By JAMES KANTER
Published: November 4, 2010
STRAZ POD RALSKEM, CZECH REPUBLIC — The national uranium company in the Czech Republic, Diamo, has been working for years to keep toxic waste left by decades of uranium mining from poisoning some of the country’s largest underground stocks of fresh water or reaching the Elbe River.
Gordon Welters for The International Herald Tribune
The cleanup, which began in 1996, is expected to last 30 more years, with a total cost of around $2.75 billion.
Yet despite the costly mess, anticipation that demand for nuclear energy will keep growing globally, on top of local fears about overdependence on Russia for fuel, have rekindled interest in the old mines from companies as far afield as Australia.
That has stirred mixed feelings in the pretty Bohemian villages that dot the forests and gently rolling hills here, about 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, north of Prague.
Some residents are infuriated by the prospect of more deep mining or of pumping more sulfuric acid and other chemicals into the ground, which would add to a huge pool of waste that is spread across 27 square kilometers, or about 11 square miles.
The recent toxic sludge disaster in Hungary, which threatened to pollute the Danube, heightened the sense of alarm by focusing attention on environmental problems left over from the Communist era.
But many of the roughly 4,200 people in Straz, a town dominated by hulking apartment blocks built for miners and their families decades ago, take a far more sanguine view.
“A lot of people here depended on uranium,” said Marketa Humlova, 31, an English teacher who was out shopping with her young son. “The deposit still is so large that I think it’s inevitable that they will start mining it.”
Tomas Rychtarik, the local director of Diamo, said the area contained the largest known reserves of uranium in the European Union: at least 70,000 tons, or enough to power the country’s six reactors for 70 years.
For investors, the lure is the rising value of uranium, as fast-growing countries like China, India and the United Arab Emirates build fleets of reactors.
Uranium hit a record of nearly $140 a pound in June 2007, largely driven by hedge funds betting on future shortages. Since then prices have fallen drastically because of new supplies from Kazakhstan, and as doubts have arisen over how quickly new power plants can be built. Even so, prices are up nearly 30 percent from this year’s low of $40.50 a pound in March because of widespread demand.
Uranium production in the former Czechoslovakia peaked at about 3,000 tons annually during the 1960s, but the Czech Republic currently produces about 300 tons a year. That represents less than half of the country’s current needs.
Advocates say tapping the reserves to fuel an expansion of nuclear power could lessen the Czech Republic’s reliance on countries like Russia for uranium — and help the country reduce its greenhouse gas emissions without having to turn to Russian natural gas.
The Czech Republic relies on coal for 60 percent of its electricity, while nuclear accounts for 32 percent.
Sensing the potential, an Australian and Czech joint venture called Urania resubmitted applications this year to explore sites near Straz, including at least one site that would be suitable for chemical mining, which is how the current toxic waste pool was created.
The process, known as in-situ leaching, has become the most common method used globally in the past five years, partly because it gives mining companies greater flexibility at a time of uncertain demand. This form of leaching allows production to start far more quickly than is the case with open-pit and underground mining, and leaves a less visible scar on the landscape.
But because leaching can threaten water supplies, the technique has become another challenge for the nuclear energy industry at a time when it is seeking to burnish its image as a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.
In the most recent backlash, conservation groups and ranchers asked the U.S. Supreme Court in September to review a decision allowing leaching near an aquifer that supplies drinking water for 15,000 Navajos in New Mexico.
Separately, a law went into effect in Colorado last month that requires mining companies to show that their technology has been used before without harming groundwater quality.
In the Czech Republic, Urania has had six applications rejected in the past four years, although appeals are pending. Kate Hobbs, an Australian director of the company, said prospects for approval had improved, in part because the Green Party was no longer in the government. “I’m confident we could use leaching safely,” she said, citing experience in Australia and the United States using so-called containment bores that prevent chemicals from escaping.
Around Straz, many of the thousands of pumps that injected acid into the ground — more than four million tons between the late 1960s and mid-1990s — are still scattered across the landscape. One former miner, Vladimir Pospisil, 62, said so much acid was used that he recalled it dripping from the ceilings of underground mine shafts and dissolving iron chains.
Many Straz residents are still employed by Diamo as part of the clean-up operation, which aims to stop the contaminated groundwater from migrating. Diamo also pumps water into the ground to extract the acid, which is then neutralized above ground. As part of that work, Diamo recovers about 20 tons of uranium each year.
The final residue, a light-colored soil, is dumped at a barren site near Straz. Mr. Rychtarik conceded it was “not harmless,” but said the company used bulldozers at the site to compact the soil and prevent it from spreading. Workers at the nearby decontamination plant said they constantly hosed down the vehicles and roads used to transport it to the dumpsite to control the dust. The toxic legacy, and the huge cost and scale of the clean-up, meant that “the type of mining that was carried out between the ’60s and the ’90s is absolutely unrepeatable,” Mr. Rychtarik said.
Any new chemical mining would be further away from critical water sources than in the past, he said, and would use techniques where more liquid was pumped out of the ground than was pumped in, to ensure that pollutants were removed.
Areva, the world’s largest uranium mining company, is using such techniques at its operations in Kazakhstan, according to Patrick Bouisset, the director for exploration. He said the French company was required to “give back the water table as clean or cleaner than it was before we took out the uranium.”
But such pledges have done little to win over opponents, who regularly gather under a 900-year-old lime tree at Osecna-Kotel, a village eight kilometers from Straz. Josef Jadrny, 53, who leads a local environmental group called Nase Podjestedi, said the tree was an important symbol of their fight, since it would be threatened by any resumption of mining.
Mr. Jadrny said he had concerns that property values would drop if mining were restarted. But he said that his group’s primary goal was to ensure a clean water supply for the Czech Republic in the future.
Opponents of new mining also note that the Czechs would still have to send the uranium out of the country to be enriched into fuel rods.
Jiri Fiedler, a former head geologist for Diamo who now is a director in the Straz region for Aquatest, a consulting firm based in Prague, said no uranium mining site where leaching with acid had been used had ever been completely cleaned up, and he felt that Straz would be no exception.
But Vera Reslova, the mayor of Straz — who herself is on leave from Diamo, where she worked in human resources — said environmental concerns should not be exaggerated.
She emphasized that the resumption of mining would bring jobs to a town where unemployment stood at more than 10 percent last year, or about three percentage points above the national average.
“The risk of contamination is all the time at the back of my mind,” Ms. Reslova said. But “when the moment comes and people need the energy, they’ll come to get the uranium.”
Hana Kurova in Prague contributed reporting