Uranium mining to continue for indefinite period

Dolni Rozinka, photo: Vaclav Vasku, Greenpeace

The Czech government, this week, decided to extend uranium mining for an indefinite term. Production at the Vysocina region's state-owned Dolni Rozinka mine was originally to end in 2008. Under the new resolution, the Diamo company overseeing uranium mining will file an economic benefit report every year and production will continue as long as it will be profitable.

Preliminary calculations forecast some 2 billion crowns to land in state coffers if the extension runs until 2012. I spoke to the head of the Academy of Science's Institute of Geology, Vaclav Cilek about the significance of uranium mining in the Czech Republic, which is the 12th biggest producer in the world:

"In order to understand the situation in the Czech Republic we have to understand the global situation with uranium. It seems that we are entering the second half of the carbon age, which means that we are expecting oil depletion and maybe even that coal mining will be rather limited due to the CO2 released into the atmosphere and the greenhouse effect. So most people in the energy sector are expecting a renaissance of nuclear power plants and this expectation has led to the prices of uranium increasing about nine-fold and this rise in prices is expected to continue. So, the deposits that seemed to have reached the end of production are now being revived."

How environmental is the method used to extract uranium today, in other words, how will the extended period of uranium mining affect the environment?

"Bohemia, in the geological sense, is basically enriched by uranium, gold, and some silver. The total amount of the uranium that has been extracted from rocks is around 55,000 tonnes and there might be around 115,000 tonnes left. There are two types of deposits of uranium. The first type is deep-seated highly thermal that may go as deep as two kilometres and, with the exception of few waste deposit issues, there are usually no big environmental issues.

"But the biggest deposits that have yet to be extracted are located in sandstones that are highly porous. In recent years, the uranium was extracted by a mixture of acids and this extraction has caused widespread destruction of groundwater aquifers and it will take decades to repair the damage that was done. So, for any new uranium deposits to be opened, you would have to evaluate the type. But with the most promising deposits, such as those in the sandstone, then there are likely to be great environmental obstacles."

Could you tell us a little bit about the Dolni Rozinka mine's role? What happens to the uranium that is extracted?

"Dolni Rozinka is the only functioning uranium mine in the Czech Republic. The uranium is mined from the depths of up to 1,000 metres and the deposits are continuing. So, we believe that in Dolni Rozinka we can expect another 5-10 years of uranium extraction. You know, we're never able to extract all the uranium. There are regions close to the deposits that are enriched with uranium and this uranium cannot be taken out economically. Since uranium migrates so easily into water, part of the uranium may endanger the area.

"Fortunately for Dolni Rozinka, people have got used to the mine. If you continue mining there, people will get used to it and will not be against it. But if you would like to open a new mine - as we have seen with gold deposits and others - then it is very likely that the public will have a negative attitude and will fiercely fight against any mining, especially of uranium."