Uranium Mining – Not Just Another Type of Mining
By Dr Stefan Cramer
This article appeared on the Carte Blanche website as a guest blog
Farmers in the Karoo have often been approached by mining companies to be allowed to prospect for uranium on their farms. The companies paid the farmers, drilled some holes, but little else happened. It is therefore understandable that farmers are made to believe that uranium mining could add some income to their cash-strapped businesses. After all, many farmers in other parts of South Africa got rich when minerals like gold, diamonds or platinum were discovered on their farms.
In the case of uranium, however, they could be in for a nasty surprise. Uranium mining is a much more serious proposition. It could disrupt the rural lifestyle of the Karoo in a myriad of ways. It could leave a deadly legacy for millions of years and render large tracts of the Karoo uninhabitable.
Uranium exploration and trial mining first took place in the Karoo in the 1970s, albeit on a small scale. But even the remnants of high-grade ores dumped in the veld are still visible today, after American mining companies walked away without any proper form of mine closure. Those companies lost interest in the Karoo when uranium prices tumbled. But they left behind a deadly legacy of radiation hotspots and environmental contamination.
Karoo sheep and goats still roam freely around these hotspots and happily nibble on contaminated Karoo bossies. Rains leach the deadly poison into local dams and groundwater. Radioactive dust easily spreads across the Karoo. Grazing animals around the uranium mines are the first ones to feel the impact of environmental pollution. Radioactive mohair?
What few people know is it is not only the uranium that we should be concerned about. It’s the so-called daughter products of the radioactive decay of uranium that matter more: like radium, radon or polonium. They are more radioactive, more toxic and more dangerous.
That makes the farmers nervous. They now intend to commission their own studies. With so much at stake, they cannot rely on the empty promises of the mining companies for their survival.
Uranium mining is different from any other form of mining. Even the exploration produces highly toxic dust material that has to be properly disposed of in registered and high-security waste disposal sites, and not just dumped in the veld as is still the practice now.
All this fine dust gets blown by the wind even into places far away from the actual mining sites. Thus, virtually everyone across the Karoo may be affected.
But once mining gets going, the impact will be disruptive in unimaginable ways. The companies plan to create a series of open pits, all-in-all 70 kilometres long.
Uranium mining, if it ever takes place, leaves a legacy of deadly radioactive contamination for millions of years. While a few industries, including some local farmers, may get rich quick, is it right to impinge on the future of our children?
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by Dr Stefan Cramer, SAFCEI Science Advisor