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Risks of Uranium Mining – Case Areva

14.12.2006 Lauri Myllyvirta

Greenpeace has published a report on the environmental crimes of the French nuclear company Areva to highlight the potential risks and impacts represented by uranium mines. Areva is now planning uranium mines in Finland.

Main environmental problems related to uranium mines: leakage of toxic substances (radionuclides, heavy metals, acids, ammonia) into surface and ground water; environmental catastrophes and slow, gradual contamination due to failure of tailings dams; emissions of radioactive particles and radon that can have negative health impacts several kilometers from the mine.

Examples of health impacts: In Spain, the risk of several cancers has increased by 10-70 percent within a distance of 15-30 km from uranium mills. In the US, up to 4 percent of the population living near waste piles get lung cancer because of them. A 80 percent increase in birth defects and significant increases in chromosome damages have been recorded. (These are not the most scandalous cases, rather the most relevant to the discussion in Finland)

Discussion on radiation protection standards, nuke fuel production mass balance, waste streams, connections with nuclear weapons…

Limousin, France.
Surface and ground water has been contaminated, radon is still being released. The waste is unsatisfactorily taken care of, representing long term risks and causing continuous leakages. Areva still refuses to undertake several protection measures demanded by local people.

Radioactive wastewater and leakage from waste piles&tailings; dams a big problem due to high rainfall&lots; of groundwater like in Finland. 100 tons of toxic sludge leaked from Areva’s Key Lake mine in 1984. In 1998 radium leaks to a lake were detected in Cluff Lake mine and workers were exposed to extraordinarily high radiation doses. Leakage of arsenic has occurred in the McLean mine. In the Wollaston lake situated near to Areva’s operations, uranium concentrations exceeding the background levels 70 times have been found.

Cristensen Ranch, Wyoming: 26 violations between 1997 and 2004. In 11 cases, at least 700m3 of toxic chemicals were released to the environment. Brun, Texas: At least 100m3 of radioactive liquid leaked in 1998.

Areva/Cogema has two mines, with around 100 000 people living near them. All groups of people studied by the nuclear safety authority of France were exposed to radiation because of the mines, mainly because of radon pumped out of the shafts. Large quantities of radioactive scrap metal ended up being sold on the streets which exposed many people to large radiation doses. There were higher than permitted levels of uranium in people’s wells. There was a truck accident where radioactive materials were released in 2004, the place was not properly cleaned up. Trade unions have been forbidden and the army has been used to calm down workers e.g. when wages have been cut or payments have not been made as agreed.

Areva was mining until 1999. 2 million tons (50 000 truckloads) of waste rock and tailings were dumped directly into a river. The acids were not even neutralized so they dissolve heavy metals from the waste rock. Eventually, the dump was covered by a layer of erosion prone material that will wear off within 10-100 years according to different sources. The river continues to flow over it. Even this ubiquitous work was not paid for by Areva but by EU. The place is still a total mess, with metal scrap all over. Local people and workers haven’t been informed about the hazards. Children used to even play near the tailings and waste piles. Personal dose meters or even breath masks were not used. Health data is not public and independent assessments have not been made. The workers are estimated to have been exposed to 30 times the acceptable dose for general public (so 30 mSv).

Non-mining cases
Areva’s La Hague reprocessing plant has turned the surrounding ocean floor into medium level nuclear waste, increasing childhood leukemia in the nearby communities. Areva was found in 1999 to have dumped radioactive waste in a landfill site in France. They refused an order by the French authorities to close down a dangerous nuclear facility (Caradache) in 2000. Areva supplied enriched uranium to India, violating the non-proliferation treaty and helping India get a nuclear weapon. In the construction of the new reactor in Finland, Areva has already lied to Finnish authorities, violated their orders and fallen short of safety requirements.

8 multinational companies have exploration plans, Areva being the only one that has so far been granted permission for on-site exploration. In Finland the exploration permits can be given without public hearings or environmental impact assessment and they can include drilling as well as experimental mining and milling. The minimum distance from people’s houses in 50 m. The areas for which Areva has applied for a permit cover important groundwater formation areas and are found in the immediate vicinity of locations were the drinking water for tens of thousands of people is drawn from. There are quite a few people who even live in the middle of these areas.

Check out the report (in Finnish)