President backs continued uranium mining but economic argument looks weak

Шахта Рожна (Фото: Даниэл Бурда, Чешское радио)

Czech President Miloš Zeman has backed continued mining of uranium in the country after the existing mine shuts down in a few years. But although government ministers support the idea, the overall economic argument is looking weak amid low prices for nuclear fuel.

Rožná mine, photo: Daniel Burda
Uranium mining has a fairly long and mixed history in the Czech Republic. It was supplies of uranium ore from Jáchymov in the far north-west of the country that helped Marie Curie to discover radium. But the mining industry really developed after the Second World War when the then Czechoslovakia agreed to become one of the main suppliers of the Soviet Union, then frantically seeking to catch up with the United States and develop their first atom bomb. Dozens of uranium mines sprouted across the country, some using forced labour during the communist era.

Now there is only one Czech mine still operating at the Rožná site in the centre of the country, and it is scheduled to shut down in 2017. It is the only European uranium mine still operating outside of Romania.

The Ministry of Industry and Trade is eyeing another site around 40 kilometres away at Brzkov where a mothballed mine could be put back into use. The first preliminary steps in that direction are being taken and they have contributed to a growing debate whether the Czech Republic should stick with uranium mining or buy abundant supplies on the world market.

Miloš Zeman, photo: Filip Jandourek
President Miloš Zeman weighed into the debate on Wednesday during a visit to the town of Stráž pod Ralskem, the site of uranium extraction for around 30 years until the mid-1990s and a potential location for new activity. He gave this reply when asked about his position : “Yes, I am of course in favour of using uranium reserves in the same way that I am also for the further development of nuclear power plants.”

The historical backdrop of Stráž pod Ralskem is not perhaps the most fortunate for a declaration of support for uranium mining. The area round the town was the scene of some of the most destructive uranium extraction in which sulphuric acid and water were pumped below ground to release reserves. A clean up of the polluted groundwater across almost 30 square kilometres in not expected to be completed until 2035 at an estimated total cost of up to 50 billion crowns. President Zeman stressed though that he did not support that sort of catastrophic chemical extraction.

Backers of continued uranium mining in the Czech Republic argue that there are strategic reasons to go on providing the basic raw material for nuclear power plants, although there currently a missing link in the fuel supply chain with the country lacking the facilities for producing fuel rods. These are at the moment made in Russia.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
But even those who are in principle in favour of further uranium mining say the economic case is looking vulnerable at the moment. Ministry of Industry and Trade Jan Mládek admitted last week that hopes of further mining were an illusion given the current low global prices for uranium oxide. Prices are at the moment around 40 US dollars/lb, around half the level they were standing around four years ago. Few see the market bouncing back significantly in the next five years. So 2017 looks likely to be the end of the road for uranium mining in the Czech Republic, for the immediate future at least.