Last uranium mine in Central Europe ceases operations after 60 years

Symbolic final wagon from Rožná 1 mine, photo: CTK

The last uranium mine in Central Europe, the Rožná 1 mine at Žďár nad Sázavou in the Vysočina region, has officially ceased operations. Much of the uranium extracted in its 60-year history ended up in the Soviet Union.

Symbolic final wagon from Rožná 1 mine,  photo: CTK
The mine closed on Thursday when the symbolic final wagon carrying extracted materials was sent to the surface. In reality Rožná ceased to be a fully working mine last year (when 72 tonnes was extracted) and workers from the Geam mining company are already carrying out work to dismantle it.

The mine had been threatened with closure several times in the past only for the government to intervene to keep it running.

Thursday’s winding down ceremony was due to be attended by executives from the state enterprise Diamo, which runs Geam, and representatives of the Ministry of Industry and the State Mining Administration.

Uranium ore deposits were discovered at Rožná in 1956 and mining was officially launched the following year. It was named the Karel Havlíček Borovský mine, after the 19th century Czech writer.

Over the decades almost 17 million tonnes of uranium ore was extracted at Rožná and used to produce 23,000 tonnes of uranium metal.

Uranium mining in the then Czechoslovakia began in 1946, the daily Hospodářské noviny wrote on Thursday. Under a contract signed the previous year, all of the uranium produced was sent to the Soviet Union.

Extraction reached a peak in 1960, when 3000 tonnes was mined in one year. The practice of using political prisoners as forced labourers in the uranium mines was brought to an end in 1961.

Symbolic final wagon from Rožná 1 mine,  photo: CTK
In a period starting in 1949 an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 political prisoners had passed through the mines. At the notorious Jáchymov mine alone up to 4,500 are believed to have died.

Contact with the substance and harsh conditions were the most frequent causes of death, though some committed suicide and others were shot trying to escape.

Political prisoners accounted at one point for up to 40 percent of the labour force. Regular criminals were also forced to work in the mines, Hospodářské noviny said, while in 1949 some of the miners were German POWs.

However, uranium was in such demand in the Soviet Union that the job came with attractive salaries for “civilian” workers.

In total some 112,000 tonnes of uranium was extracted in Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic) over the industry’s six-decade history.