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Uranium Mining

posted May 16, 2012, 3:34 AM by Earth Org Namibia   [ updated Jun 21, 2012, 7:48 AM ]

Uranium mining is the process of extraction of uranium ore from the ground to be used for nuclear power and nuclear weapons.  Namibia is among the top five producers of uranium worldwide and exports uranium to many first-world countries.  However, Namibia faces many serious consequences as a result.

Although nuclear energy has in recent years been publicized as a so-called “clean” energy, the reality is that it is not.  Uranium mining and processing is both water and energy intensive.  Ironically, first-world countries seek to use uranium to lower their green-house gas emissions, but the need for uranium in the first world increases green-house gas emissions in the countries mining uranium.  In Namibia, new coal-fired power stations need to be built in order to maintain operations of the uranium mines and thus Namibia’s carbon footprint increases. 

In addition, precious and scarce water resources in the desert country of Namibia are wasted in uranium mining.  NamWater, the Namibian water utility, recently demonstrated that the country would be faced with an annual shortage of 54 million cubic metres of water if the proposed uranium mines in Namibia were commissioned.  This enormous water demand amounts to eleven times the resources available from the entire Omaruru river delta and directly competes with the water needs of people, livestock and agriculture.

Uranium and its byproducts are considered hazardous and highly radioactive.  Although uranium is natural if left in the ground, when it is mined it no longer remains in its natural form as the toxic radioactive metal is mobilized. Once removed from the ground, humans and wildlife face a greater likelihood of exposure to uranium and its byproducts by inhaling contaminated dust in the air or by ingesting contaminated water and food.  The product from uranium mining is a powder that, even when stored in drums, emits radiation as the uranium breaks down into Thorium 234. 

Although this uranium export product poses a danger even when it hasn’t been enriched, the waste products left in the mining country continue to be a serious threat to health and the environment in general.  The waste products left behind from mining are stored in hazardous waste storage facilities (tailings dams and waste rock sites) and will remain hazardous and radioactive for 100,000 years. Outside of leftover uranium, substances in tailings include Thorium 230, Radium 226, Radon 222, Lead 214, Bismuth 214, Lead 216, and Polonium 210.  In addition to these radioactive and toxic heavy metals, chemicals from processing are also stored in tailings facilities.  For every ton of radioactive metal stored in tailings, there are an additional 100 kg of toxic chemicals stored in that same facility. 

Hazardous waste storage facilities for uranium mines in Namibia are often located in areas of water catchment systems. Tailings dams worldwide always have leaks and no tailings dam has ever been proven to be 100% safe.  In Namibia, this makes contamination of the countries’ water resources by hazardous radioactive metals and toxic chemicals a serious reality.  In addition to water contamination, windblown dust transporting these hazardous radioactive substances is a major concern, particularly due to the fact that most of the hazardous waste storage facilities are situated in areas where wind is prevalent.  Exposure to these hazardous and radioactive substances increases by inhaling contaminated dust in the air or by ingesting contaminated water and food.  Since these substances are invisible and tasteless, it impossible to recognize contamination or exposure without further testing.

Most uranium mines and their hazardous waste storage facilities in Namibia are situated in National Parks, areas which have been purposefully reserved for the propagation, protection, study and preservation of the wild animal life, fisheries, wild plant life, objects of geological, archaeological, and scientific interest as well as for the benefit and enjoyment of people.  Uranium mines cannot co-exist with the purpose of National Parks as they not only directly threaten wildlife during operations, they also pose long term health risks to the wildlife, the people and the entire environment through hazardous waste storage and leaks.

These hazardous wastes are dangerous to human health and increase the risk of cancer and genetic defects.  Wildlife could be affected in similar ways. Although proponents for uranium mining often downplay the health effects by claiming that there are low risks with low-dose radiation exposure, the inadequacy of hazardous waste storage facilities is dangerously downplayed as a risk for high-dose radiation.  It is well known that high-dose radiation causes cancer and defects, and the truth of the matter is that there are significant risks involved with all forms of radiation. Although adequate studies have yet to be conducted on the long term effects of low-dose radiation, even the National Academy of Science in the United States (which is considered a conservative institution) has recently confirmed that low-dose radiation is harmful.  Since both low-dose and high-dose radiation are acknowledged in international science as being harmful, we should consider all radiation exposure caused by uranium mines as harmful to health.

In Namibia, the government has a duty to protect current and future generations from these health effects as the environment must be sustainable for current and future generations.  Yet, as it stands now, the Namibian public is being positioned to be affected by a polluted environment of 100,000 years of highly radioactive, hazardous and toxic waste.  In Germany,  a first-world country, the public has paid 2.5 billion Euros in taxes to clean up the extensive groundwater contamination brought about by uranium mines and this has not alleviated the situation.  Estimates show it will cost at least 4 billion Euros.  What will be the poisonous legacy in Namibia, a developing country? What price will we pay and at what cost will this be to future generations?  It’s our choice to act now.


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