Eco-groups say uranium mine brings new hazards

Namibia has commissioned a second uranium mine despite strong opposition from human rights and environmental groups who fear it could pose an ecological hazard.

The Langer Heinrich Mine, 80 km east of the coastal town of Swakopmund in the protected Namib Naukluft Park, was officially opened last Thursday.

Mines and Energy Minister Erkki Nghimtina described it as a marvellous example of "what government and the private sector must do to ensure sustainability in the mining sector".

The mine is wholly owned by Australian exploration and development company Paladin Resources, which got a government go-ahead last month after being awarded a 25-year mining licence by the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

This is Namibia's second uranium mine after Rio Tinto's Rossing Uranium, also situated in the Namib Desert. Paladin expects to complete engineering and design work on the US $92 million project by November, with the aim of commissioning the mine in September 2006.

The World Information Services on Energy (WISE), a pressure group working on nuclear energy issues, has strongly opposed the venture, voicing fears ranging from ground and surface water pollution to radioactive gas emission.

"Mining uranium and mineral sands creates radioactive dust and radon gas," said Peer de Rijk, the executive director of WISE, in a statement. "When breathed in, the dust and gas release their radiation at close range where it does the most damage to the lining of the lungs, increasing the risk of developing cancer."

Last week Namibia's human rights group, the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), organised a small protest at the entrance of the park. "It is like licensing our death and destruction," said Phil ya Nangoloh, NSHR's executive director.

Environmental lobby groups Earthlife Namibia and Germany's Oeko Institute said the environmental impact assessment for Langer Heinrich had grossly underestimated the hazards.

Earthlife Namibia alleged that people visiting the park, a major tourist attraction, would be exposed to higher than internationally acceptable levels of radiation. The mine would also become the single largest consumer of water in Namibia, using 1.3 million cubic metres per year.

Langer Heinrich will be the first conventional uranium mine in the world to be opened in two decades. The first exports of uranium oxide are due to begin in 2007, and Paladin forecasts production of 1,000 tons per year.

The facility will employ about 100 workers and generate around $46 million a year in export revenue.