Uranium mining threatens South Africa‘s iconic Karoo

Drilling and blasting creates large volumes of radioactive dust. Photo: Andrey Serebryakov
Drilling and blasting creates large volumes of radioactive dust. Photo: Andrey Serebryakov
Almost entirely unknown to the outside world, and even to most local residents, hundreds of square kilometres of South Africa's Karoo dryland have been bought up by uranium mining companies, writes Dr Stefan Cramer. With no strategic assessment of the industry's devastating impacts and massive water demand, official permission could soon be granted for vast open pit mines.
There is no public debate. No local government is prepared. No strategic assessment process is in place. No advocacy groups are balancing the glossy claims of the industry against sobering experiences on the ground.

The Karoo, a vast semi-desert area that occupies around a third of south Africa's territory, has long been known to harbour substantial sedimentary uranium deposits.

Now the Australian company Peninsula Energy with Russian and other funding is planning to get the radioactive mineral out of the ground on a major scale.

The company has quietly accumulated large Karoo properties and concessions around Beaufort West and plans to set up a large uranium mill (Central Processing Plant) just outside that town. As the farmers are battling with the current drought, the company was already able to buy up farms of 32,000 hectares.

Without public debate and very little consultation, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as the precondition for mining licences has been finalised. During 2016 the Western Cape provincial Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) is expected to make a decision on the industry's application. It is difficult to imagine it could decline the application in the current mining industry's crisis.

Unlike shale gas, uranium ore is a well-known and substantial mineral resource in the Karoo. It can be mined easily in open pits. Uranium ores were first discovered in 1967 in the Karoo, when the state-owned Southern Oil Exploration Company (SOEKOR) drilled exploration boreholes for oil and intersected anomalous uranium concentrations.

Karoo uranium is found in so-called paleo-channels, hosted in riverbed sandstones of the Permian age. This is the reason why the deposits are in narrow lines across the Karoo. Most uranium-bearing sandstones are at a shallow depth of 5 to 50 metres below the current surface and will thus be excavated in open pit mining.

But low prices and alternative sources have repeatedly made these early plans for uranium mining unfeasible. With the perceived 'nuclear renaissance' the industry is now speculating on rising prices. In fact Peninsula Energy has been able to get substantial deals with US and European utilities for 'yellow cake' from its Wyoming, USA operation (see Protect our sacred water!) at the Black Hills.

Uranium mining in the Karoo - why now? Russian investment?

According to company documents, the available resources are approximately £57 million of Uranium Oxide U3O8 - about 25,000 tonnes with an average grade of 0.1%. But with recent exploration results, the total resource is estimated to be perhaps 10 times bigger than that.

The damaging impact of uranium mining on the environment and people is well documented. We can draw on vast experiences and documented cases from such diverse places as in Germany (Wismut AG), USA (Colorado Plateau), Canada (Saskatchewan) or Niger. The death toll of a hugely dangerous industry is well known and firmly established.

There is no public debate. No local government is prepared. No strategic assessment process is in place. No advocacy groups are balancing the glossy claims of the industry against sobering experiences on the ground.

Yet in South Africa's Karoo, a vast semi-desert the size of Germany in the arid centre of the country, there is no public debate. No local government is prepared. No strategic assessment process is in place. No advocacy groups balance the glossy claims of the industry against sobering experiences on the ground.

Only now ares the local media beginning to wake up to this potentially disruptive industry pushing its way into pristine areas of the Karoo.

Opponents of fracking had long made mention of the known occurrence of uranium in the Karoo subsoils. They pointed out the dangers of extensive drilling and fracking of uranium-bearing formations. Formation and flow-back water could contaminate surrounding waterways the same way as has happened in Pennsylvania, USA.

Namibia set to increase uranium production through Chinese investment

For the last 50 years, uranium exploration and some mining have occurred in the Karoo on and off. Exploration first started in 1969, but the Three Mile Island nuclear accident ten years later put paid to all further plans. The short-lived nuclear renaissance of 2005-2008 rekindled interest and saw serious new investments and geological studies, especially undertaken by the French parastatal nuclear corporation Areva.

When this company ran into serious troubles globally, they had to sell their assets in 2013. Again, the full-blown nuclear disaster of Fukushima-Daaichi of 2011 curtailed further investment, as market prices for uranium remain severely depressed.

Why then suddenly such large-scale and determined plans to mine a resource that the market hardly needs at this point in time, just as the market for nuclear power is shrinking?

The answer lies more in strategic geopolitics than in short-term economic realities. Since the turn of the century, China has been on an aggressive investment path into African nuclear resources. Within a short period it has invested heavily into the nascent uranium mining industry in Southern Africa, especially in Namibia. Chinese involvement in Namibia is about to make this country the third biggest uranium producer worldwide.

Further investments have been made into the uranium sectors of Botswana, Zimbabwe and Malawi, to name just a few. The Soviet Union and later Russia has always relied on its 'domestic' resources first from East Germany, today from Kazakhstan and Ukraine. Today, however, both countries are less stable and reliable.

Therefore Russia needs to look elsewhere for uranium resources, and to underpin its continued aggressive marketing of its nuclear industrial capacity with assurance of secure nuclear fuel supplies.

Russia's largest bid so far is an agreement with South Africa to build 9,600 MW of new nuclear electricity generation at six new nuclear power stations. If concluded it would also be South Africa's largest infrastructure project ever - and so far Russia's biggest foreign investment in Africa.

Who is behind these plans?

There is a deafening silence in the public domain regarding uranium mining in the Karoo. Unnoticed, the largely unknown South African company Lukisa JV silently accumulated uranium exploration concessions und nuclear concessions in the three Karoo provinces of Northern Cape, Western Cape and Eastern Cape.

The company did so by changing partnerships with different nuclear corporations like UraMin and Areva, thus gaining access to all earlier exploration data. The Perth-based Australian uranium miner Peninsula Energy is now engaged in a joint venture with Lukisa, called  Tasman RSA Mines, with offices in Beaufort West.

Its working capital comes from several institutional investors, but is dominated by Pala Investments, domiciled in Jersey (UK) with offices in Zug (Switzerland). Pala is a relatively unknown mining giant. According to its website, since its inception in 2006 the fund has invested in a total of 87 mining ventures in 25 countries across all six continents.

The company is controlled and run by the Russian oligarch billionaires Vladimir Iorich and his son Evgeniy Iorich. This should come as no surprise, as the secret (but leaked) nuclear agreement between Russia and South Africa calls for Russia to invest and possibly control the entire value chain of the nuclear cycles from mining, beneficiation, enrichment and fuel fabrication to energy generation, waste disposal and decommissioning.

Only in this context does the renewed Russian interest in the Karoo uranium make sense.

It is particularly interesting to see who are the South African partners in this joint venture. The Black Economic Empowerment partner in this case is Lukisa, which holds a total of 26% of Tasman RSA Mines, primarily in the form of exploration rights and nuclear licenses from the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR).

Perhaps more important are the excellent relations Lukisa has with Government and the ruling ANC. Today the company is run by Tefo Maloisane, who is said to have a long history of excellent political connections.

Environmental impact of uranium mining

The South African public can be forgiven to be rather in the dark about uranium mining. Despite its long and sometimes glorious mining history, uranium mining is a new thing. Past production always came as a by-product of gold mining. Dedicated uranium mines did not exist before.

In addition, the shallow nature of uranium deposits makes it look more like a quarrying operation than a proper mine. Yet, the dimensions are enormous.

Agricultural production from farms is next to impossible after uranium opencast mining. Meaningful rehabilitation is prohibitively expensive. Thus, about 32,000 hectares of farmland have already been bought and are directly owned under freehold by the mining company. Local farmers find it hard to resist purchase offers, as farming in this part of the Karoo is particularly difficult due to low rainfall and poor soils.

Even faraway neighbours might be affected. It is worth noting that a full 25 years after the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl, British sheep from Northern Wales, Scotland and North Cumbria had to be checked for radiation levels (from radioactive caesium 137) in their flesh.

Only a few sections will be extracted by underground mining. Initially, the company had applied for a license for 'in-situ-leaching', a particularly polluting but low-cost method that avoid classical mining infrastructure. Here, large quantities of a leaching agent are injected underground. The uranium is thus dissolved and can be recovered in well fields.

Today, the company plans huge open pits and some underground workings at shallow levels of less than 100 metres depth. A local uranium mill outside Beaufort West will produce 'yellow cake', which would be shipped overseas for enrichment.

Since the Karoo uranium deposits are scattered over a large zone of 200 by 300 kilometres, this requires long-haul trucking of ores over poorly constructed dust roads for hundreds of kilometres to reach a planned Central Processing Plant outside the Central Karoo town of Beaufort West.

The impact on water alone could be devastating

For this plant alone, the company has already applied for a water licence to abstract 1.3 billion litres of groundwater annually, roughly the total water consumption of the Central Karoo Municipality. It is unclear where that amount of water could come from.

The biggest structure will be a string of open pits 70km long stretching across two major rivers in the Karoo from Rietbron to Aberdeen. It is still unclear what will happen with the contaminated waste water. A discharge of radioactive waste water into the aquatic environment, above or below ground, would be illegal under South Africa's strict Water Act.

Therefore contaminated sludge will be delivered to large tailings dams similar to those at the South African gold mines around Johannesburg. From these dams the remaining water will evaporate. This leaves behind a soft and unstable pile of contaminated soil, which can be easily mobilised by the strong prevailing winds in the Karoo into large dust dispersal.

Already today, the environment close to the previous mine sites around Beaufort West is contaminated. First field studies by the author show unprotected nuclear wastes with 10 to 20 times the background radiation. Impacts extend far beyond the Karoo itself. Radioactive contaminated dust can travel for hundreds of kilometres in the windy and dry conditions of the Karoo.

Most of the uranium mining fields of the Central Karoo drain into the Gouritz and the Gamtoos River Basins, feeding rich irrigation agriculture in their lower reach. In addition, the Gamtoos reaches the Indian Ocean near Jeffrey's Bay, ironically only a few kilometres away from the site of the proposed nuclear power station at Thyspunt.

Dust and radiation - two deadly impacts

The devastating impacts of uranium mining on people, especially the mine workers, and the environment have been well researched and documented.

Several studies with large numbers of cases and with exposure over many years (Wismut AG in the former East Germany, the Colorado-Plateau in the USA, and Saskatchewan in Canada) have established a particular direct relationship between occupational exposure to uranium and its decay products and lung diseases.

Mining uranium ore in the Karoo will invariably create huge plumes of contaminated dust. Dust clouds are unavoidable during drilling, blasting and transporting in any mining environment. Dust suppression by spraying water is only partially effective and creates new problems with contaminated slimes, adding to the environmental cost of groundwater abstraction.

Peninsula's Karoo project is still at the Pre-Feasibility-Study (PFS) stage. Old boreholes have been retested to better delineate the ore bodies. Peninsula reports good progress. Engineering studies are underway for the Central Processing Plant at Ryst Kuil.

To conduct the legally required Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the company had contracted Ferret Mining and Environmental Services as so-called independent Environmental Assessment Practitioners (EAP). After completion of the specialist studies for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EAI) and the Environmental Management Plan (EMP), the 30 years mining rights application is now before the provincial Department of Minerals.

South African law requires a rigorous public participation process with very clear rules. The company has probably flouted most of them and made sure that nobody knew about it. It took civil society groups like SAFCEI to break that veil of secrecy.

Most material is published through a dedicated Facebook page Stop Uranium Mining in the Karoo. Today, only South African media has reported extensively. Thousands of Karoo residents have learnt about the dangers of uranium mining. More than a hundred substantial objections against uranium mining have been submitted to the authorities.

This is slowly is opening the space for a more rigorous public debate on a key issue of the future development of the Karoo, not only in the directly affected Central Karoo, but also further afield. Yet, the three provincial governments are completely silent. It is their duty to equip their citizens with the necessary knowledge to participate in a meaningful debate.

None of the local and regional development plans is even mentioning how to prepare for the impact of the arrival of an international mining industry in the very rural setting of the Karoo.

As in so many places, the current South African national nuclear debate centres on nuclear power generation alone. It fails to address uranium mining at the origin of the nuclear value chain, with its widespread damages and costly remediation requirements.

Uranium mining campaign

The early uranium trial mines at Ryst Kuil and Rietkuil left thousands of tonnes of high-grade uranium stockpiled just outside Beaufort West with no safeguards. The companies simply walked away when the market collapsed, leaving behind a deadly legacy of unprotected radioactive materials.

Uranium and its daughter products are slowly leached into adjacent reservoirs and aquifers. Radioactive dust is settling on plants and is ingested and inhaled by grazing animals. Worse, it was recently discovered that even today the trial mines are used as a dumping ground for undeclared radioactive wastes. The South African authorities are investigating.

With little activity on the ground, local resistance against uranium mining in the Karoo is still at its infancy. Only a few farmers, environmentalists and representatives of the KhoiSan, the early inhabitants of these dry plains, are vocal and active trying to ward off this disruptive industry. They fear for water, the most precious resources in the Karoo.

They predict the negative consequences of an unregulated industrialisation of a very rural and traditional lifestyle. It will be important to mount a credible legal challenge in very much the same way as the people of the Karoo have been able to ward off fracking for shale gas for nearly ten years now.

In the meantime, renewable energy sources like wind and solar energy are becoming more and more viable - much cheaper than nuclear power and with none of its existential hazards.

The Karoo is a world-class site for both forms of regenerative industry, peacefully co-existing with current land uses. Time is on their side.



Dr Stefan Cramer is a semi-retired hydrogeologist from Germany with life-long international experiences, currently seconded to the Karoo by the Southern African Faith Communities' Environment Institute (SAFCEI). He is based in the heart of the Karoo in the small town of Graaff-Reinet. His mission is to assist local communities with the problems of fracking and uranium mining.

Facebook: 'Stop Uranium Mining in the Karoo'.

This article is an updated version of one originally published by KarooSpace. See more information on the Karoo, its history, biodiversity and how to visit at KarooSpace.

More from this author