The government’s failure to address mining hazards is placing the lives of its poorest people at risk from large-scale toxic and radiological pollution, according to a new report.
The study, “Uranium from Africa – mitigation of uranium impacts on society and environment by industry and governments”, which was released this week, finds South Africa, along with the Central African Republic and Namibia, are failing to reduce the dangerous impacts of increased uranium mining activity, in particular.
The report, by Dutch research organisations Wise and Somo, says the rising demand for uranium to produce nuclear energy has led to an increase of uranium mining in several African countries.
“Uranium mining is associated with high environmental impacts and human health risks. The costs of rehabilitation of the mining area are often many times higher than the total revenues derived during the mine’s entire lifetime. Nevertheless, uranium mining operations are welcomed in many African countries due to the short-term economic benefits they provide.”
But the consequences are uncontrolled environmental pollution, citizens and workers remaining uninformed about their radiation exposure and “agreements that are only known by companies and governments”.
Dealing with the hazards of uranium mining, which has “very serious and extremely long-term effects” requires excellent legislation, law enforcement as well as a disciplined and dedicated government and institutions.
This is lacking in South Africa, Namibia and the Central African Republic. Already, in the Witwatersrand region uranium released by mining activities is “known to be occurring in elevated concentrations in surface water, ground water and in drinking water” .
Yet in South Africa, “politicians lack knowledge on the environmental and social legacy of mining” according to the report. “Lack of knowledge within institutions and lack of proper environmental management systems, both in industry and in the government, render South Africa a poor example of environmental and human health protection.
“The existing environmental pollution, and the injustice of the fact that mainly the poorest parts of the population are affected by this pollution, is not addressed properly. The government is failing.
“Ministries such as the Department of Mineral Resources and the Department of Health are not capable of managing impacts from mining. As concerns are serious, it’s surprising that South Africa has no specialised institutions which have adequate knowledge on the impacts of uranium mining operations.”
The study finds that the National Nuclear Regulator, the agency meant to safeguard the public against mining-related radiation, is “too small, too ineffective and has too many tasks to be a reliable institution for radiation control”.
“The fact that diseases caused by toxic and radiological pollution from the mines are taking long times to develop, makes it very difficult to prove than any single ill person has fallen ill due to uranium mining activities. Affected populations often already suffer from extreme poverty, malnutrition and diseases that are unrelated to mining pollution such as HIV/Aids… Uranium mining causes deaths.”
The report credits AngloGold Ashanti for improving on its formerly poor performance through the use of extensive corporate and social environmental responsibility programmes. It cites First Uranium for “performing poorly”. Its subsidiary, Mine Waste Solutions (MWS), has come under fire for its failure to consult local communities.