EUROPE: For the Bomb and Beyond
At the start of 2020, there were still 124 nuclear power plants in operation in the EU, making it the world’s largest consumer of uranium. The nuclear fuel is imported from outside the EU and there is strong opposition to any new uranium mining in Europe.
The last mine in Central Europe was closed in 2017 when the Rožná mine, southeast of Prague, terminated its operations. Rožná was first opened in the 1950s, employed 4,000 people in its heyday in the 1970s and produced a total of 4,000 tonnes of uranium. Today, the Crucea mine in Romania is the only uranium mine still active in the EU. This is only due to the fact that the national uranium company operating the mine was kept afloat with a million euro loan after the Romanian company Nuclearelectrica decided to buy cheaper uranium from Canada. The EU Commission has declared the state subsidies for the operator of the Crucea mine incompatible with EU law and ordered the government to recover 13 million euros plus interest. The operator is de facto bankrupt and the further operation of the mine is uncertain. Outside of the EU, only Russia and the Ukraine still have ongoing uranium mining operations. As elsewhere, the history of uranium mining in that region is long and disastrous. In January of 1945, at the end of World War II, Soviet geologists started to prospect for uranium in Bulgaria. They had been in competition with Nazi Germany to build a nuclear bomb, just as the Americans had been with the Manhattan Project.
However, the Soviets were no better able to guess how close Hitler’s war industry was to completing the so-called “wonder weapon” touted by Nazi propaganda, than the Americans were; after all, it was Otto Hahn who first discovered controlled nuclear fission in Berlin in 1938. After World War II, the Soviet bomb project continued. By May of 1945, uranium explorations were carried out in the Czech region of Jáchymov and in the Erzgebirge mountain range in German Democratic Republic. Driven by the arms race during the Cold War, miners in Saxonia and Thuringia extracted 231,000 tonnes of uranium before the fall of the Iron Curtain, while in Czechoslovakia 100,000 tonnes were mined.
Until the end of the 1950s, miners in Czechoslovakia and East Germany mined uranium under dismal conditions. In East Germany, many were even conscripted against their will. More than half a million people worked for the East German Wismut company during this period. In the Russian part of the Soviet Union, “only” around 100,000 tonnes of uranium were mined until its breakup.
In East Germany, uranium mining was discontinued after reunification, while in the Czech Republic it only ended in 2017. Over the past 25 years, German taxpayers have spent around 6 billion euros for cleanup efforts to remove the legacy of uranium mining operations in Saxonia and Thuringia – more than any other country or company. In the Czech Republic, the government has so far invested around 540 million euros for cleanup operations and plans to spend three times as much again until 2040.
In West Germany, the nuclear industry also prospected for uranium in the 1950s. Uranium was mined, at least for a time, in Menzenschwand in the Black Forest, Müllenbach near Baden-Baden, Mähring in the Upper Palatinate and Weißenstadt in the Fichtelgebirge mountain range. In Ellweiler in Rhineland-Palatinate, between 1961 and 1989, it was processed into yellowcake to provide the raw material for the production of fuel rods. After it was detected that too much radon was being emitted from the illegal waste dumps and the permitted limits had been exceeded, the operator filed for bankruptcy. The government then had the piles cleaned up at the cost of converted 3.5 million euros of taxpayer money. Because there were no economically attractive deposits in West Germany, there was never any large-scale commercial mining there.
The nuclear industry in France had larger deposits at their disposal: in all, there were 241 uranium mines, which extracted around 81,000 tonnes of uranium. Among them were smaller mines with just one shaft but also large mines such as Mas Lavayre and Margnac-Peny with a total yield of 5,000 to 10,000 tonnes. All deposits in France have been largely exploited, and the last mine was closed in 2001, but almost none were properly cleaned up. In all of the French mining areas examined by the radiation protection expert Bruno Chareyron, director of the research laboratory CRIIRAD, the radiation exposure levels were far above normal background radiation. He concluded that the radiological hazard for local residents persists and is not eliminated by simply closing the mines.
Even Portugal, which does not have a single nuclear power station, was among Europe’s uranium producers. By 1991 it had produced a total yield of 3,720 tonnes from its 91 uranium mines. In neighboring Spain, whose last mine closed in 2001, production was more than 5,000 tonnes. As in most countries with uranium mining operations, the toxic legacy was inadequately cleaned up.
Despite this, in 2019, the British-Australian energy company, Berkeley Energia, announced plans to enter the business of uranium mining with the so-called Salamanca project in Spain. Since then, thousands have protested against these plans, pointing to the risks involved. Portugal, a direct neighbor, was not included in the environmental impact assessment, which violated EU law. Consequently, the “Stop Uranio” movement brought the matter before the Petitions Committee of the European Parliament. Spanish authorities have since revoked all permits and stopped the construction of a required access road.
The example of Spain shows that an end to uranium mining in Europe will not happen in isolation. Only persistent protests were able to prevent new mining projects. The low price of uranium and the nuclear industry’s economic crises are further contributing to the end of uranium extraction.
• Danish Institute for International Studies: diis.dk/en/projects/governing-uranium
• The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: thebulletin.org/
• Commission de Recherche et d’Information Indépendantes sur la Radioactivité: criirad.org