SPECIAL REPORT : Scientists alarmed at uranium mining in Selous Game Reserve

Sunday December 4 2016

Selous Game Reserve hippos. In-situ leaching

Selous Game Reserve hippos. In-situ leaching can contaminate water. 

By Peter Nyanje @pnyanje pnyanje@tz.nationmedia.com

Dar es Salaam. When the government agreed to cede part of Selous Game Reserve for uranium mining, the then minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Mr Ezekiel Maige, was quoted as saying part of the money from the mining activities would be used to develop the animal sanctuary.

But, with prices of uranium decreasing at an alarming rate, with mining activities not picking up at the Mkuju River project in the southern Selous, it remains to be seen how can the mining activities produce enough money to enable the investors to recoup their capital, let alone having surplus money to finance development of Selous Game Reserve.

This is not all. Through uranium mining, Selous Game Reserve and its entire eco system including underground water systems, will be exposed to serious environmental damage. This puts the future of the game reserve, which some people believe is the last animal sanctuary which has not been disturbed, in danger.

According to research, uranium mining leads to serious land destruction. Through uranium mining there is also danger of release of toxic compounds to the environment.

The principal risks of this, according to researchers, is to human health (particularly if radiation spreads to agricultural and livestock systems and via the food chain).

The radiation contamination poses danger to ecosystems and biodiversity of the area with possible impact on the genetic resources.

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This scenario will expose the country to huge financial losses as it will need a lot of money to clean up the area after the uranium mining activities close.

This will dampen the country’s development aspirations, let alone quest to improve the game reserve using the money from uranium mining.

What happened to Wismut in German is a typical example. As of now German has spent more than €7 billion to clean up the area. But with all that money, plus high technology which the country boasts, it has not been able to return Wismut to its natural situation so as to allow other human activities to take place unhindered.

False hopes

According to Mr Charles Kitwanga, formerly Energy and Minerals deputy minister, at full operation, the Mkuju River Project planned to employ 1,600 people. That, according to him, would be a blessing to the unemployed youth in Southern Tanzania.

Mr Kitwanga said then that during the life of the mine, the Mkuju River project anticipates $1 billion of foreign investment and generate about $630 million to direct and indirect cash flows.

But, Mantra Resources, which operates the project, has said it is going to employ a new technology in uranium mining called in-situ leaching. According to experts, this is technology-laden mining system which requires minimal human operations. This means that the plan to secure 1,600 jobs for Tanzanians is far-fetched.

According to miningweekly.com, the global mineral prices have fallen in recent days.

It recently reported that prices of uranium remain under significant pressure. Worse, the falling spot prices are pulling the long-term contract price lower.

“There’s a price-off bias. Customers believe if they wait a bit longer they will realise a lower price,” Canadian uranium miner Cameco’s senior VP and CFO Grant Isaac was quoted by miningweekly.com as saying recently.

This situation has created panic among major miners, Mr Isaac says noting further that analysis by some experts have further dampen possibility of the mineral price going up in next few months or years.

Does this global trend of uranium pricing give any hopes that Tanzania will reap handsomely from this project? From projected revenues, the government plans to collect about $5 million annually from the Mkuju River uranium project.

But experts argue that this will be at the expense of Selous Game Reserve, which, if it is managed well it could earn the country more than that for a long period of time.

Deadly uranium mining

The Mkuju River uranium project is located in Namtumbo District, Ruvuma Region, about 470km southwest of Dar es Salaam. It holds 139,600 tonnes of measured and indicated resources.

Originally, this area was part of the Selous Game Reserve. But, the government remove it from the conservation plan and forwarded its application to Unesco, which has been recognising Selous as part of the World Heritage Sites (WHS).

The company which manages the project has announced that it is going to use in-situ leaching, which involves dipping pipes to areas where uranium deposits have been confirmed. They chemicals (usually acids) are pumped through the pipes and when they mix with uranium ore, they dissolve it. The solution is then pumped into the ground for processing where the uranium cake is produced.

But the technology has its downside.

First, given the sophisticated nature of the technology, it does not involve the ‘traditional’ activities in mining such as moving large quantities of earth. This means that only a handful of workers will be required to man this technology. Notably, these are people who have mastered to apply the technology.

Therefore, the government should forget about prospects of massive employment through this project.

On the other hand, scientifically, the technology poses a lot of environmental hazards. And as a result of it, soon, the unique Selous landscape and biodiversity could be exposed to an immense quantity of chemicals underground.

According to Mr Roy Namgera, a geologist in uranium mining based in Dar es Salaam, the problem with the technology stems from the fact that there is no control of chemicals underground.

“The chemicals which are pumped underground to dissolve the uranium ore also get in contact with other rocks and bodies found in the vicinity of the uranium ore. Therefore, even if you pump the solution out, considerable amounts of the chemical solution remain in the ground,” he says.

According to Mr Namgera, the planned operating time of 10 years could lead to the creation of 60 million tonnes of highly poisonous waste.

“No safe method exists to avoid contamination of surface and ground water during uranium mining. It remains unclear whether the wind will spread radioactive dust into the reserve and contaminate wide areas,” he says.

There is a risk of spreading leaching liquid outside of the uranium deposit, involving subsequent groundwater contamination. There is unpredictable impact of the leaching liquid on the rock of the deposit.

This poses a danger on the impossibility of restoring natural groundwater conditions after completion of the leaching operations.

“Contaminants, that are mobile under chemically reducing conditions, such as radium, cannot be controlled. If the chemically reducing conditions are later disturbed for any reasons, the precipitated contaminants are re-mobilised, the restoration process takes very long periods of time,” he says.

Mr Namgera wonders why Unesco allowed part of its WHS to be transferred from the Selous Game Reserve.

Environmental groups have accused Unesco of failure and irresponsibility.

“Unesco’s decision appears to have been influenced by corporate and lobby interests. Now there is a risk that this case has set a precedent that endangers the protection of other World Heritage Sites for similar interests,” notes an environmental activist based in Dar es Salaam who did not want to be named.

“Besides, we don’t have readily available contingent plans in case of accidents such as what happened in Fukushima in Japan 2008,” says Mr Namgera who also notes that given the nature if uranium prices in the world now, there is no possible economic gain unless Tanzania constructs a nuclear plant for power generation.

He notes that at the world market currently, a pound of uranium (450g) fetches around $27 while an ounce of gold is sold at $1,250.

“If we are complaining that we have not been able to get much from gold, which has a higher price than uranium, we should not expect to earn anything tangible from uranium,” he elaborates.

World heritage site

Mr Veteran journalist Attilio Tagalile says if Selous is deleted from Unesco’s WHS list, the government is to blame.

“Yes, we need development, but do we need it at the expense of nature? What we are planning to do within Selous can be done elsewhere with results more than what we will get from Selous,” he says.

In addition to uranium mining, there are plans to generate hydropower from Stiegler’s Gorge.

The government also plans to develop the Kidunda dam, also in the vicinity of Selous, into a major water source for Dar es Salaam and Coast Regions.

Mr Tagalile wonders why the government bothers with such projects which will disturb the Selous eco-system while there are other sources of electricity and water.

He notes, for instance that, the discovery of abundance gas reserves has provided the country with ample resource for power production.

“Why bother with unreliable hydropower in a project which will also affect the Rufiji River flow and endanger a lot of species?”

Mr Tagalile says a lot of underground water has been discovered at Kimbiji.

He notes that developing the Kidunda water dam will definitely affect Selous while Dar es Salaam and Coast can get more than their water needs from nearby Kimbiji.

All these activities threaten the Selous status as a world heritage site. Unesco is already concerned about the Selous status as a WHS.

Issues which Unesco raised include illegal activities being undertaken in the reserve, management systems and management plan, mining, oil and gas and water infrastructure among others.

Next week we will look into details how these factors threaten the Selous status as a WHS.

To be continued…