Monday, November 22, 2010

Uranium mining cleanup in the Czech Republic

Friday, November 5, 2010

This is a most interesting story considering one of my main activities at the moment (Gunnar Mine site Rehabilitation - N. Sask abandoned uranium mine). Companies walking away from liabilities and leaving them for whomever has monstrous implications. The cost of cleanup is staggering. And these are the sites and stories that make it to the mainstream media. There so many example of places that have been so totally trashed. I did some work on an abandoned oil production and processing site at the edge of the Gobi desert southern Mongolia that was out of this world, dilapidated and crumbling infrastructure, and pools of oil lying around. Reminds me of the Usinsk oil spill in 1994 - the measure of contamination by Russian scientists was the % of ground covered by oil.

Fear Darkens Czech Uranium Mining Town

Published: November 4, 2010

RALSKEM, CZECH REPUBLIC — The national uranium company in the Czech Republic, Diamo, has been working for years to keep toxic waste left by decades of uranium mining from poisoning some of the country’s largest underground stocks of fresh water or reaching the Elbe River.

Anticipation that demand for nuclear energy will keep growing have rekindled interest in old uranium mines in the Czech Republic, despite environmental concerns.Related

Yet despite the costly mess, anticipation that demand for nuclear energy on top of local fears about overdependence on Russia for fuel, have rekindled interest in the old mines from companies as far afield as Australia.

That has stirred mixed feelings in the pretty Bohemian villages that dot the forests and gently rolling hills here, about 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, north of Prague.

Some residents are infuriated by the prospect of more deep mining or of pumping more sulfuric acid and other chemicals into the ground, which would add to a huge pool of waste that is spread across 27 square kilometers, or about 11 square miles.

The recent toxic sludge disaster in Hungary, which threatened to pollute the Danube, heightened the sense of alarm by focusing attention on environmental problems left over from the Communist era.

But many of the roughly 4,200 people in Straz, a town dominated by hulking apartment blocks built for miners and their families decades ago, take a far more sanguine view.

Uranium production in the former Czechoslovakia peaked at about 3,000 tons annually during the 1960s, but the Czech Republic currently produces about 300 tons a year. That represents less than half of the country’s current needs.

The Czech Republic relies on coal for 60 percent of its electricity, while nuclear accounts for 32 percent.

Sensing the potential, an Australian and Czech joint venture called Urania resubmitted applications this year to explore sites near Straz, including at least one site that would be suitable for chemical mining, which is how the current toxic waste pool was created.

The process, known as in-situ leaching, has become the most common method used globally in the past five years, partly because it gives mining companies greater flexibility at a time of uncertain demand.

But because leaching can threaten water supplies, the technique has become another challenge for the nuclear energy industry at a time when it is seeking to burnish its image as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.

Separately, a law went into effect in Colorado last month that requires mining companies to show that their technology has been used before without harming groundwater quality.

Around Straz, many of the thousands of pumps that injected acid into the ground — more than four million tons between the late 1960s and mid-1990s — are still scattered across the landscape. One former miner, Vladimir Pospisil, 62, said so much acid was used that he recalled it dripping from the ceilings of underground mine shafts and dissolving iron chains.

Many Straz residents are still employed by Diamo as part of the clean-up operation, which aims to stop the contaminated groundwater from migrating.
The final residue, a light-colored soil, is dumped at a barren site near Straz. Mr. Rychtarik conceded it was “not harmless,” but said the company used bulldozers at the site to compact the soil and prevent it from spreading. Workers at the nearby decontamination plant said they constantly hosed down the vehicles and roads used to transport it to the dumpsite to control the dust. The toxic legacy, and the huge cost and scale of the clean-up, meant that “the type of mining that was carried out between the ’60s and the ’90s is absolutely unrepeatable,” Mr. Rychtarik said.

But such pledges have done little to win over opponents, who regularly gather under a 900-year-old lime tree at Osecna-Kotel, a village eight kilometers from Straz. Josef Jadrny, 53, who leads a local environmental group called Nase Podjestedi, said the tree was an important symbol of their fight, since it would be threatened by any resumption of mining.

Mr. Jadrny said he had concerns that property values would drop if mining were restarted. But he said that his group’s primary goal was to ensure a clean water supply for the Czech Republic in the future.

Jiri Fiedler, a former head geologist for Diamo who now is a director in the Straz region for Aquatest, a consulting firm based in Prague, said no uranium mining site where leaching with acid had been used had ever been completely cleaned up, and he felt that Straz would be no exception.

Hana Kurova in Prague contributed reporting
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