Portugal: Uranium Mining

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The struggle against nuclear energy has a long tradition in the environmental movement in Portugal. In 1974, shortly after the April 25th revolution that overthrow the fascist regime, the Movimento Ecológico Português (MEP - Portuguese Ecological Movement) was formed. The main big issue of this movement was the opposition to the building of the nuclear power plant in Ferrel, in Peniche. The anti-nuclear struggle evolved into a convergence of movements and citizens with ecological motivations under the CALCAN - Comissão de Apoio à Luta Contra a Ameaça Nuclear (Support Commission to the Struggle against the Nuclear Threat). A big anti-nuclear festival was organized and in 1977 a large march in Ferrel, initiated with the Church bells, marked the high point of the anti-nuclear struggle. The debate on whether to build a nuclear plant in Portugal continued until the 1980s. During this decade, the government definitely decided that Portugal should remain free from nuclear power.

Despite this, the country continued to extract and export uranium. Since 1977, the public Empresa Nacional de Urânio S.A. (ENU), a subsidiary company of the Portuguese State mining holding company, Empresa de Desenvolvimento Mineiro, S.A. (EDM), employed up to 614 workers in mines in Viseu, Guarda and Coimbra. The largest and most known mine is Urgeiriça, which represents today one of the most visible examples of the environmental liabilities generated by uranium mining.

In 1999, Anaconda Uranium Corporation has entered into a binding agreement with ENU, to develop and exploit the Nisa Uranium Project as a joint venture. Located in the Alto Alentejo area of Portugal, the Nisa Project consisted of eight shallow uranium deposits with total reserves in excess of 5 million pounds of U3O8 at a grade of 0.13 percent U3O8. It was estimated that the project would be in production within the next 12 months. However, in 2001, still with 44 workers, ENU entered in liquidation and definitely closed doors in 2004. The agreement between Anaconda and ENU on the development of the Nisa project, Portugal, expires together with the liquidation process[1].

In the last years, ex-workers of ENU have been struggling for compensations for the health consequences of their work. They state, among the 160 ex-employees that died, many suffered from cancer. In this struggle for environmental justice, more than 160 ex-workers - more than half of the 300 still living - have already volunteered to medical tests[2].

With the economic crisis, new mining frontiers have been opened in Portugal. Among them came the possibility to explore uranium in Nisa, and prospection by the company Berkeley Resources Ltd. started in 2008. Other private consortiums also expressed interest to explore the source of at least 6,000 tons of uranium[3]. Local citizens, with the support of environmental NGOs, reacted rapidly and formed the "Movimento Urânio em Nisa, Não" (MUNN)[4]. More than 300 people have signed a petition launched by Movimento Urânio em Nisa, Não (MUNN) to protest against the possible exploration of uranium in the region. (Diário Digital Jan. 31, 2008). On Oct. 19, 2008, 300 people held a demonstration in Nisa against any uranium exploration in the area.[5]

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