A local faith-based organisation has raised concern about plans to mine for uranium in the Karoo Basin.
They say shallow mining of uranium would create huge clouds of radioactive dust that could travel beyond the Karoo.
Constantia activist Marilyn Lilley says we are dealing here with people’s rights to a healthy environment, clean water and air and compliance with our constitution to protect our environment.
Australian mining company Peninsula Energy, through its BEE partners, Lukisa JV and Mmakau Mining with Tasman Pacific Minerals, have applied for mining rights for uranium and molybdenum in the Karoo area. Uranium is silvery-white and is used in nuclear reactors and molybdenum is a silver-gray metal used primarily for strengthening of steel alloy production.
Dr Rudy Boer of Ferret Mining, the consultancy doing the environmental impact assessment (EIA) and environmental management plan (EMP), says accidental contamination of water systems with potentially radioactive material is possible.
The EIA report and EMP document submitted to the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) on January 25 this year states that the risk of uranium contamination is high.
Muna Lakhani of anti-nuclear lobby group EarthLife Africa in Wynberg, says Earthlife Africa Namibia has found that uranium mining there leads to radioactive dust being spread around.
“This means that air, water and land are polluted, and as radiation accumulates in humans, animals and plants, the harm is long-term and multi-generational. Also, because it affects things like DNA, future generations may be born with health problems they would not have otherwise had. Also, it’s pretty impossible to rehabilitate the land back to where it was,” said Mr Lakhani.
He added that tourism, community life and farming will also be impacted due to the dust, pollution, radiation and the impact on groundwater.
There are several methods of mining uranium, the main ones being pit mining, box mining and in-situ leaching. Tim van Stormbroek of Ferret Mining says company documents and the mining rights application to the DMR speak of open-pit mining, to be followed by underground mining. The use of in-situ leaching is ruled out here.
Hydrogeologist Dr Stefan Cramer, who is advising the Westlake-based Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI), says the standard method to suppress the dust is to spray water, this would draw on scarce water resources and require millions of litres each year. It would also contaminate groundwater.
“Water is essential for life. We can’t live without it,” says SAFCEI’s Bishop Geoff Davies. He added that uranium mining will pollute and destroy our water systems, our soil and air and the health and peace of the Karoo and further afield.
However, Mr Stormbroek said Tasman RSA Mine will tap into a different aquifer from the one that Beaufort West gets its water from. He said the quantity of water in this aquifer far exceeds that needed for mining uranium and this estimate does not take into account water-recycling steps.
“And with today’s mining technology, which is far more advanced than in the past, up to 90 percent is recoverable.”
According to Peninsula Energy’s website, they started drilling along the Ryst Kuil channel in February 2013. They state that this returned encouraging initial results.
Now they wish to set up a central processing plant and a tailings dam.
The Ryst Kuil area is about 32 000 hectares and is about 40km south-east of Beaufort West.
Peninsula Energy’s CEO Gus Simpson said this central processing plant would initially require between 0.7 and 1.3 million cubic metres a year, but when it is in operation, they expect up to 90 percent of the required water will be processed in the recycling plant.
Dr Cramer says the controversial shale gas mining (fracking) is still about 10 years away because the exploration phase has not even started, but uranium mining will begin almost immediately because the exploration phase has been finalised.
Mr Simpson said if the mining rights are approved, the earliest date for construction of the mine would be in 2018 and followed by production in 2019 or 2020.
Bishop Davies believes thousands of people will be impoverished by uranium mining while a minority will make a lot of money.
Asked what they plan to do with the mined uranium Mr Simpson said South Africa does not currently have enrichment capacity so any uranium oxide produced from the Karoo projects would have to be exported for enrichment. He said the uranium ore will be crushed and converted into uranium oxide, “yellow cake” onsite. The yellow cake will then be transported by rail from Beaufort West to Cape Town before being exported to utilities in Western Europe and America.
According to its website, Peninsula Energy “has 74 percent interest in 42 prospecting rights of the main uranium-molybdenum bearing sandstone channel in the Karoo Basin, covering 7 800km². The residual 26 percent interest is held by BEE partners as required by South African law’’.
In 2012, worldwide production of uranium amounted to 58 394 tons. South Africa is said to have six-percent of global identified resources of uranium, or 970 000 tons, the seventh highest share in the world. Kazakhstan, Canada, and Australia are the top three producers accounting for 64 percent of world uranium production.
Mr Simpson said drilling was done historically by Esso Minerals in the late 1970s and more recent drilling was done since 2007 to re-evaluate these historic mineralisation areas.
Bishop Davies says the Karoo could be a treasure trove of renewable energy.
“The sun provides us with six to ten thousand times more energy than we need. All we need to do is catch the sun in the day and the wind at night and there is no fuel cost involved,” he says. “So why risk the pollution and destruction of hydraulic fracking and uranium mining when we have an abundance of these safer, healthier, better and cheaper resources?”
Ms Lilley believes uranium mining, as well as fracking, spells disaster for the Karoo.
“It will turn the affected areas into an industrial wasteland and the toxic and radioactive nature of both uranium mining and fracking will have serious health impacts on affected communities and the environment,” she says.
She adds that the severe on going drought must be taken into account in assessing the licence applications.
“In the water scarce areas where several communities are without water and where many wells in the Karoo have already run dry,” says Ms Lilley.
* Tuesday March 15 was the deadline for objections to the environmental impact assessment public consultation process. But Dr Cramer says people can still make objections, but they will not officially become part of the application for mining rights. These can be sent to Ferret Mining and Environmental, at firstname.lastname@example.org
* The Bulletin asked Beaufort West mayor Edward Njadu to comment, but by the time this edition went to print, he had not yet responded.
* Additional information sourced from http://www.protestbarrick.net/article.php?id=572 and http://olca.cl/ oca/tanzania/tanzania007.htm