Fear grows over Karoo uranium mining plans

(Supplied)
(Supplied)

Johannesburg - Civil-society groups plan to oppose new uranium-mining ventures in the Karoo region of South Africa, which is looking to add nuclear power-generating capacity.

Peninsula Energy, an Australian uranium explorer and producer, said on February 10 that deposits of the nuclear fuel buried in the semi-arid Karoo, where there are also plans to undertake hydraulic fracturing, may be 10 times greater than the £57m resource it has already found. Peninsula’s aim is to begin mining there in 2019 or 2020.

Organisations including Oxfam South Africa met in Johannesburg on Tuesday and plan to hold more meetings in Cape Town and in the Karoo, where sheep farming is a main industry.

South Africa plans to add as much as 9 600 megawatts of nuclear power to address energy shortages in the continent’s most-industrialized economy. One megawatt is enough to power about 200 middle-income homes in the country at peak times. Cost estimates for the project range from $37bn to $100bn.

"Every step of the mining process produces dust that is easily inhaled and probably radioactive," Stefan Cramer, a retired hydrogeologist, said in a public discussion on the issue in Johannesburg. He spoke on behalf of the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute.

The effects of low-level, chronic exposure to radiation include cancer and changes to DNA, known as mutations, which can be passed onto offspring, according to the US government. High uranium intake over time can also lead to increased cancer risk and liver damage, the agency said.

Environmental groups and communities have also fought with companies including Royal Dutch Shell over their plans to explore for shale gas in the Karoo, saying drilling methods may cause damage to the area. The nation’s reserves could be the world’s eighth-biggest, the US Energy Information Administration said in 2013.

The groups are consulting farmers and local communities through action campaigns and raising awareness through schools.

“Eventually I think we will lose the battle” to prevent the mining licenses from being issued, Cramer said. The groups will challenge any permit in court based on what they said are “flaws” in the public-participation process and in the company’s application documents, he said.

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