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Do we need another uranium mine in Namibia? Kathrin Salzmann examines the potential dangers of the new Langer Heinrich Uranium Mine in the Namib-Naukluft Park.

Nuclear power is the most disputed source of energy in our time. This is due to the hazardous effects of radioactive materials on human beings and the environment. Their impact on future generations are also tremendous, because radioactivity can take thousands of years to disperse.

In spite of such concerns, the Namibian government recently granted a license to the Australian Paladin Resources LTD to build a uranium mine at Langer Heinrich mountain in the Namib-Naukluft Park. The British company Rio Tinto already operates the Rossing Uranium Mine at Arandis, which may be closing down in the coming years after exhausting the uranium stocks there.

Namibian and international environmentalists were shocked by government's decision to grant the new license, having been excluded from the decision making process since the environmental impact assessment carried out by Paladin was only made accessible to the public a few days before the license was granted.

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Earthlife Namibia, a Namibian environmental organisation, approached the Oko Institut (Ecology Institute) in Germany for a thorough and independent professional assessment of Paladin's study. Bertchen Kohrs, chairperson of Earthlife Namibia, confirms that the findings of this assessment (sponsored by the Green Party of Germany) are alarming and should not be ignored, neither by government nor by Paladin.

Radioactive dust

Of prime concern is the radioactive dust that will be increased by the mining activities. In Paladin's study only two radioactive by-products of uranium were included, whereas the Ecology Institute insists that all the by-products generated through uranium decay must be taken into account. Among these is a gas called Radon-222. This gas presents a lung cancer hazard when inhaled. All of these by-products will be carried by wind and will therefore impact the surrounding areas, affecting humans and animals including wildlife.

Since the towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay are less than a hundred kilometres from Langer Heinrich, it is highly likely that the wind will carry the dust into these places. This would not only affect the residents of the two towns, but will also have an impact on tourism, since Swakopmund is a popular holiday resort. Other tourist attractions such as Bloedkoppie, which is less than three kilometres from the planned mining site, will be even more affected. Mining may even be extended to Klein Trekkopje and Klein Spitzkoppe.

Water

The approximate water consumption of the mine will be around 1.3 million cubic metres annually. This equals the amount of water used by the entire city of Windhoek in one month! This water will mostly be used to keep the dust from travelling too far. However, the Paladin study has not addressed the question of how effective this method will be. Further, the constant watering will allow the radioactive particles and other dangerous substances to soak into the ground and therefore contaminate underground water sources.

Disposal of radioactive sand

The third concern raised by the Ecology Institute focuses on the disposal of the piles of radioactive sand, called uranium tailings, that will be left over after the uranium has been extracted. One could say that this shouldn't be a problem because the area is radioactive anyway. It is even said that pregnant Damara women used to go to Langer Heinrich and lay down on the rocks when they wanted to abort a child.

It is, however, a major difference if radioactive products are underground or if they are openly exposed and can be carried away by the rain and the wind. The Ecology Institute states that no reliable description is given by Paladin of how these tailings will be stored and protected from erosion, floods, burrowing animals or plant roots that can penetrate the cover of the storage dams. This storage must be kept safe for thousands of years. Who will protect future generations of people in Namibia from these radioactive hazards when Paladin has finished mining and long gone?

Even though the report of the Institute lists all these shortcomings clearly, the Namibian government has yet to take action to reconsider the deal. Instead it argues that the resources in the ground have to be exploited for the benefit of the country. In a response to Earthlife Namibia regarding the findings of the Oko Institut, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Trade and Industry stated: "Practically speaking we all need to understand that development and environment are two sides of the same coin, they are interlinked. It should therefore be understood that in the quest for development one has to sacrifice the environment. The Namibian Constitution provides guidelines which the government is following." However, considering all the concerns mentioned above, isn't this enterprise putting the country and its inhabitants at jeopardy rather than benefiting them?

Bertchen Kohrs warns of the possibility that one day nuclear waste produced through the processing of Namibian uranium in other countries may be returned to Namibia for disposal, following the principle that the polluter must pay the price of safeguarding the pollutants. She explains that Earthlife Namibia opposes the exploitation of uranium in a broader context, not only because of the hazards from the mining process but also the dangers that are created by nuclear power stations, as well as nuclear weapons produced with uranium, which cause a threat to all living species on this planet and are a political instrument of intimidation.

So let's ask the question again: Do we need another uranium mine in Namibia?

RELATED ARTICLE: Did you know?

It is possible to produce the same amount of energy that is produced by nuclear reactors through alternative energy sources such as wind or solar energy. A field of solar panels covering 6.400 hectares--the size of an average farm in Namibia - would create enough energy to supply the whole of Namibia with energy!
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Title Annotation:ENVIRONMENT
Author:Salzmann, Kathrin
Publication:Sister Namibia
Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:Nov 1, 2005
Words:958
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