Monday, December 08, 2008

The undiscussed supply chain

Below is the original, longer version of my latest Guardian Comment is Free piece,
Extracting a disaster

The extraction of uranium is dangerous, leaves a toxic legacy for millions of years in vulnerable parts of the world, and is hardly conducted in an ethical fashion, yet British ministers - while sourcing FSC timber - are complacent about the supply-chain consequences of their enthusiasm for nuclear new build.

The Government is in a hurry to get eight new nuclear plants built around the country. It is even manipulating the planning laws to achieve this end: the Planning Act, Climate Change Act and Energy Act became law this week, all of which pave the way for a new generation of nuclear power stations. Nuclear power is the Government's magic ticket not only to meet its 2020 carbon emission goals and "stop the lights going out" but to export British nuclear know-how around the globe.

One can condemn ministers' gung-ho enthusiasm for this technology from any number of angles: the threat of terrorist attack; nuclear proliferation; global insecurity; the waste legacy, and so on.

I want to discuss one that is rarely raised: the fuel supply chain.

The UK Government has in place guidelines for the ethical and sustainable sourcing of many raw materials. The Government promotes Corporate Social Responsibility, and in this context Tony Blair launched something called the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative [ ] t the World Summit for Sustainable Business Development in 2001. The Government's Sustainable Procurement Action Plan includes purchasing advice for its departments and agencies in order to reduce waste production, energy and water use, and reduce impact upon biodiversity. The most obvious example is timber; Government departments and agencies are supposed to source timber using the internationally recognised auditing trails.

But you won't find anything about uranium sourcing in that document, because the government itself does not buy uranium: British Energy does that. And yet the increased sourcing of raw uranium that will arise from nuclear new build is directly due to the U-turn in government policy on nuclear power that has come in the last three years.

The World Nuclear Association (WNA), the trade body for the ten companies that make up 90% of the industry, has convinced politicians that "Nuclear energy is one of the very few available large-scale sources of clean energy (CO2 free)" [].

The WNA admits that in "emerging uranium producing countries" there is frequently no adequate environmental health and safety legislation, let alone monitoring. It is considerately proposing a Charter of Ethics containing Principles of Uranium Stewardship for its members to follow. But this is a self-policing voluntary arrangement. Similarly, the International Atomic Energy Agency's Safety Guide to the Management of Radioactive Waste from the Mining and Milling of Ores are not legally binding on operators.

The problem is that transparency is not a value enshrined in the extractive or the nuclear industries. Put the two together and you have a major quality of information problem. Access to the truth is, to say the least, uncertain. Journalists and others trying to obtain reliable information find themselves blocked. Recently, to tackle this issue, Panos Institute West Africa (IPAO) held a training seminar for journalists in Senegal which highlighted that only persistent investigation - or, in the case of the Tuareg, violent rebellion - has a chance of uncovering the truth.

The co-editor of The Republican in Niger, Ousseini Issa, said that only due to local media campaigns was there a revision of the contract linking Niger to the French company Areva. "We realized then that the country drew little benefit from uranium. As a result of our efforts, the price of a kilogram of uranium increased from 25,000 to 40,000 CFA francs," he said. This means that the local community receives a decent income from the extraction of their resources.

IPAO has plenty of evidence that in Africa the legacy of mining is often terrible health, water contamination and other pollution problems. The health and safety of workers and local communities is frequently a low priority. IPAO would laugh at the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – an Orwellian creation.

What is the effect of uranium mining specifically? Under current world market conditions, nuclear fuel from fresh uranium is cheaper than from recycled uranium or recycled plutonium (MOX), which is why there is a uranium rush going on worldwide.

To produce enough uranium fuel - about 25 tonnes - to keep your average (1300 MW) reactor going for a year entails the extraction of half a million tonnes of waste rock and over 100,000 tonnes of mill tailings. These are toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. The conversion plant will generate a further 144 tonnes of solid waste and 1343 cubic metres of liquid waste.

Contamination of local water supplies around uranium mines and processing plants has been documented in Brazil, Colorado, Texas, Australia, Namibia and many other sites. To supply the number of power stations worldwide expected to be online in 2020 would mean generating 50 million tonnes of toxic radioactive residue every single year.

The milling process recovers about 95% of the uranium. The residues, or tailings, contain naturally-occurring radioactive elements, including uranium, thorium, radium, polonium, and radon-222 emissions. In countries like the US, the Environmental Protection Agency sets limits of emissions from the dumps and monitors them. This does not happen in many less developed areas.

The current market prices of nuclear fuel do not include all of the costs incurred. For uranium mill tailings, the long-term management cost that is not covered by the uranium price may be as high as the uranium cost itself. The situation for the depleted uranium waste arising during enrichment even may be worse, says the World Information Service on Energy.

No one can convince me that the above process is carbon-free. It takes a lot of – almost certainly fossil-fuelled - energy to move that amount of rock and process the ore. But the carbon cost is often not in the country where the fuel is consumed - certainly in the case of the UK. So that's why it's ‘carbon free’.

And what of the other costs? Over half of the world’s uranium is in Australia and Canada. In Australia the Government is relishing the idea of making money from the nuclear renaissance being predicted, and uranium mining is expanding all over the place. Australian greens are fast losing the optimism they felt when the Labor Party won the last election. The temptation to cash in the expense of the environment and traditional peoples under the pretense of it being 'low carbon' is too much.

Uranium mining has often been a disaster for indigenous peoples. In the Northern Territory plans to expand a nuclear dump at Muckaty station are being pushed forward with no regard for the land's Aboriginal owners. The supposedly greener new Australian government Minister Martin Ferguson has failed to deliver an election promise to overturn the Howard Government's Commonwealth Radioactive Waste Management Act, which earmarks a series of sites for nuclear waste dumps. Senator Ludlam asked him last week at a senate hearing: "How can Martin Ferguson wash his hands of this issue and allow small Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory to cop this waste in a repeat of the worst nuclear colonialism of the past?"

In South Australia, in August the Australian Government approved the expansion of a controversial uranium mine, Beverley ISL. This was dubbed a “blank cheque licence for pollution”. Groundwater specialist Dr Gavin Mudd, a lecturer in environmental engineering at Monash University, has examined the data from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and called for it to be “independently verified by people not subservient to the mining industry” (The Epoch Times Sept. 2, 2008).

Elsewhere in the Northern Territory, on Oct. 31 BHP Billiton said it plans to have the first of five planned stages of expansion at its Olympic Dam mine in production by 2013. This will increase production capacity to 200,000 tonnes of copper, 4500 tonnes of uranium and 120,000 ounces of gold. This is a vast open cast mine, from which the wind can carry away radioactive dust.

Not far away locals are fighting a new uranium mine 25 kilometres south of Alice Springs. Elsewhere, at the Ranger mines, on November 17, Energy Resources of Australia - 68.4% owned by Rio Tinto - said it expects to find 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes of ore in the Ranger 3 Deeps area. In October the company signed an agreement to supply uranium oxide to a Chinese utility. At the same time they signed a safety accord. This is how safe the mine in fact is - and you won't find such records at African mines: almost 15,000 litres of acid uranium solution leaked in a 2002 incident, and since then further leaks ranging from 50 to over 23,000 litres have been reported on the South Australian Government's Primary Industries website. The most recent was on April 22, 2006 when 14,400 litres of solution containing approx. 0.5% uranium leaked out.

The list goes on.

The bottom line is this: UK ministers are blind to the consequences of their pro-nuclear evangelism. Their hypocrisy is breath-taking. Carbon credits under the Kyoto mechanism have to be independently audited by a global body to ensure that new renewable energy is unique, additional and lives up to its claims. At the very least there should be an independent, global body verifying the ethics, health and long-term safety of the nuclear supply chain.

Better, just leave it in the ground.

© David Thorpe


Tim Worstall said...

It would appear that you don't really understand about uranium mining.

Low Carbon Kid said...

Not surprising that there's a warning when one clicks thru to this page Mr Worstall. You are shooting at a straw dog. You admit you don't care about people. You admit that you only care about profit. I don't even know why you bothered to put that page up about my article. Kind of flattering that you did though.

As I wrote, 5% of tailings contain toxic materials - not just uranium, which you only concentrate on, and which at Rossing is just under 20% of that.

The real point is that the industry is unaccountable, and especially in developing countries doesn't give a shit what it does as long as it gets uranium as cheaply as possible.

I am not saying it's worse or better than other extractive industries, leaving aside the radioactivity. But Shell in Nigeria is much discussed: Areva in Niger is less so.

When it comes down to it - where would you rather work - in a uranium mine or a bauxite mine? And if a uranium mine was proposed for your neighbourhood, wouldn't you object?

But the mining companies target the most dispossessed of peoples where the element is found - someone needs to speak up for them.