Cleaning up Europe’s Soviet-era uranium mines

From ToxicLeaks

Soviet-era uranium operations in Eastern Europe[edit | edit source]

For decades the former Soviet Union invested in mining uranium across wide swaths of its satellite states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. During and after World War II, the uranium mines fed industrial reactors as well as the Soviet nuclear weapons programs. By 1953, nearly half of all the uranium serving the Soviet Union was mined in the former Czechoslovakia and East Germany (GDR).

In 1991, in the immediate wake of reunification, German officials were confronted with a massive cleanup problem at unsafe and poorly regulated mines that had yielded some 200,000 metric tons of uranium oxide (yellow cake). Contaminated mine shafts, piles of waste and massive tailing ponds full of caustic minerals led to contaminated waters including the Zwickauer Mulde and Weisse Elster rivers. The tainted air and soils were linked to cancer and other diseases among workers and in communities.

Similar circumstances confronted communities across the border in what is now the Czech Republic. They also proved to have lasting consequences in Romania, notably at Baita Plai. Some 70 years on, the radioactive contamination remains in areas that have been under European Union oversight since the nations’ EU accession in 2004 and 2007, respectively. Even as the EU seeks to expand a nuclear energy sector that accounts for nearly 30 percent of its mix – from 129 plants in 14 countries – it counts the Czech Republic and Romania among the 10 EU nations where new nuclear reactors are planned. Yet some of their rural residents still live in a post-Soviet radioactive wasteland that time has left behind.

In its required May 2017 EURATOM report, the EU also warns member states they will “have to take politically sensitive decisions on geological disposal and the long-term management of radioactive waste” as an estimated 50 of those 129 existing reactors are brought offline and decommissioned. The EU stresses “responsible, safe and sustainable solutions” that Czechs and Romanians still wait to see.

The toxic legacy at Romania’s Baita Plai[edit | edit source]

At one time in the late 1950s, the Baita Plai uranium pit mine was considered the largest in the world. Along with mines in the Poiana-Izvorul Bihorului – famous for its natural springs – and the primarily underground Avram Iancu Mine, the cluster served as a source of uranium ore for some 40 years. The Baita Bihor region sites continued to be a repository for radioactive waste beginning in 1985. In 2016, a Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism (CRJI) report found that only two of 23 uranium mining sites in Romania have been closed, with gaps in monitoring, remediation and the necessary funding.

A 2012 study in Romania’s EcoTerra, the Journal of Environmental Research and Protection, confirmed local waters downstream from Baita Bihor were contaminated with radium. Rocks removed from the mines also were toxic, but houses in the local communities were built with them anyway. Uranium and radium contaminants were found in riverbed sediments, soils and vegetation, with high on-site values. The study found uneven exposures and public health risks but urged continued remediation efforts.

Czech Republic’s environmental contamination[edit | edit source]

The impact of post-Soviet uranium mining also affects the Czech Republic, where the CRJI says there are moves to open new mines to meet the EU demand for nuclear energy. Remediation at long-shuttered sites such as the Mydlovary and Dolní Rožinka processing plants, where sludge poured into mine shafts leached heavy metals into the air, groundwater and soils, proceeds at a snail’s pace amid public outcry.

Homes in Czech communities also were built with radioactive rock waste; today, scavengers also take contaminated metals from dump sites and sell it as scrap. At Stráž pod Ralskem – one of the worst affected sites, according to Czech environmental NGO Calla – a radioactive tailing pond is adjacent to a recreational lake open to pipes actively used in cleanup. A sign obscured by trees is the only warning.

Activists in both countries say their officials are not complying with national and EU regulations for remediation, while the EU is slow to enforce them. In July 2017, the EU called on the Czech Republic to demonstrate full compliance with EURATOM directives for radioactive waste plans. The country has two months to comply or face a referral to the EU court system. Calla notes that documentation for the national plans on radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel management were due in August 2015.

Public health impacts[edit | edit source]

In Romania, more than 33,000 square kilometers are considered risk zones that affect more than 25 percent of the population. Among the greatest health risks is radon, a known carcinogen responsible for up to 3,000 deaths per year in the hard-hit Baita-Nucet mining area, according to a European-funded joint university research assessment. Homes in Baita Plai built with mine waste show elevated levels. At other locations including the Ciudanovița – Lișava region, radioactive waste has contaminated the water and made it undrinkable. Officials told CRJI they also worry about wild game, which is likely to be toxic.

As with Germany in the post-reunification years, it is difficult to demonstrate the disease correlation in the absence of data – a situation created by decades of Cold War-era operations conducted in secrecy. Yet even Romania’s National Institute of Public Health admits there’s been no money for community health monitoring in the past 10 years. The Romanian government promised €220 million to close 23 uranium sites, but in 2016 only 10 percent of the total had actually been spent. Meanwhile, the rock piles, tailing ponds and dumps continue to affect homes, farmland, fish and wildlife, and vegetation.

The Czech Republic has stronger, more streamlined regulatory oversight, but still is lagging. In April 2017, the last uranium shipment from the last active mine at Rožná I left the gates after 60 years of operation. The departure leaves more cleanup in its wake. The Czech government already has spent USD$1.6 billion on environmental remediation, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said in a 2016 report. Through 2040, it will cost another USD$2.4 billion still.

Cleaning it up or creating new mines?[edit | edit source]

The OECD notes that “all uranium activities” in the Czech Republic are carried out by DIAMO, a state-owned mining and environmental engineering company. Activists say that’s cause for concern because they’re responsible for the cleanup but also tasked with opening new nuclear plants and potentially the mines that go with them. In the meantime, remediation continues at 19 ponds adding up to 53 million cubic meters of sludge; 67 dumps, for a total of 38 million cubic meters of uranium ore residues; and more than five facilities where water treatment is required. Just at Stráž pod Ralskem, that means 260 million cubic meters of groundwater contaminated with sulfuric acid, nitric acid, ammonia and more.

Romania’s cleanup is led by Castrum Corporation, whose ties to government and EU officials have been open to corruption charges. The Romanian investigative journalists warn that in addition to what they say is a lack of EU engagement in the country’s radioactive waste cleanup, the EU agenda calls for more reliance on nuclear power and facilities. That’s putting the entire region – Romania, but also Slovakia and the Czech Republic – in the crosshairs of officials and companies waiting to again tap into the ore.