Threat of uranium mining looms

By Dr. Stefan Cramer 

This article was published in the Advertiser

For years, the focus on shale gas (“fracking”) has dominated the public debate in the Karoo. Yet, the prospects of hundreds of drill rigs across the Karoo remain highly speculative. Too difficult is the geology of the Karoo, too expensive the development of a gas industry here in the absence of infrastructure. And too strong is the local resistance against further groundwater abstraction from an area already so heavily water-stressed. Little did we realize that uranium mining in exactly the same areas is more realistic, more damaging to public health and the Karoo environment and just around the corner.

While we were “sleeping”, a little-known Australian company called PENNSULA ENERGY LTD and their even less public local BEE partner LUKISA JV have amassed more than 750.000 hectares of Central Karoo farmlands for uranium and molybdenum mining. Over the last seven years, they have been able to conduct an extensive exploration campaign completely below the radar screen of public scrutiny.

More than ten thousand boreholes have been drilled, re-drilled and reclogged, with sometimes astonishing results. They believe to have delineated a large potential resource of some 350 million lbs. of mineable uranium, mainly around Beaufort West. 57 million pounds of uranium oxide locked in 23 million tons of good grade uranium ore are already identified for open pit mining that will extend over nearly 70 km from the area of Ryst Kuil in the Western Cape up to an area north of Aberdeen in the Eastern Cape.

Many more areas around Prince Albert, Laingsburg, Merweville, Loxton and Victoria-West are already earmarked for mining. Eventually, the uranium resource extends even into the Free State and the Northern Cape. This industry will change the face and character of the Karoo more than anything else.

Few people realize that uranium mining is very different from ordinary mining. For one, the huge water consumption and large areas of drawdown of the groundwater table will have huge impacts on the Central Karoo economy based on agriculture and tourism. The company plans to abstract 1.3 million cubic metres of water annually for its Central Processing Plant alone, just outside Beaufort West. The many satellite mine sites will require even more water locally.

Drilling, blasting and long-haul trucking of uranium areas across weak Karoo dust roads is set to create huge plumes of radioactive dust. Uranium itself is not emitting much radiation, but its decay products like radium and radon do. They travel with the wind, settle on plants and enter the food chain. Worse, particles that are inhaled keep on emitting radiation where it hurts most: in the soft and sensitive tissue of the lungs. As dust settles on the Karoo bossies, grazing animals tend to be bio-accumulated the radioactive elements in their livers and kidneys.

Imagine an open pit 70 km long, 1-2 km wide and up to 50 metres deep. This huge area will be permanently damaged, as there are no known restoration techniques for the Karoo veld at this scale. Rivers will be diverted or just end up in the open pit. All those millions of tons from this huge hole in the ground will be dumped on the veld in high-rise tailings dams, similar to the ones littering the Witwatersrand mining areas.

Here, the toxic and contaminated radioactive slimes from the mine and the processing plans will be pumped in settling ponds high above the Karoo landscape. While the water is left to evaporate in the Karoo climate, the fine particles will be carried by the prevailing winds into the entire Karoo basin, as dust clouds can easily travel for hundreds of kilometres. The tailings dams themselves are prone to erosion and collapse during strong rainfalls. The run-off from the uranium mining blocks is then carried by streams across the Karoo into the Gamtoos and several other rivers dumping their loads of contamination on the beaches of the Indian Ocean.

After uranium mining, farming is no longer possible. That is why the company has already bought some 32.000 hectares of farms around Beaufort West and continues to do so when the opportunity arises. None of the Karoo municipalities has a plan what to do in the case of uranium mining. It is set to change the face of the Karoo and its economy. Construction of the plants and the mining itself will require a highly skilled work force that is not available in the Karoo. The company even admits that there will only be up to 250 permanent jobs. However, the company never bothered to even estimate, how many job in agriculture and tourism may be destroyed in the process!

But not all is lost yet, despite the fact that there has been hardly any public debate about this industry. While they have secretly finalised their impact studies and made a mockery of the prescribed public participation process, the mining rights have not yet been granted.

More than hundred individuals and organisations and initiatives have objected in writing to the company. Large organisations like AgriSA Eastern Cape or the Mohair Growers Association have protested against the planned uranium mining. Farmers Associations have written and explained the risks to the Karoo economy. Environmentalists got into action. But the level of knowledge on uranium mining in the Karoo is still minimal, despite the fact that other places in the world have already shown the deadly impact of this industry.

Thousands of people died from lung cancer in the Russian uranium mines in Eastern Germany after the Second World War. Navajo Indians paid a high price with their lives for the US nuclear bombs, when they worked in the uranium mines on the Colorado Plateau. We know the cost of uranium mining to poor people and poor communities. Please inform yourself and spread the word. Make objections and support the public actions. We still have some time until the minister must “apply his mind” and direct the Department of Minerals to issue a 30 year mining license to ravage the Karoo.


Please write to
The Environmental Consultants charged with the public participation process: The Department of Minerals Western Cape Regional Manager currently studying the mining rights application: To the mining company:
Ferret Mining and Environmental Services (Pty) LtdTim van Box 72313, Lynnwood Ridge0040


Mobile:  082-482-6202

Tel:         012-753-1284/5


Department of Minerals Western Cape CAPE TOWNRegional Manager Duduzile Kunene Ms Busisiwe Magazi Private Bag X 9, ROGGEBAAI, 8012Tel (021) 427 1000


PENINSULA ENERGY LTDGus Simpson, Managing Box 8129Subiaco East WA 6008


Phone: +61 (0)8 9380 9920

For more information go to the Facebook page Stop Uranium Mining in the Karoo

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