A project to mine uranium in northern Malawi next year promises to spur economic development in the area, but fears of serious health hazards associated with the radioactive element have aroused the country's civil society.
The Malawian government granted a mining licence in April 2007 to Paladin Africa Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Australian company, Paladin Resources Ltd, to develop the Kayelekera uranium deposit, 40km west of the town of Karonga on the shore of Lake Malawi.
According to James Eggins, a spokesman for Paladin Resources, the US$200 million capital cost of the project could generate between $150 million and $180 million a year, depending on the price of uranium.
The project is expected to create up to 800 jobs during the construction phase and more than 200 permanent jobs in the operations phase, besides the employment of contractors.
The venture could become a top export earner for the Malawian government, which owns 15 percent of Paladin Africa Limited. Henry Chimunthu Banda, Malawi's Minister of Energy, Mines and Natural Resources, told parliament earlier this year that revenue from the project could boost the country's gross domestic product by 10 percent.
However, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), one of the leading rights organisations in Malawi, have called for an independent review of the environmental impact study, and are concerned about the possible social impact on neighbouring communities and exposure to radiation.
Kossam Munthali, director of the Foundation for Community Support Services (FCSS), a reproductive health support group also opposed to the mining project, told a public consultative meeting held last year by the Kayelekera Uranium Project that the effects of uranium might cause long-lasting serious health problems in unborn children and residents in the surrounding areas.
The deposit is close to a forest reserve and Lake Malawi, and the NGOs said it was important that the people of Karonga become aware of the impact that the mining project could have on the ecosystem of Africa's third-largest freshwater lake and the biodiversity of the entire area.
Lake Malawi, which the environmentalists claim would be affected once the mining project commenced, is a major source of fish, the country's most affordable protein.
"Uranium is naturally radioactive", according to Friends of the Earth, an anti-nuclear international NGO. "This means that as the element decays, it emits radiation".
As uranium decays, it produces a dangerous gas Radon-222 which easily spreads during the mining and the further processing of uranium, according to the NGO. " As well as being dangerous due to its radioactivity, uranium is chemically toxic".
The NGO maintained that no matter how uranium is mined, "there will be radioactive contamination of the environment as well as impacts from noise, dust, sulphur dioxide fumes, etc".
The Uranium Information Centre (UIC) of the Australian Uranium Association, suggested that good ventilation systems be installed to keep exposure low. It also recommended the use of radiation-detecting equipment and regular safety checks.
Malawian NGOs have called on Paladin to ensure that no waste would be dumped into natural waters, such as the Sere Stream and the Rukuru River, both near the deposit, which would lead to the pollution of Lake Malawi.
In particular, the NGOs warned of the dangers of mismanaging the mining operation's waste products, called tailings, which is the material left after the uranium has been extracted and contains most of the radioactivity.
|As well as being dangerous due to its radioactivity, uranium is chemically toxic|
Paladin's Eggins assured the NGOs that the company, which operates another mine in Namibia, would use the best design criteria for management of the tailings and any water used by the project.
The tailings would be compacted in dams, designed by experts in consultation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and ultimately covered and revegetated, he said. The company expected to draw from Australia's experience in managing tailings, as its uranium reserves were the world's largest, accounting for 24 percent of the global production, according to the UIC.
The human rights group CHRR, along with other NGOs, has complained that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) - a prerequisite for obtaining the mining permit - was procedurally incorrect and have lodged a case in the High Court in the capital, Lilongwe. Paladin has maintained that the EIA "was conducted in strict accordance with the law and to the highest international standards".
The IAEA, in its authoritative report on the future of uranium mining, Analysis of Uranium Supply to 2050, identified environmental and/or political opposition as the biggest obstacle to growth in the sector.
"Western uranium mining and processing in recent times has an exemplary safety and environmental record, and programmes in the developing countries continue to adopt stronger environmental standards. Nevertheless, the world's environmental community continues to dwell on past mistakes, and to emphasise those mistakes in resisting uranium project development," the IAEA commented.
Interest in uranium has been growing in tandem with rising concerns about climate change, prompting many countries to reconsider the "greener" option of using nuclear power to produce electricity, which meant more nuclear plants would be built, Eggins pointed out.
The uranium market has been experiencing a strong revival, and new mines would be required in the coming years to meet the demand for growing uranium consumption by nuclear power utilities throughout the world. Paladin said the uranium spot price rose to its highest levels in the history of the civil nuclear industry in June this year.