By Dr. Stefan Cramer, SAFCEI Science Advisor
A new industry threatens the Karoo – but there is no debate
The Karoo has long been known to harbour substantial sedimentary uranium deposits. Now an Australian company with Russian funding is planning to get the radioactive mineral out of the ground in a big way. Silently they have accumulated over 750.000 hectares of Central Karoo properties around Beaufort-West and plan to set up a large Central Processing Plant just outside that town.
While the nation is still debating the pros and cons of fracking, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as the precursor to mining licences is nearing finalization. Still this year, the Department of Minerals will have to finally decide on the industry’s application. There is no public debate about an issue that has the potential to shape the environment of the Karoo for generations.
Unlike in fracking, we know that substantial resources are in the ground, which can be mined easily. Like in fracking, uranium was first discovered, when the Southern Oil Exploration Company (SEOKOR) in 1967 drilled exploration boreholes for oil and gas and intersected anomalous uranium concentrations. On several occasions it has been mined already in the past. Unlike in fracking, the industry has finalised its exploration phase and is convinced they can mine the resource at a profit. Unlike in fracking, extensive studies on the risks of uranium mining over many decades are available today. We can draw on vast experiences on what huge impact the uranium mining industry has had in such diverse places as in Germany, USA, Australia or Niger.
The death toll of a hugely dangerous industry is well known and firmly established. Yet, there is no public debate, no strategic assessment process in place. No advocacy groups balance the glossy claims of the industry against sobering experiences on the ground. While global energy prices are depressed, the deepening economic and political crisis makes South Africa less and less attractive to the huge investments necessary to establish an upstream gas industry. Importation of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) through ports and pipelines seems to be a much more realistic strategy. In the meantime, Renewable Energies, like wind and solar energy, are getting cheaper by the year and will soon have knocked the bottom out of Karoo shale gas dreams.
Uranium Mining the Karoo – why now?
Opponents of fracking had long made mention of the known occurrence of uranium in the Karoo subsoils. They pointed out to the dangers of extensive drilling and fracking of uranium-bearing formations. Formation and flow-back water could contaminate surrounding waterways in the same way as it happened as it had been shown in Pennsylvania.
In the Karoo, uranium exploration and mining have been on and off for the last 50 years. Exploration started in 1969, but the Three Miles Island nuclear accident ten years later put paid to all further plans. The short-lived nuclear renaissance of 2005-2008 rekindled interest and saw serious new investments and geological studies, especially undertaken by the French nuclear corporation AREVA.
When this company ran into serious troubles globally, they had to sell their assets in 2013. Again, the full-blown nuclear disaster of Fukushima-Daaichi of 2011 curtailed further investment, as market prices for uranium remain severely depressed. Why then suddenly such large-scale and considerate plans to mine a resource that the market hardly needs at this point in time, as the market for nuclear power is shrinking?
The answer lies more in strategic geopolitics than in short-term economic realities. Since the turn of the century, Chinas has been on an aggressive investment path into African nuclear resources. Its involvements in Namibia (see map) is about to make this country the third biggest uranium producer worldwide, almost exclusively in Chinese hands. Further investments have been made into the uranium sectors of Botswana, Zimbabwe und Malawi , to name just a few. The Soviet Union and later Russia had always relied on its “domestic” resources from Kazakstan and Ukraine. Today, however, both countries are less stable and reliable. Therefore, Russia needs to look elsewhere for uranium resources, and needs to underpin its continued aggressive marketing of its nuclear industrial capacity. Russia’s largest bid so far is the new nuclear built proposal for South Africa. I fever concluded it would be also South Africa’s largest infrastructure project ever.
Russian investment into the Karoo
There is a deafening silence in the public domain regarding uranium mining in the Karoo. Unnoticed, the largely unknown South African company LUKISA silently accumulated some 750.000 hectares of uranium exploration concessions in the three Karoo provinces Northern Cape, Western Cape and Eastern Cape. The company did so in changing partnerships with different nuclear corporations like UraMin and AREVA and thus gained access to all earlier exploration data.
The Perth-based Australian uranium miner PENINSULA ENERGY is now engaged in a joint venture with LUKISA, called TASMAN RSA MINES, with offices in Beaufort-West. Its working capital comes from several institutional investors, but is dominated by PALA INVESTMENTS, domiciled in Jersey (UK) with offices in Zug (Switzerland). PALA is a rather unknown mining giant. According to its website, the fund has invested since its inception in 2006 in a total of 87 mining ventures in 25 countries across all six continents.
The company is controlled and run by the Russian oligarch billionaires Vladimir and his son Evgeniy Iorich. This should come as no surprise, as the secret (but leaked) agreement between Russia and South Africa calls for Russia to invest and possibly control the entire value chain of the nuclear cycles from mining, beneficiation, enrichment and fuel fabrication to energy generation, waste disposal and decommissioning. It is only in this context that the renewed interest in the Karoo uranium makes sense.
BEE in the uranium mining industry
It is particularly interesting to see, who the South African partners are in this joint venture. The Black Economic Empowerment partner in this case is LUKISA, which holds a total of 26 % of TASMAN RSA MINES, primarily in the form of exploration rights and nuclear licenses from the National Nuclear Regulator . But more important perhaps are the excellent relations the company has into Government and the ruling ANC.
LUKISA was founded by the controversial Andile Nkuhlu then a leading member of the ANC-Youth League (ANCNYL). He belonged to the faction being co-opted by the then mining magnate Brett Kebble, whose assisted suicide made headlines in 2005 after he swindled government out of billions of Rand in shady mining deals. Andile Nkuhlu was then made director general in the Department of State Enterprises until he fell over a corruption scandal. He pre-empted his dismissal from the ANC by founding the oppositional party Congress of People (COPE).
When this flopped he was readmitted to the ANC and continued to influence provincial polices in the Eastern Cape. A few years ago he relinquished his positon at LUKISA under deteriorating health, until he succumbed to diabetes complications last December 2015. Now the company is run by Tefo Maliosane, who is said to have excellent relations into the family of the President Jacob Zuma.
Uranium mining and the environment
According to its documents, TASMAN RSA MINES today controls exclusive prospecting rights over more than 750.000 hectares in a circle of approx. 200 kilometres around Beaufort-West. 32.000 hectares are directly owned under freehold by the company. Local farmers find it hard to resist purchase offers, as farming in this part of the Karoo is particularly difficult due to low rainfall and poor soils. Unlike in fracking, farms are permanently damaged by uranium opencast mining.
Just outside of Beaufort-West a Central Processing Plant is planned. According to the stringent rules of JORC-Reporting the company estimates to control a resource of approx… 57 million pound U3O8 (about 25.000 t) with an average grade of 0.1 % U3O8. Karoo uranium is found in so-called Paleo-Channels, hosted in riverbed sandstones of the Permian age. This is the reason why the deposits are in narrow lines across the Karoo (see map). Most uranium-bearing sandstones are at a shallow depth of 5 to 50 metres below the current surface and will thus be excavated in open pit mining. Only a few sections will be extracted by underground mining.
So far the company has not indicated to use the dread “in-situ-leaching”, a particularly dangerous but low-cost method. Here, large quantities of sulphuric acid are injected underground. The uranium is dissolved and recovered in well fields. The uranium deposits are scattered over large zone of 200 by 300 kilometres which will necessitate trucking of ores over poorly constructed dust roads for hundreds of kilometres to reach the Central Processing Plant.
For this plant, the company has already applied for a water license to abstract annually 700 million litres of groundwater, roughly half of the total water consumption of the Central Karoo Municipality. It is still unclear what will happen with the contaminated waste water. A discharge of radioactive waste water into the aquatic environment, above or below ground, would be illegal under South Africa’s strict Water Act. Most probably contaminated slimes will be delivered to large settling ponds, like those around Johannesburg, from which the remaining water will evaporate. This leaves behind a soft and unstable pile of contaminated soil which can be easily mobilized by the strong prevailing winds in the Karoo into large dust dispersal.
Already today, the environment around Beaufort-West is contaminated close to the previous mine sites. First field studies by the author show unprotected nuclear wastes with 10 to 20 times the background radiation.
Dust and radiation: two deadly impacts of uranium mining
The devastating impacts of uranium mining on people, especially the mine workers, and the environment have been well research and documented. Several studies of large number of cases and with exposure over many years (Wismut AG in the former East Germany, Colorado-Plateau in the USA und Saskatchewan in Canada,) have established a particular direct relationship between occupational exposure to uranium and its decay products and lung diseases.
Mining uranium ore in the Karoo will invariably create huge plumes of contaminated dust. Dust clouds are unavoidable during drilling, blasting and transporting. Dust suppression by spraying water is only partially effective, creates new problems with contaminated slimes and adds to the environmental cost of groundwater abstraction.
What is happening now in the Karoo?
Over the last years, PENINSULA ENERGY has concentrated on developing a uranium mine with similar properties in Wyoming, USA. Their LANCE project utilises the dangerous in-situ leaching (ISL) method. LANCE recently delivered the first charge of Yellow Cake to its customers. PENINSULA’s Karoo project is still at the Pre-Feasibility-Study (PFS) stage. Old boreholes have been retested to better delineate the ore bodies. The company reports good progress. Engineering studies are underway for the Central Processing Plant at Ryst Kuil. To conduct the legally required Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the company has contracted Ferret Mining and Environmental Services. The Scoping Process, which determines the parameters of the Environmental Management Plan (EMP), has been concluded and submitted to the three provincial governments.
While the specialist studies for the EIA are currently nearing termination, the company will be obliged to disclose its detailed mining and engineering plans to the general public in a series of public consultations in all affected municipalities. This process of public participation is opening the space for a more rigorous public debate on a key issue of the future development of the Karoo, not only in the directly affected Central Karoo, but also further afield.
But the current level of information on uranium mining in general and the detailed plans for the Karoo in particular is still rather poor. A series of information sessions in 2015 by the consulting company Ferret Mining attracted only a handful of local farmers and other interested and affected parties. The three provincial governments are completely silent. It is their duty to equip their citizens with the necessary knowledge to participate in a meaning debate. Yet, the South African government has identified uranium as a strategic mineral. This implies that there would be strong limitations to the export of unprocessed uranium.
The current national nuclear debate centres on nuclear power generation alone, but fails to address uranium mining at the origin of the nuclear value chain, with its widespread damages and costly remediation requirements. The legacy costs of uranium mining have been well researched and documented,. The affected municipalities should start their own debate as part of their legal duty to develop consistent and sustainable Integrated Development Plans (IDP). Many of the affected municipalities’ IDPs do not even reflect, or discuss the long-term threats stemming from uranium mining in their midst.
Impacts even outside the Karoo
Many people realize the widespread impacts of mining only when it is too late. The Brazilian fisherman woke up to that reality, when the large tailings dam of SAMARCO in the Minas Gerais region burst and sent a toxic plume of millions of tons of mine wastes into the Rio Doce, one of the most important waterways of Brazil. More than 500 km of river will have to be dredged to remove the toxic sludge.
The environmental damage is estimated alone at 5 billion US-$. Most of the uranium mining fields of the Central Karoo drain into the Gamtoos River, which reaches the Indian Ocean near Jeffrey’s Bay, ironically only a few kilometres away from the site of the proposed nuclear power station at Thyspunt.
What can be done?
Therefore it is urgent to start a massive educational campaign. The author, employed with the Southern African Faith Communities‘ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) will focus his work in 2016 on this subject.
Attention should be directed at farmers, farmworkers and farm dwellers in the affected areas. It would be important to use the successful mobilization with regards to shale gas development, as uranium mining affects the same areas in similar ways.
In addition, the broad-based national resistance against the nuclear built programme should be made aware that the uranium cycle starts with uranium mining. This should be directed in particular to trade unions, as uranium mine workers have been found in many studies to be the most affected by radiation and dust-related diseases.
But first of all, concerned citizen’s need to get organized to participate meaningful in the ongoing EIA process, register as Interested and Affected Parties  and make their voices heard in the public consultations expected to take place over the course of the year 2016, before mining rights are granted.
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