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For years, the price of uranium has remained at rock bottom and with it the entire uranium industry. At the same time, more and more groups are taking up the fight against the destruction of their natural environment.

For the past 20 years, the nuclear industry has tried to sell us on a nuclear renaissance. However, the reality looks quite different: by the start of 2020, the European Union (including the United Kingdom) still had 124 operational nuclear reactors – approximately one third of all reactors worldwide – but 61 less than in 1989, when nuclear energy was at its historic all-time high. Five reactors are currently under construction in the EU (see p. 33). The situation is similar in the US and Canada: between 1996 and 2015, not a single nuclear power plant was completed. Only Watts Bar II in Tennessee went online in 2016 after being “under construction” for 43 years. “The driving force behind this may be the production of tritium needed for the US nuclear weapons program”, says Dr. Alex Rosen, co-president of the board of IPPNW Germany.

After the 2011 Fukushima disaster, all 54 reactors in Japan were taken offline. At the beginning of 2020, nine reactors had been brought online again, but all new projects had been halted. Since Fukushima, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Switzer­land and South Korea have opted for a nuclear phaseout. The production of nuclear power has fallen worldwide by more than ten percent and consequently the worldwide demand for uranium has diminished: from 68,646 tonnes before the Fukushima disaster to 56,585 tonnes in 2014. While there has been a slight increase in nuclear energy production and uranium demand since 2014, this is almost entirely due to new power plants in China. Rather than the promised renaissance, nuclear power is in stagnation.

With a 40 percent share of worldwide production, Kazakhstan is currently the most important uranium supplier. The country has held this position since 2009. The state-owned Kazatomprom mines uranium exclusively using the in-situ leach method. Since this produces no tailings and contamination remains invisible, government officials proclaim this to be a “clean technology”. Kazatomprom then delivers the yellowcake to Russia, China, India, France, Canada and the USA. In order to keep the uranium price high, the state-owned corporation cut back production by five percent in 2017 and by 20 percent in 2018.

Developments in recent years have had dramatic effects on the price of uranium. Since 2016, the price has hovered below 30 US dollars (per pound), making most mines uneconomical; new mines are rarely opened, and existing mines are being closed or sold. By 2014, Paladin had closed its Kayelekera mine in Malawi as it would have cost millions to continue uranium mining there. In Niger, Areva invested 1.9 billion euros in the Imouraren mine but never actually started uranium mining there; in Namibia, the Klein corporation closed the Trekkopje mine years ago since the mine had only made losses. The Langer Heinrich mine in Namibia pushed the Australian Paladin corporation to the verge of bankruptcy and was mothballed in 2018. In Mali, the Faléa mine lies unexploited. In Canada, the McArthur River mine was closed, while in Australia, the Ranger Deeps mine was developed but never put into operation. In the United States, the Trump administration is trying to revive closed mines, and even open new ones, including in the Grand Canyon area, so far without success.

For now, mining companies are waiting for the uranium price to recover. At the same time, more and more people in Africa, Australia, North America and Europe are fighting against uranium mining and the destruction of their liveli­hoods. For example, in 2003, uranium miner Almoustapha Alhacen invited independent scientists from France to Niger and had them measure the radiation contamination around the uranium mining town of Arlit. The result: dramatically elevated levels, an explanation for the many cancer cases there. Uranium giant Areva cited only its own measurements to claim that the situation did not pose a threat. However, Areva had to contend with an unexpected adversary in Australia: UNESCO declared the area around Koongara – where Areva had hoped to mine uranium – a part of the Kakadu National Park World Heritage Area.

With their protests scarcely recognized outside of the African continent, activists from Niger, Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa joined forces and founded the “African Uranium Alliance”. Besides resistance against new mining projects, their main focus was to raise awareness of the plight of workers in the mines: very often, protective equipment, dosimeters and adequate safety regulations were missing in the mines.

In West African Mali, the government issued a license in 2007 to explore uranium deposits in the Faléa region. Since then, the citizens group ASFA21 has fought against mining operations in this area. In 2015, young people from all over Africa climbed Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, to call for a “Ban on Uranium Mining” from Africa’s highest mountaintop. Tanzania was chosen for this declaration because the government wanted to make the country one of the leading uranium producers and to exploit the uranium deposits found in the 1970s and 1980s. Because resistance was so massive, some of the explorations of possible mining sites on fields and grazing lands could only happen under police protection. The march up to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro was designed as a highly visible sign for these protests.

However, some governments do more than just take note of these protests. In Malawi in 2017, eight activists from Tanzania were incarcerated for more than 100 days as “foreign agents”, because they wanted to witness uranium mining and its conse­quences in Malawi. In Russia, anti-nuclear activists had to flee into exile after the government also classified them as “foreign agents“, while those who stay in the country are intimidated and threatened. In Turkey as well, anti-nuclear activists do not want to be named due to the current political climate. The public will rarely hear about protests happening in dictatorial and autocratic regimes such as Kazakhstan and China.

Anti-uranium activists are even criminalized in Spain. However, massive protests there as well as in the Czech Republic have at least forestalled new uranium mines for the moment. Worldwide, the movement has adopted the slogan of the Indigenous people of North America: “We are not protest­ers, we are protectors”. They see themselves as protecting the environment and point to renewable energy – which is becoming less and less expensive – as an alternative to nuclear energy.

Further Information

Banning uranium mining: u-ban.org, uranium-network.org Climbing of Mount Kilimanjaro: twitter.com/kproject2015?lang=en
Climbing of Mount Kilimanjaro: twitter.com/kproject2015?lang=en