and the Central African Republic?

25 years after the catastrophe of Chernobyl, nuclear energy is still a growing market. Even as protests against nuclear energy rise worldwide, several hundred more nuclear power plants are planned to be built within the decade. Today, the risks of nuclear power are discussed openly; however much of the discussion is focused on  the dangers of running nuclear power stations in the Western world, and the storage of the waste by products that are created. Hardly any attention has been given to the circumstances under which uranium, the raw material required for nuclear energy, is produced. The fact is that there are a myriad of other factors that need to be discussed when talking about nuclear energy- from the working conditions in uranium mines, the health risks, environmental damage and the flow of profits in the business.

Uranium in Africa

The African continent possesses a large share of the world’s uranium. The radioactive metal is currently mined in Niger and Namibia and is recovered as a by-product of gold mining in South Africa. It is also mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Madagascar, as well as in Zambia, where it was recovered as a by-product of copper mining. Almost all the mining is carried out by multinational companies, most notably French’s Areva and the Anglo-American consortium, the Rio Tinto Group. African uranium is also attracting interest from emerging economies, particularly China and India. Nearly all the mined uranium goes to plants in Europe, America or Australia to be processed for us in the Western world- indeed, despite Africa’s vast uranium reserves, there is only one nuclear power plant on the African continent that processes uranium for use by Africans- the Koeberg power plant in South Africa’s Western Cape.

Positive effects of uranium mining

1. In all African uranium-producing countries barring South Africa, uranium mining revenues represent a considerable share of gross domestic product (GDP) and are set to increase. In 2008, 4% of Namibia’s GDP came from uranium mining; a figure that could increase to 13% in 2015. Malawi’s total government revenues in 2010 were about $1.12 billion, of which $1.6 million (1%) came from uranium mining.

2. Mining companies also provide thousands of jobs. In Niger, Areva’s payroll totalled 4 950 in 2013 and the company claims to have created 10 000 jobs since operations began.

3. Furthermore, either through contributions to government budgets or direct investments from the industry, uranium mining often improves local infrastructure. In the Central African Republic Areva has stated its intention to invest in roads, health and education facilities and electricity supply (although whether or not all these investments materialise and directly benefit the population remains to be seen).

4. Mining companies also have corporate social responsibility programmes on health or education: in South Africa, AngloGold Ashanti runs health programmes against HIV/Aids and tuberculosis and First Uranium has an Adult Basic Education and Training Programme that benefits employees and non-employees. Companies do not, however, always deliver on their promises regarding social responsibility: for example, Namibians of the Erongo Region recently complained that Areva was the only mining company (of over a hundred that operate in the area) that responded to a call to support local development initiatives.

Negative effects of uranium mining

1.  There are serious health risks associated with the mining of uranium due to exposure to gamma radiation and the inhalation of radon gas, both of which have been known to cause cancer. Radiation and radioactive radon gas can affect mineworkers, who are often poorly paid local workers, as people living and working close to mining areas and roads that are used for transport of ores.

2. Uranium mining can have a destructive effect on the environment. Often open-pit mines are hundreds of metres wide and deep, and their construction often involves the destruction of local ecosystems. Furthermore radioactive materials, either in solid, liquid or gaseous state, are transported by air, in water and in soils. Therefore the negative effects of uranium mining are further reaching than in the immediate vicinity of the mining site.

3. Uranium mining can lead to water shortages in a region that is already affected by water shortages and droughts. Uranium mining requires the input of large quantities of fresh water, which can lead to water shortages in other sectors.

4. Uranium mining produces a by-product called mill tailings, which are often dumped as a sludge in special ponds or piles, where they are abandoned. The tailings still contain 85% of the initial radioactivity of the original ore. Also, the sludge contains heavy metals and other contaminants such as arsenic, as well as chemical reagents used during the milling process. Additionally, uranium mill tailings keep on emitting dangerous radon-222 gas for many years. The dangerous components of tailings are transported into the environment by wind, erosion or dam failures. This happened in Zambia in 2006 where the failure of a tailings slurry pipeline of a copper mine caused the contamination of a river that served as an important drinking water supply for a community living in the Luangwa area.

5. Uranium mining can be a source of social conflict. In Niger, an Areva base was attacked by Tuareg rebels. At the same time, Areva was accused by the Nigerian government of supporting Tuareg militia groups to deter competitors. Social conflict due to uranium mining can also be caused by the unequal distribution of mining profits and revenue.

Uranium- Resolution:Possible?

The future of uranium mining in Africa is uncertain and many of the effects will depend on when and in what context these projects are pursued. Experience shows that African nations should proceed with caution when negotiating new uranium mining projects, as early promises of job creation and increased foreign exchange may quickly disappear if mines are suddenly forced to shut down. Furthermore as with all exportable commodities the capacity lies mostly with the industry and international markets rather than with individual governments. This could be seen especially clearly in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, where uranium prices dropped by a third.

However several African governments are insisting on good practice in uranium mining, which will allow mining to take place in a more sustainable and responsible way. On political issues, South Africa has by far the largest array of laws, regulations and institutions concerning uranium mining, which keep multinationals in check. In the economic sphere the government of Niger has successfully negotiated mining contracts with Areva, issue new mining licences and reserve the right to sell part of the uranium produced in Nigerian mines. As long as global demand for energy remains high it is unlikely that global interest in uranium mining will stop, and therefore it is necessary to work within this reality to ensure that production is sustainable and non exploitative.