Of the hundreds of mining companies that have worked in South Africa, there are just a few that are currently producing uranium: AngloGold Ashanti operates the Vaal Reef Mine, Uranium One operated but then sold its Dominion Reefs Mine to the Indian/South African company Shiva Uranium Ltd in 2010.
Simmer and Jack Mines Limited owns the Buffelsfontein Mine while its 37.24%-held subsidiary company First Uranium operates both Ezulwini Mine and works on its MineWaste Solutions Project, and UraMin operates Rystkuil Mine. Several other companies are in exploring or preparatory phases and are expected to start producing in the near future.
Two companies were selected to gain insight into the South African situation: AngloGold Ashanti and First Uranium. These were the sole two companies in South Africa we focused on for this research project.
What is Uranium
Uranium, a natural resource which is used for nuclear energy production, is extracted from the earth in uranium mines located in various countries worldwide. Nearly twenty per cent of the world'ss mined uranium is produced in Africa, and this percentage is expected to increase in the future. As uranium mining is associated with various negative externalities such as environmental pollution and deterioration of health, intensified uranium production in Africa can lead to a wide variety of hazards. Preventing and managing the multiple hazards is a complicated task which requires specific knowledge, efforts, and financial means available in all responsible stakeholders. It can be questioned if all of these factors are available in the African states which are allowing uranium mining operations
on their land.
On First Uranium
Not quite according to reality, the company claims that the Mine Waste Solutions project will actually be beneficial to the environment, as some hazardous elements will be removed from the waste. CEO Deon van der Mescht was cited saying "the tailings storage facility makes it possible, over the life of the MWS project, to remove 15 old tailings dams in the Stilfontein area that are currently a source of major air and water pollution. The retreatment of these historical dumps will reduce the salt load on the Vaal river by up to 50% compared to current levels."
Additionally, he optimistically claimed that groundwater quality will improve after tailings dams reprocessing, and the former waste sites can be rehabilitated and used for alternative sustainable development initiatives.
Unfortunately, Mr Van der Mescht did not explain what plans First Uranium has to rehabilitate the areas, nor did he mention the fact that the final 1200 hectares waste disposal site is bordering agricultural land, a nature reserve, a village, as well as Vaal river. He also failed to tell that, just like the 15 old tailings dams that are currently a major source of air and water pollution , his mine waste dump will not be isolated from the environment, and that it will continue to be a major source of pollution. Financial provision of ZAR 101.895 million (Euro 10.4 million) for MWS liability for closure was estimated, a number which the Department of Mineral Resources accepted in February 2010. Total environmental liability at Ezulwini was ZAR 61,089,111 (Euro 6.2 million) in March 2010. The Environmental Trust contains ZAR 34,002,224; the deficit between the liability and the principle sum inthe Trust (ZAR 27,086,887) was then covered by a bank guarantee.
In their reaction to review the paragraphs above, First Uranium stated to disagree with the information and conclusions on the Mine Waste Solutions environmental impacts, above. In a reaction, First Uranium wrote: "You state that the MWS project will not lead to an improvement in the environment in and around Stilfontein. This is incorrect for several reasons. The existing tailings dams are old order dams meaning that they are not engineered nor were they designed with closure in mind. This meansthat there are no water remediation measures at the dams nor are they, for the most part, revegetated.
The new Tailings Storage Facility (TSF) is designed with closure in mind, will be concurrently rehabilitated and has significant drainage and engineering works dedicated to minimise the impact of the tailings on underground water. The result is that once the footprints of the old dams are properly rehabilitated the TSF leads to a significant improvement in environmental conditions in the Stilfontein area. The impact on groundwater resources in the area and also on the Vaal River is predicted to be a positive one.
This is due to the fact that the old tailings dams currently leach affected tailings water into the surrounding environment as there are no water remediation measures in place at the old dams. In contrast, at the TSF there are significant water remediation measures in place including lined return water dams and underflow drains. The old dams are situated on dolomites which mean that preferential flow pathways are created for polluted water. The placement of the new TSF was specifically chosen by the Department of Water Affairs due to the favourable, relatively impermeable soils and substrata.
MWS is obliged to monitor groundwater quality in the area to confirm the impact of the TSF on groundwater.
Yet First Uranium's claims are often disputed in South Africa. Here, NGOs and the communities that are housed next to the Tailings Storage Facility are frustrated about First Uranium's lack of
communication with the affected parties, and worried about their drinking water, which is obtained from shallow boreholes. NGOs claim that First Uranium does not follow the correct procedures and
that the first leakages from First Uranium pipelines have already been observed.
A coalition of NGOs and affected communities are working on a court case against First UraniumÃ¢â‚¬Å¸s Mine Waste Solutions.
On radiation and health
As uranium mines will commonly work with low uranium concentrations, a lot of waste rock (containing too low uranium grades) needs to be disposed of at the mine. Additionally, there is the waste from the mill: the large volumes of tailings. After mining and milling, some of the uranium has been extracted from the ore -not all of it. Apart from residues of uranium, there are also the radioactive daughter products and other elements, some of which may be toxic, that are still left in these tailings. The chemical milling processes have also added products such as sulphuric acid to the mix. The tailingswill therefore be toxic and will typically still contain around 85% of its original radioactivity.
What is most problematic is the fact that the materials on the tailings dams have been mobilised -they were crushed and put on an easily erodible pile.
Erosion is facilitated by rainwater: toxic, radioactive elements are taken away and end up in groundwater and surface water. The wind, too, continuously influences the tailings dams: dust is blown away. The dust contains radioactive substances which cause internal contamination in people and animals.
Radon gas is also dispersed over the mining region. Radon is the daughter of uranium's radioactive daughter product radium and is notorious for its emissions of radiation. Inhalation of particles emitting adiation is particularly dangerous. The internal radioactive contamination it causes can lead to lung cancer .
"The risks to human health posed by ionizing radiation are well known, states the World Health Organisation (WHO) in a report on radon. Radon gas is by far the most important source of ionizing radiation among those that are of natural origin."
The WHO subsequently refers to an often-cited report by Grosche et al. on lung cancer risk in German uranium miners, in which the researchers found "a statistically significant trend of risk for lung cancer with increasing exposure.
The authors of the report were told that a maximum received dose of 100 mSv/ 5 years is standard at First UraniumÃ's operations. This implies that the average maximum dose is 20 mSv/year.
However, First Uranium prefers to keep its standards flexible and will allow doses of up to 50 mSv/year, as long as the employee will receive a much lower exposure in subsequent years so that the 100 mSv/ 5 years is not overdrawn. However, the highest received annual dose for a First Uranium employee was 4.7 mSv in 2010.
It does not seem to be considered that employees might leave employment after a few years of high exposure, to start working at another mining company. Hypothetically, this means that workers could receive much more than 100 mSv in 5 yearsÃ¢â‚¬Å¸ time, without either one of the mining companiesexceeding 100 mSv per 5 years of employment within their respective companies.
What is not measured is the radiation exposure of workers at home. Researchers have shown that the mining region's waters and soils do have elevated levels of uranium and other hazardous elements.
Government response was disappointing: despite continuous phone calls to Ministries and repeatedly sent emails to government officials, not a single official response was given.
Fortunately, we did manage to arrange a short interview at the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR).Although the NNR is not strictly a government body and obtains its funding from the nuclear industry, it is an advisory board to the Ministry of Mines and Energy and it is the one organisation which is mandated to protect people and environment from radiation in South Africa. The Board of the NNR is appointed by the Minister of Mines and Energy.
The NNR also provides the Certificates of Registration to the mining companies, in which issues such as safety for workforce, materials, transport, and environment, are described. The Certificates need to be authorised by the NNR. Unfortunately, we received no examples of these Certificates from the NNR.
The NNR, being responsible for radiation protection, is obliged to carry out monitoring programmes at all the mines who deal with radioactive materials.
The NNR gave us no information about the AngloGold Ashanti or First Uranium projects, as the interviewed persons did not know details about the operations of these companies. However, they did answer various questions which give an impression of their work on radiation protection.
NNR on Environment
In an August 2010 interview, Orion Phillips, Senior Manager at the NNR, told us: "There are contaminated sites with tailings materials. We do have concerns about some habituated areas yet there are no serious problems. Radiation levels may be a bit high but are not unacceptably high, not such that we cannot accept people live at those sites."
As the drinking water situation is concerning in South Africa and scientists have written alarming studies about this issue, we asked the NNR about uranium contamination of drinking water. In a recent study, Frank Winde of North West University concluded:
"Considering all possible exposure pathways it is estimated that currently several hundreds, if not thousands, of mainly poor people may be directly affected by water pollution at various degrees of intensity. Immediate intervention should be considered for situations where polluted water is the only source of drinking water and where such water finds its way into the food chain of subsistence farmers either via irrigation of gardens or livestock watering. Such intervention is particularly urgent, since the most exposed population is commonly the one most vulnerable."
When asked about drinking water pollution, Mr Phillips of the NNR explained: "South Africa has the best drinking water in the world. No drinking water is contaminated. Nobody drinks bad water. When it comes to cattle that is a bit more complicated. We are asking the farmers to not let their cattle drink contaminated water. Besides, if a cow has a choice, she will not drink any contaminated water."
When asked what happens if the cows do not have a choice but to drink contaminated water, Mr Phillips admitted: "Well, in that case, they will drink it. But we are asking the farmers to take precautions."
Conclusions for South Africa
It is obvious that South Africa is living with very serious impacts of mining, and the mitigation measures that are undertaken are by no means sufficient. Politicians lack knowledge on the environmental and social legacy of mining. Especially radiation issues are not considered with care. Government is failing. Ministries such as the Department of Mineral Resources and the Department ofHealth are not capable of managing impacts from mining.
There is no proper protection of the environment and the country is moving quickly towards a situation in which clean drinking water becomes a scarce commodity.
As concerns are serious, it is surprising that South Africa has no specialised institutions which have adequate knowledge on the impacts of (uranium) mining operations and can monitor, educate, and advise on all mining-related health and environmental issues.
Although some companies are clearly making an effort and are showing their willingness to enlarge their Corporate Social Responsibility, such as AngloGold Ashanti, the South African situation is clearly a safe breeding place for persons or organisations who are not too keen on behaving responsibly.
The fact that many mineworkers are dying in mining operations, without this being a reason to close the mines and hold companies responsible for the deaths of their employees, is unacceptable. The bizarre truth is that it is normal -maybe regrettable, but still acceptable -that people are giving their lives to enrich the shareholders of the mining companies. The ruthlessness of a company such as First Uranium, which wishes to put the deaths of their own workers "in a context", seems to be too brutal to be true.