No uranium mining in Alentejo - Portugal's radioactive legacy

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No uranium mining in Alentejo - Portugal's radioactive legacy

City gives up chance of millions from uranium mining

Sheep and goats graze under the cork trees, the sun glitters silver on the leaves in the olive groves; gardens full of orange and mandarin trees; the streams gurgle sweetly as they flow; the aroma of ham, smoked sausage and the famous Nisa cheese is in the air: all around the little mediaeval city of Nisa, in Portugal, there is a wealth of tradition and good flavours. And that' s something that the people there, in the northern part of the Alentejo, don't want to give up for anything - least of all for uranium mining.

Portugal has been exploiting its uranium reserves as long as anywhere. The first license for mining this yellow, radioactive heavy-metal was issued a hundred years ago in 1909. After the Second World War Portuguese uranium oxide was used by both the Americans and the British for their nuclear industry and atomic bombs. By 1991, 62 mines, most of them in the central region orf Portugal, were already producing the mineral, but since then production has slowed, mainly because the price of uranium on world markets collapsed. Now, however, demand for this nuclear fuel has risen again, and since 1998, with higher prices, the prospect of mining has hung over the 3,600 residents of Nisa like a radioactive sword of Damocles as in 1959, about two kilometers from the edge of town, they discovered the biggest unexploited reserves of uranium anywhere in Portugal. Sixty percent of all uranium ore in the Alto Alentejo lies here, more than six million tonnes, of which about 650 tonnes of uranium oxide can be extracted.

Between 2000 and 2003 the world price of uranium oxide (U3O8) trebled to around 66 euro per kilogram. International corporations became interested, and the reserves of uranium around Nisa were estimated to be worth more than 43 million euro, with total investment needed of only five million euro. A return like that is very tempting! Since then, Iberian Resources, the Rio Narcea group, and two other mining companies have been queuing up to to obtain licenses to prospect the area, but the people of Nisa responded sooner that the Portuguese government did. In collabortion with representatives of local business they founded the MUNN (Movimento Urânio em Nisa Não), a movement to oppose the mining of uranium.

In 2008, both local government and public associations declared themselves clearly opposed to uranium extraction in the area, and said they would oppose any plans for mining that the government or the nuclear industry might put forward. The local economy, they explained, was based on the wealth of its history and cultural lanscape; sustainable use should be made of its natural resources such as the famous milk and cheeses from its sheep and goats, and its thermal springs. "Mining radioactive uranium, however, is hardly compatible with the production of certified, high-quality foodstuffs or with tourism for the areas health and cultural attractions", explained the head of the town's council, Gabriela Tsukamoto.

The new spa alone would guarantee around 100 lasting and healthy jobs. In contrast, the uranium mine would create no more than 70 jobs, lasting no more than six to ten years. Gabriela Tsukamoto goes on to warn that negative effects would not be limited to the local area. Uranium extraction would create a radioactive dust that would be carried by the wind well beyond the local area, and groudwater contamination could pollute the River Tejo from which the historic Alentejo region takes its name. "Opencast mining of uranium around Nisa would be estimated to last six to eight years, but it would bring serious consequences that would last for decades", says António Eloy, nuclear expert for the Portuguese anti-nuclear-weapon movement, Movimento Não a Opção Nuclear.

Whether the mining is opencast or underground, any uranium extraction would cause environmental damage, says Lisbon environmental engineer, Cláudia Derboven Sequeira. According to the International Atomic Energy Authority, slag heaps and waste water from urananium are a particular cause for concern because they contain a large amount of the radioactivity of the ore, as well as many heavy metals and other toxins. Portugal already has a nuclear legacy to deal with, as little of the environental damage caused by earlier uranium mining has been cleaned up so far. The 4,000 tonnes of uranium extracted in Portugal over the last hundred years was mainly obtained from opencast mines, leaving 7.8 million cubic meters of slag. Heaps of waste containing uranium, radium and their decay products, radioactive mines and quarries, ponds of waste water and mud all pose a danger to water resources and public health, Cláudia Derboven Sequeira explains. ar Former workers, taken on in 1991 at Portugal's biggest uranium mine, Urgeiriça near Viseu, are still struggling to obtain proper compensation for the effects on their health, and working conditions in the mines were scandalous, especially in the first decades. 115 of around 500 mineworkers have already died of cancer, says António Minhoto, who was himself employed at Urgeiriça and now is leader of the environmental group, Associação Ambiente em Zonas Uraníferas (AZU) .

Old uranium mines and the prospect of new ones affect more than just central Portugal. There are extractable quantities of uranium just across the border too, in Extramadura, Spain. Spain put an official stop to its uranium mining industry in 2002, but both the Canadian company, Mawson Resources, and the Australian company, Berkeley Resources, were nonetheless granted licences for uranium prospecting near Cáceres and Salamanca in 2008.

This led a group of former mine workers, nuclear experts and environmentalists from both countries to meet together last September in Mangualde, near Viseu, for the first cross-border conference to discuss the impact of uranium in these regions. The first “Conferência Ibérica das Zonas Uraníferas” concluded with a human chain in front of the former Cunha Baixa mine, near Mangualde, in protest at the prospect of any new uranium projects on the Iberian peninsula.

MUNN, the anti-uranium movement in Nisa, also took part in the conference. MUNN is tireless in its campaign for lasting, non-radioactive development in the region, as although local government and leading local politicians have already declared themselves against any uranium exploitation the threat of it has not gone away. Decision making about the use of radioactive minerals rests with the government in Lisbon, and they are keeping all their options open. This is why it's important, says Nuno Sequeira from the environmental protection group, Quercus, "never to forget the mistakes that have been made extracting uranium in central Portugal in the past, the illness suffered by miners and their families, the environmental damage caused. Let us remember what dire consequences uranium mining would bring for Nisa and its region."

Norbert Suchanek

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