The Czech "radioactive" dillema

Former Svornost uranium mine in Jáchymov

Czechia has substantial deposits of uranium. Radioactive ore was mined here in the second half of the 20th century. Most of it was sent to the former Soviet Union within a dubious deal from which Czechs had little profit. Since the mining operations caused heavy environmental damage and brought little profit to the country, they were gradually phased-out. But there are still uranium deposits that might be exploited in the future.

Former Svornost uranium mine in Jáchymov | Photo: Miloš Turek,  Radio Prague International
It is well-known that Marie Curie-Sklodowska and her French husband received their Nobel Prize for physics in 1903 for isolating isotopes of polonium and uranium. Not so well known is the fact that the Curies used pitchblende or uranium-rich mineral from Jáchymov in present-day Czechia. This strange ore was mined in the Czech mountains since the first half of the 19th century more as a curiosity than a strategic material. World War II changed that.

The Soviet Union was developing its own atomic bomb. But while it had the scientific capacity to do so, it did not have uranium mines at that time. Czechoslovakia did and they had been unsuccessfully exploited by the Nazis during the war.

The Diamo mining state enterprise is now the only institution in the Czech Republic authorized to clean up the deserted uranium mines and potentially also reopen them, should it be deemed necessary. Marian Böhm is the deputy director and recounts the history of uranium mining in the then Czechoslovakia:

“It all started in 1945. In November of that year, the Czechoslovak government signed a treaty with the Soviet Union. As a result, foundations of the state Uranium Mining Enterprise were established in January 1946 and the first pits opened in Jáchymov in Western Bohemia.

“The mining there peaked between 1960 and 1973. The record yearly production was over 3 000 tons which was a really massive output given the size of our operations. Of course, all of it was exported to the Soviet Union. First as a part of barter trade between the two countries. Later, the USSR paid a mutually agreed price for the uranium. After our nuclear power plants were completed the priority customer became their owner: the ČEZ Group – the largest electric power producer in the Czech Republic. To sum it up: between 1946 and last year 112 195 tons of uranium was mined.“

Photo: archive of Diamo
Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic became one of the top ten uranium producing countries in the world. But the yield could hardly justify the environmental damage, says Martin Holý, director of the Geology Department at the Czech Ministry of Environment:

"For all this, we got some 16 thousand tons of uranium ore, which was for the most part exported to the Soviet Union. The mining area was not that large, but as a result, water resources are contaminated or polluted in an area of about 25 square kilometers. Given the continuing water shortages in our landscape, I consider it a matter of grave concern. By the way, environmental remediation and water decontamination will have to go on for at least twenty more years and it costs billions of Czech crowns each year. So if I consider all this, I think the damage caused by chemical uranium mining is worse than that caused say by coal mining in Northern Bohemia.“

Nevertheless, there are still substantial deposits of uranium in Czechia. The devil is in the detail, says director Martin Holý:

"We have theoretically 135 000 tons of uranium according to the calculations. That is a substantial amount in the European context. The problem is that about 85 percent of this amount cannot be mined profitably at present. That means that you can get cheaper uranium on the world market today. What is worse from the environmental point of view, more than 90 percent of those deposits could at present be mined only in-situ or by leaching as I described it earlier, which is not legal under current legislation. It would have to be mined in an open pit and then processed in some plant which again would be uneconomical. So these deposits are of no real use at present.“

But mining know-how and technology are constantly improving. What was impossible or environmentally harmful a few years ago, does not have to stay so forever. The state enterprise Diamo is not just authorized but also obliged by the law to protect and preserve areas that could be mined in the future. And one such place is in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands near the village of Brzkov and the small town of Přibyslav.

The landscape here is almost idyllic: ideal for hiking, you can walk among evergreen groves and fields, across streams and meadows. Aleš Bořil is the mayor of Brzkov, a village with just a little over 300 inhabitants. To put it mildly, they were not very pleased to learn that the Diamo company had applied to extend the area that might be used for uranium mining:

"We have this beautiful unspoiled nature here. I think we have to protect it. After all, it is the only thing we have to offer to people to stay and live here. It is our duty to keep it for the next generation. We mustn't make a mistake that could have a serious environmental impact that future generations would have to deal with.“

Finally, I spoke to Pavel Kavina, Director of Raw Material Policy Department at the Ministry of Trade and Industry. If uranium exploration and mining should go ahead, it is this government body which would be responsible for that:

Brzkov inhabitants protest against uranium mining,  photo: Hana Mikulincová / Czech Radio
"We are not at present planning restarting uranium mining in the Czech Republic. However, this does not mean that our state should not have up-to-date detailed information about its natural resources. Czechoslovakia used to be one of the most thoroughly geologically surveyed countries. In the past three decades, the technology in this field has progressed greatly. We are also interested in different commodities than we were thirty years ago. In order to be able to manage our resources in the best possible way, the state needs the best and most detailed surveys available. That is why the Diamo state enterprise applied to reserve some new areas for surveying and one of them is for uranium.“

So, while Czechia has no immediate plans to restart uranium mining, the authorities responsible are refusing to sweep it completely off the table. The “radioactive” dilemma remains something to be considered.