Uranium latest diplomatic flashpoint for Venezuela


News that Iran was helping Venezuela detect uranium deposits has reverberated across the diplomatic landscape, creating a welter of security and environmental concerns.

Venezuelan Minister of Basic Industries and Mining Rodolfo Sanz triggered the uproar Sept. 25 when he told reporters that “Iran is helping us with geophysical aerial probes and geochemical analyses” of uranium deposits. He said Venezuela could have important uranium deposits in the western part of the country and in Santa Elena de Uairén in Bolivar State, near the border with Brazil.

The declaration came as the United States, Britain and France accused Iran of building a secret underground facility to produce nuclear fuel. A French foreign ministry spokeswoman warned that any transfer of nuclear materials from Iran to Venezuela would be a “violation of the resolutions of the Security Council.”

Environmentalists and nuclear activists, meanwhile, say they fear the possible health and environmental implications for Venezuela, given the nation’s limited nuclear expertise and poor environmental record in such basic industries as iron and aluminum.

Julio César Centeno, a professor of environmental policy at the University of the Andes in Mérida, argues Venezuela will need nuclear energy to generate electricity in the future, but adds: “The environmental record of both this government and previous governments in petroleum and mineral extraction has been very unfavorable, and there are plenty of reasons to fear that it could be equally poor and even more dangerous when dealing with a product like uranium. Besides, we haven’t heard anything, even from the Environment Ministry, as to how this kind of mining is going to be carried out to mitigate the environmental impact.”

Venezuela has never mined uranium in its history, and Venezuelan Science and Technology Minister Jesse Chacón has said the country would only use its nuclear energy for “medicinal purposes, for peaceful purposes.” But preliminary studies by the government in the 1970s revealed the nation had potential as a small-scale nuclear-energy power with about 50,000 tons of uranium reserves. With that, Venezuela could export uranium and generate nuclear power, diverting oil and gas from domestic use to export markets, experts say.

Russian-Venezuelan deal

Pursuing that goal, Venezuela agreed with Russia in November 2008 to jointly develop an indigenous nuclear-power industry. Russia pledged to help Venezuela find uranium and build its first reactor—probably, experts say, a 1,000-megawatt pressurized-water plant of the type installed at the Iranian port of Bushehr.

Recent news of Iranian involvement in uranium exploration caught analysts and the public off guard, even though Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez has grown increasingly close to Iran. Apart from sparking a diplomatic furor, it rekindled environmental concerns about nuclear-fuels development in Venezuela.

Green advocates warn that uranium mining, especially in a water-rich environment such as that of Bolívar State, could have serious consequences. Open-pit and underground extraction—the types of uranium mining commonly practiced in Latin America—use huge quantities of water, mixed with sulfuric acid and other chemicals, to separate uranium from rock. The wastes, or tailings, that remain after the uranium has been extracted are dangerously acidic as well as radioactive. They can pollute underground- and surface-water sources, particularly when exposed to heavy rains.

The risks to aquifers from underground mining are especially grave. “In a tropical area with lots of water, there’s going to be a big risk to the quality of that water, and that’s not to mention cancer and respiratory-disease risks to workers from breathing radon gas and uranium dust,” says Chris Shuey, an environmental-health scientist at the Southwest Research and Information Center, an energy-oriented nonprofit in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In Latin America, only Brazil and Argentina have mined significant quantities of uranium, and both have had problems doing it. Brazil, with the world’s sixth largest reserves of around 300,000 tons, uses uranium to supply two nuclear reactors, Angra I and Angra II (combined, about 2,000 megawatts of installed capacity), at Angra dos Reis near Rio de Janeiro. It will need additional nuclear material to sustain a third, the 1,350-megawatt Angra III, when that reactor is finished in 2014.

But the state-owned Caetité mines, which produce 400 tons of uranium a year—virtually all of Brazil’s current production—show elevated levels of uranium in water supplies near the site in the northeastern state of Bahia, according to studies by the environmental group Greenpeace and the Bahia state water agency. Federal prosecutors are investigating the case.

Tailings an issue

Argentina, whose two operating reactors, Atucha I and Embalse, have a combined installed capacity of about 1,000 megawatts, halted uranium mining in the late 1990s for economic reasons and is now moving to restart it. The government has concluded that given current prices, the country can save money by tapping domestic sources rather than importing uranium. Attempts to re-open its Sierra Pintada mine, with 40% of the nation’s 16,000 tons of estimated reserves, were blocked in court in February, however, on grounds radioactive waste from earlier operations pose a risk.

“In South America, there have been lots of problems with long-term management of uranium mines involving the inappropriate treatment of old wastes,” says Peter Diehl, a nuclear analyst at the World Information Service on Energy, an anti-nuclear group based in Amsterdam. “Whether that will be different for Venezuela with Iranian or Russian assistance is anyone’s guess. But I have my doubts.”

Uranium mining is by no means the only aspect of Venezuela’s nuclear-energy push stirring debate. For some, safe plant operation and waste-disposal constitute the key concerns.

Julio César Pineda, former director of Venezuela’s Nuclear Council and president of the Inter-American Commission of Nuclear Energy during the late 1970s, believes uranium mining can be managed safely. The problem, he says, “are the wastes produced by the nuclear industry when uranium is treated and enriched.” He adds: “There is no economic justification for Venezuela’s having nuclear energy. We have lots of petroleum, gas, hydroelectric energy and possibilities for wind energy.”

- Steve Ambrus

Julio César Centeno
Professor of Environmental Policy
Forestry Policy and Economics
University of the Andes
Mérida, Venezuela
Tel: +(58 274) 271-3814
Email: jcenteno@telcel.net.ve, jcenteno@telcel.net
Peter Diehl
Nuclear Analyst
World Information Service on Energy (Wise)
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Tel: +(3120) 612-6368
Email: uranium@t-online.de
Julio César Pineda
International Law Professor
Universidad Santa María
Caracas, Venezuela
Tel: +(58 212) 418-5050
Email: jcpineda01@gmail.com
Chris Shuey
Director of Uranium Impact Assessment Program
Southwest Research and Information Center
Albuquerque, NM, United States
Tel: (505) 262-1862
Email: sric.chris@earthlink.net
Website: www.sric.org