Opinion: Uranium Mining Threatens South Africa‘s Iconic Karoo

Written by Staff

From TheEcologist. Story by Stefan Cramer, a hydrogeologist and community activist based in the Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet who helps local communities deal with environmental threats of fracking and uranium mining.

Almost entirely unknown to the outside world, and even to most local residents, hundreds of square kilometers of South Africa’s Karoo have been bought by uranium mining companies.

With no strategic assessment of the industry’s devastating impacts and massive water demand, official permission could soon be granted for vast open pit mines.

No advocacy groups are balancing the glossy claims of the industry against sobering experiences on the ground.

The Karoo, a vast semi-desert area that occupies around a third of south Africa, has long been known to harbor substantial uranium deposits.

Now the Australian company Peninsula Energy with Russian and other funding is planning to get the radioactive mineral out of the ground on a major scale.

The company has quietly accumulated large Karoo properties and concessions around Beaufort West and plans to set up a large uranium mill. As the farmers are battling with the current drought, the company was already able to buy up 32,000 hectares of farmland.

Without public debate and very little consultation, the environmental impact assessment for mining licences has been finalized. During 2016, the Western Cape provincial Department of Mineral Resources is expected to make a decision on the industry’s application. It is difficult to imagine it could decline the application in the current mining industry’s crisis.

Unlike shale gas, uranium ore is a well-known and substantial mineral resource in the Karoo. It can be mined easily in open pits. Uranium ores were first discovered in 1967 in the Karoo, when the state-owned Southern Oil Exploration Company drilled exploration boreholes for oil and found uranium.

Karoo uranium is found in at a shallow depth of 5 to 50 meters below the surface and will be excavated in open pit mining.

But low prices and alternative sources have repeatedly made these early plans for uranium mining unfeasible. With the perceived “nuclear renaissance,” the industry is now speculating on rising prices.

Uranium mining in the Karoo – why now?

According to company documents, the available resources are approximately £57 million of uranium oxide U3O8 – about 25,000 tonnes with an average grade of 0.1 percent. But with recent exploration results, the total resource is estimated to be perhaps 10 times bigger than that.

The damaging impact of uranium mining on the environment and people is well documented. We can draw on vast experiences and documented cases from such diverse places as in Germany, U.S. (Colorado Plateau), Canada (Saskatchewan) or Niger.

Only now are the local media beginning to wake up to this potentially disruptive industry pushing its way into pristine areas of the Karoo.

Opponents of fracking had long made mention of the known occurrence of uranium in the Karoo. They pointed out the dangers of extensive drilling and fracking of uranium-bearing formations. Flow-back water could contaminate surrounding waterways the same way as has happened in the U.S.

For the last 50 years, uranium exploration and some mining have occurred in the Karoo on and off. Exploration first started in 1969, but the Three Mile Island nuclear accident 10 years later put an end to further plans. The short-lived nuclear renaissance of 2005-2008 rekindled interest and saw serious new investments and geological studies, especially by the French parastatal nuclear corporation Areva.

When this company ran into serious troubles globally, they had to sell their assets in 2013. The nuclear disaster of Fukushima-Daaichi in 2011 curtailed further investment, as market prices for uranium remain severely depressed.

Why then suddenly such large-scale and determined plans to mine a resource that the market hardly needs at this point, just 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, China has been on an aggressive investment path into African nuclear resources. Within a short period it has invested heavily into the nascent uranium mining industry in Southern Africa, especially in Namibia. Chinese involvement in Namibia is about to make this country the third biggest uranium producer worldwide.

Further investments have been made into the uranium sectors of Botswana, Zimbabwe and Malawi, to name just a few. Russia has always relied on its domestic resources first from East Germany, today from Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Today, however, both countries are less stable and reliable.

Therefore Russia needs to look elsewhere for uranium resources, and to underpin its continued aggressive marketing of its nuclear industrial capacity with assurance of secure nuclear fuel supplies.

Russia’s largest bid so far is an agreement with South Africa to build 9,600 MW of new nuclear electricity generation at six new nuclear power stations. If concluded it would also be South Africa’s largest infrastructure project ever – and so far Russia’s biggest foreign investment in Africa.

There is a deafening silence in the public domain regarding uranium mining in the Karoo. Unnoticed, the largely unknown South African company Lukisa JV silently accumulated uranium exploration concessions and nuclear concessions in the three Karoo provinces of Northern Cape, Western Cape and Eastern Cape.

The company did so by changing partnerships with different nuclear corporations like UraMin and Areva, thus gaining 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, U.K., with offices in Zug, Switzerland. Pala is a relatively unknown mining giant. According to its website, since its inception in 2006 the fund has invested 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 Iorich and his son Evgeniy Iorich. This should come as no surprise, as the secret (but leaked) nuclear 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.

Only in this context does the renewed Russian interest in the Karoo uranium make sense.

It is particularly interesting to see who are the South African partners 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 (NNR).

Perhaps more important are the excellent relations Lukisa has with government and the ruling ANC. Today the company is run by Tefo Maloisane, who is said to have a long history of excellent political connections.

Environmental impact of uranium mining

The South African public can be forgiven for being in the dark about uranium mining. Despite its long and sometimes glorious mining history, uranium mining is a new thing. Past production always came as a by-product of gold mining. Dedicated uranium mines did not exist before.

In addition, the shallow nature of uranium deposits makes it look more like a quarrying operation than a proper mine. Yet, the dimensions are enormous.

Agricultural production from farms is next to impossible after uranium opencast mining. Meaningful rehabilitation is prohibitively expensive. Thus, about 32,000 hectares of farmland have already been bought and are directly owned under freehold by the mining 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.

The impact on water alone could be devastating.

For this plant alone, the company has already applied for a water licence to abstract 1.3 billion liters of groundwater annually, roughly the total water consumption of the Central Karoo Municipality. It is unclear where the water could come from.

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.

The devastating impacts of uranium mining on people, especially the mine workers, and the environment have been well researched and documented.

Mining uranium ore in the Karoo will invariably create huge plumes of contaminated dust. Dust clouds are unavoidable during drilling, blasting and transporting in any mining environment. Dust suppression by spraying water is only partially effective and creates new problems.

Peninsula’s Karoo project is still at the pre-feasibility study stage. Old boreholes have been retested to better delineate the ore bodies. Peninsula reports good progress. Engineering studies are underway for the Central Processing Plant at Ryst Kuil.

Most material is published through a dedicated Facebook page, Stop Uranium Mining in the Karoo.

This is slowly 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. Yet, the three provincial governments are completely silent. It is their duty to equip their citizens with the necessary knowledge to participate in a meaningful debate.

None of the local and regional development plans is even mentioning how to prepare for the impact of the arrival of an international mining industry in the very rural setting of the Karoo.

With little activity on the ground, local resistance against uranium mining in the Karoo is still at its infancy. Only a few farmers, environmentalists and representatives of the KhoiSan, the early inhabitants of these dry plains, are vocal and active trying to ward off this disruptive industry. They fear for water, the most precious resources in the Karoo.

It will be important to mount a credible legal challenge in very much the same way as the people of the Karoo have been able to ward off fracking for shale gas for nearly 10 years.

Renewable energy like wind and solar are becoming more viable – much cheaper than nuclear power and with none of its existential hazards.

The Karoo is a world-class site for both forms of regenerative industry, peacefully co-existing with current land uses. Time is on their side.

Read more at TheEcologist.