Tuesday 9 April 2013

Uranium mining to begin in Tanzania.

A uranium mining project at Mkuju River has been granted a license by the Tanzanian Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, despite widespread opposition within the country. The license has been granted to Mantra Tanzania, a subsidiary of the Australian Mantra Resources, which is itself owned by the Russian AtomRedMetZoloto, and the mine will be operated by the Canadian Uranium One, another subsidiary of AtomRedMetZoloto. The Mkuju River is within the Namtumbo District in southern Tanzania, roughly 470 km southwest of Dar es Salaam, and was part of the Selous Game Reserve World Heritage Site until July 2012, when UNESCO's World Heritage Committee agreed to the area being removed to permit the mine to go ahead.

The location of the proposed uranium mine, and its relationship to the various wildlife reserves in the region. Safaritalk.

A number of Tanzanian organizations have expressed deep reservations about the development of the mine. 

Priva Moshi of Tumaini University has warned that uranium mining often presents serious environmental challenges even in developed countries and that Tanzania lacks the infrastructure and legal framework to deal with the safety hazards presented by such a mine. 

Imelda Urio of the Legal and Human Rights Center in Dar es Salaam has also warned that the government appears to be rushing into the deal to quickly, without clear regulations being put in place; she warned that the government does not appear to have the legal power to stop operations at the mine should activities there prove to be damaging, and that no assessment of the mine's likely impact on water and land resources in the area has been carried out. 

A joint report by the Christian Council of Tanzania, the Tanzania Episcopal Conference and the National Muslim Council of Tanzania has warned that the country lacks specific legislation to regulate a mine of this nature and has called upon the Tanzanian government to guarantee that there will be complete transparency in their dealings with the project, and also to invest in developing local expertise to monitor and regulate the project, enforce employment and labour laws at the site and make sure the project is run in a socially and environmentally responsible way.

A water hole at Chikopelo village, close to the site of the proposed mine. The water hole is used by both livestock and humans. It is unclear how the uranium mine will impact on such water resources. Christian Council of Tanzania/Tanzania Episcopal Conference/National Muslim Council of Tanzania.

Tanzania has external debt of US$7.9 billion, and pays over 40% of government expenditure on debt servicing; in order to service this debt the country has engaged in a structural adjustment program which has resulted in the selling off of 78.8% of the government's assets, the devaluing of the Tanzanian Shilling and the dismantling of the Ujamaa socialist system of government. This has resulted in a 40% growth in the economy since 1998, but little of this has reached ordinary Tanzanians, and the economy remains essentially aid dependent, severely limiting the country's ability to set its own economic policy. The Paris Club has agreed to a US$6 billion debt write-off for Tanzania, in return for further economic liberalization.

The country is rich in mineral reserves, and the sector has proved highly attractive to foreign investors. However relations between local people and foreign mining companies have often been strained with accusations that companies have harassed and even murdered local people.

Concerns about falling oil reserves have led to a renewed interest in uranium as a fuel in many parts of the world. In 2009 enough uranium was mined globally to meet 76% of the world's demands, with the remainder coming from Cold War reserves. There are currently over 60 new reactors under construction around the world, with many more being planned. 

This makes uranium an attractive prospect for mining companies, but the extraction can be an environmentally destructive process, not so much because it is radioactive (though this is a concern) but because it tends to be present at very low concentrations in even the most productive ores. This means that very large amounts of ore have to be extracted and processed to produce small amounts of uranium. This typically involves treating the ore with chemicals in retention pools, resulting in large quantities of toxic 'liquor' (chemical waste) being produced, in addition to considerable amounts of mine tailings (which often emit radon gas). Developed countries often have zero-runoff policies for uranium (and other metal) mines, but in practice these can be hard to implement, with floods and other events often managing to breach mine pool defenses.

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