Locals in Russia’s Eastern Siberia balk at Rosatom’s plans to ruin environment by uranium mining

Добыча урана методом подземного выщелачивания губительна для природы.

Publish date: December 7, 2010

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW - As global supplies of uranium dwindle, the Russian State Corporation Rosatom is forced to purchase uranium abroad and bump up domestic production by scouring for small deposits in Russia. But not all uranium-rich regions in Russia are thrilled by the prospects of having their nature – and life as they know it – ruined to serve the corporation’s interests. Meet the residents of Krasny Chikoi, southwest of the Eastern Siberian city of Chita, who said a firm “No” to uranium mining.

As global supplies of uranium dwindle, the Russian State Corporation Rosatom is forced to purchase uranium abroad and bump up domestic production by scouring for small deposits in Russia. But not all uranium-rich regions in Russia are thrilled by the prospects of having their nature – and life as they know it – ruined to serve the corporation’s interests. Meet the residents of Krasny Chikoi, southwest of the Eastern Siberian city of Chita, who said a firm “No” to uranium mining. Andrei Ozharovsky, 03/12-2010

Krasny Chikoi is a municipality on the right bank of the river of Chikoi, a part of the Eastern Siberian geographical area known as Transbaikalia – a mountainous region to the east and south of Lake Baikal. Administratively, Krasny Chikoi belongs to Zabaykalsky (Transbaikal) Krai, a federal subject of the Russian Federation.

During a public hearing last November 23, Krasny Chikoi residents refused to support a declaration of intent put forward by the uranium holding Atomredmetzoloto (ARMZ) – a Rosatom-owned company – which has set its sights onto the local Gornoye uranium deposit in the upper reaches of the Chikoi river.

This was a second time Krasny Chikoi rejected Rosatom’s plans to mine uranium ore in the virgin lands near the river. Earlier, in 2008, a referendum was held which resulted in a refusal to let the nuclear corporation use the area for geological research and uranium mining. This report is based on conversations with two participants of the latest hearing, Sergei Shapkhayev and Vladimir Razumov. Shapkhayev, a prominent environmentalist, heads the local non-governmental organisation called Buryat Regional Association for Baikal (the Buryats are the largest ethnic minority in Siberia and comprise the second largest population group in Zabaykalsky Krai). Razumov is the general director of Gornoye Uranium Mining Company (Gornoye UMC), a company created by ARMZ in 2007 to develop the Gornoye deposit.

Krasny Chikoi against uranium mining

The audience that gathered for the November 23 public hearing, which was held in the settlement of Krasny Chikoi, numbered 132 participants, including members of the Legislative Assembly of Zabaykalsky Krai, representatives from administrations of thirteen villages of the Krasny Chikoi municipality, officials from the Natural Resources Ministry branch in Zabaykalsky Krai, members of the municipal council, local religious leaders, and members of Buryat Regional Association for Baikal.

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None of the locals gathered for the hearing gave any support to the uranium mining plans. This is how the results of the hearing were reflected in the meeting’s minutes: “Because they do not meet the requirements of the environmental legislation and are lacking in information and accuracy of fact, the materials of the Declaration of Intent presented by Atomredmetzoloto at the public hearing with regard to the development of the uranium deposit Gornoye may not be supported. It is proposed that a new public hearing be held to consider Atomredmetzoloto’s Declaration of Intent with regard to the development of the uranium deposit Gornoye.”

The language of this conclusion was put to the vote and accepted unanimously. Taking the floor again at the end of the hearing, Gornoye UMC ‘s Razumov admitted: “During today’s public hearing, I realised one thing: There is no one for the project, everyone’s against it.”

Municipal council member Georgy Negodyayev, who chaired the meeting, said to Razumov as he was closing the hearing: “Vladimir Ivanovich, if your company abandons the plans to develop the uranium deposit Gornoye, we will confer on you the title of the Honorary Citizen of Krasny Chikoi Municipality and we will always be happy to see you vacationing in our neck of the woods. You should see our beautiful nature!” Accompanied by laughter and applause, Negodyayev then declared the meeting adjourned.

The sore loser

Despite the seeming amicability of the end of the hearing, the losing side, though it admitted its defeat in public, tried to disavow the results by refusing to sign the minutes.

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in accordance with Item 4.9 of the Regulation on Environmental Impact Assessments of Planned or Other Activities in the Russian Federation.”  

In a telephone conversation with Bellona, Razumov said: “We have signed the minutes, but not without including certain remarks.” Apparently, the nuclear officials had a change of heart and finally decided to acknowledge the obvious: Krasny Chikoi was not about to welcome them with open arms.

A stand-off Krasny Chikoi-style?

Speaking with Bellona on the telephone, Razumov said that despite the opinion expressed by the local residents, his company does not plan to cede on its intention to develop the deposit after all.

“This section of the field is of federal jurisdiction, [and] decisions are made at the federal level, though taking the opinion of the population into account,” Razumov said. “Rosatom has a concept for the development of minor deposits. But our legislation is such that public hearings are of a declarative nature. This was a hearing on a declaration of intent. The next one will be on the environmental impact assessment, in five or seven years, when all necessary works and assessments have been performed.”

Given Razumov’s own admission that public hearings may be of little use, it is not clear just how his uranium mining company will be taking the population’s opinion into account.

“Enough of this fuss, we will carry out a financial and economic feasibility study, and we’ll go on doing our geological survey,” said Razumov. However, it was exactly the permission to carry out preparatory works, like a geological survey of the area, that Krasny Chikoi residents denied UMC Gornoye both during the November 23 public hearing and earlier, via a local referendum.

Uranium miners are not welcome here

Indeed, UMC Gornoye does not have to look far to find out just what the locals’ opinion is on uranium mining in their municipality: They have expressed it loud and clear using what procedures are provided for such occasions by Russian law. The first time Krasny Chikoi said the population wasn’t interested in uranium mining was the October 13, 2008, referendum, where the issue of allowing Rosatom to use the Gornoye deposit for geological research and uranium production was put to a general vote. Of the total number of voters, 85,3 percent said “No” to the nuclear corporation’s plans.

“Both the administration of [Zabaykalsky Krai] and representatives from the state corporation Rosatom tried to stop the referendum or disavow its results,” Shapkhayev told Bellona. “But they failed. The results of the referendum have been published and have been neither contested nor proven invalid in court.” 

Preparation to mining and uranium production: The risks

Uranium mining is associated with significant risks to the environment. This is why, globally, Transbaikalia has not been alone protesting against such projects – Krasny Chikoi is well in the company of fellow-minded citizens of such countries as Canada, the US, Finland, and Australia.

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Uranium can be described as a rare and disseminated element – in that uranium ore is mostly present at relatively low concentrations, with ore minerals scattered throughout the rock in a given deposit. In Gornoye ore, uranium content is limited on average to less than one percent – namely, 0.238%. Uranium is a mildly radioactive element, but insofar as it is underground, confined to its natural deposits, it is usually not very hazardous for human health or the environment.

Still, natural uranium can constitute a certain hazard. According to Razumov, when the Gornoye field was being researched, geologists encountered radioactivity anomalies there with background radiation levels reaching up to 3,000 microroentgen per hour. But environmentalists have found other – artificial, rather than natural – sources of radiation in the area, attributed to previous geological development activities there.

Shapkhayev said that in September 2009, his organisation was invited by Krasny Chikoi municipal council members to join them on a visit to a section of a mining allotment in Gornoye where geological surveys had taken place between 1976 and 1986.  

“We discovered elevated radioactivity levels in the area around two abandoned adits, and adit wastewater, which ended up in Chikoi tributaries, contained concentrations of radionuclides that exceeded acceptable limits for potable water,” Shapkhayev said. “The current mining license holder has not taken sufficient measures to mothball all the adits that present a hazard to local residents.”

The deposit of Gornoye

Preliminary geological surveys were carried out at Gornoye in an area spanning 61 square kilometres. The results of this work, which lasted from 1976 to 1986, peg Gornoye as an average-sized deposit characterised by a predominantly rich content of high-grade ores.

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.” This may have been the adit that environmentalists discovered has been leaking radioactive wastewater.

As per the licensing agreement, a mining and reprocessing production site with a projected reprocessing capacity of 400,000 tonnes of ore per year is expected to be created at Gornoye. The plans include digging an underground ore mine, developing an open-pit mine, setting up a heap leaching site to reprocess the extracted uranium ore, and installing equipment to process the resulting pregnant solution to receive the final product, yellowcake.

To carry these plans into reality, a preliminary stage involves building and operating a pilot site with an ore-reprocessing capacity of up to 50,000 tonnes of ore per year. Here is where project initiators are hoping to create an industrial setting to test and put to practice the technologies of heap leaching and underground block and drillhole in-situ leaching of uranium ores in what can be called rather difficult geological conditions that the area offers. 

Risk of radioactive wastewater leaking into Lake Baikal

What hides behind those complicated terms of heap or drillhole in-situ leaching?

Leaching in the mining industry is a method by which chemicals – usually, sulphuric acid, in the case of uranium – are used to extract the mineral from the ore in which it is contained. In heap leaching, mined ore is crushed into small chunks and heaped on an impermeable plastic and/or clay-lined leach pad where it can be irrigated with a leach solution to dissolve the valuable metals. The leach solution, with the metal content in it, is then collected for the subsequent recovery of the mineral.

In-situ – or “in place” – leaching is similar, with the difference in that the ore is not removed from the ground: The chemical solution is pumped underground to dissolve the orebody and is then extracted, impregnated with the economic element, back to the surface, where the mineral can be recovered. Upon return to the surface, the solution being pumped back is radioactive.

However, in order that the in-situ method works safely, the orebody needs to be located propitiously enough and at a long enough distance to rule out contamination of ground waters. This is exactly the problem: The uranium is transformed during this process from its natural, immovable and stable, state into a radioactive solution capable of contaminating both ground and surface waters. In the case of the Gornoye deposit, the river Chikoi is thus placed under significant risk. Furthermore, because the Chikoi is one of the largest tributaries of the river Selenga – which, in turn, flows into world-famous Lack Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – both these water bodies are, too, exposed to potentially serious contamination risks.

“The site settled upon for testing of technologies which imply elevated environmental hazards was an extremely poor choice, since the uranium deposit envisaged for development is in the ‘buffer zone’ of the Baikal Natural Territory,” Shapkhayev said, referring to a total area of 386,000 square kilometres that comprises Lake Baikal and surrounding territories, all enjoying environmental protection under the Russian law. The particular spot in question is a mountainous location in the taiga in the upper reaches of the river Chikoi, a tributary to the Selenga, and Selenga provides half the stream flow to Lake Baikal, Shapkhayev reminded.

The ecological risks posed by uranium mining in the area are even acknowledged at the local government level – namely, by Zabaykalsky Krai’s Minister for Natural Resources and Environment Alexander Tarabarko. In an interview he gave recently to Zabaykalsky Rabochy (The Transbaikalia Worker), Tarabarko admitted a release of contaminating substances could occur during operations at Gornoye.

Transbaikalia has a lot to lose

Contrary to a prevailing stereotypical perception which only grants, in Russia, a “refined” status to the two capital cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, the remote Siberian settlement of Krasny Chikoi is hardly some backward God-forsaken hole inhabited by a wretched bunch of illiterate boors bullied by the authorities into a state of sullen servility. Krasny Chikoi spoke as a united front of an informed and engaged citizenry, well aware of their rights and the risks they are facing, as they forbade Rosatom’s envoys to ruin their natural environment in return for a rosy promise of tax cuts, monetary benefits, and other boons this “uranium paradise” was supposed to offer them.

In the words of Shapkhayev, “There is a surprising abundance of individual means of transport in the municipal centre, cabs are cruising the village, and near practically every other house a private-owned car is parked, bought, usually, with money earned by picking and selling produce made from pine nuts – which is not only supplied to the markets of the Siberian Federal District, but is gradually penetrating into foreign markets as well, particularly, Germany. No wonder that Rosatom’s plans to start the development of a whole series of relatively small uranium deposits located in the so-called Chikoi Uranium Ore Area was a seriously disturbing piece of news for local residents. Many of Chikoi locals understand that the Gornoye uranium deposit is nothing short of a key to a ‘Pandora’s box,’ a trial balloon, which – in case it brings a positive outcome [for Rosatom] – will make the process of ‘uranisation’ of the region’s forested territory irreversible.”

This area is home to a wide mix of different ethnicities (Russians, Buryats, Ukrainians, Tatars, Armenians, Belarusians, among others, as well as representatives of several indigenous peoples) and members of a number of different religious denominations, including so-called Old Believers – a tightly-knit community that adheres to a Christian tradition that became split from the official Russian Orthodox Church in 1666 following a protest against church reforms.

“Industriousness, respect toward their elders, independent judgement, and faith in strong family tradition have helped many local residents withstand difficult and controversial periods of our history, while they have been able to preserve their households and their moral standing. The municipality does not have any major industrial enterprises, so its economy has since olden times been based on agriculture, whose ecologically clean produce accounts for 62 percent of total production output of the area. Small business is developing at a rather good pace here, and hunting and picking, processing, and selling wild-growing produce, primarily, pine nut, plays a significant role in that. Krasny Chikoi is home to one of the largest virgin cedar forests in Transbaikalia,” Shapkhayev said.

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budget with our natural riches without any uranium. Developing uranium deposits in our region is a big and fat minus, both for the economy and the ecology.”

Uranium heresy

Speaking with Bellona on the telephone, Razumov from UMC Gornoye described the impasse in Krasny Chikoi as a result of “hillbilly ignorance” and “delusion-mongering” – arguably, a sign that discovering that Russian citizens, even in places as remote as Krasny Chikoi, can be quite well-versed both in economy and ecology is a situation that will take the Russian nuclear industry some getting used to.

But when it wants to start a potentially environmentally harmful project, the powerful nuclear corporation should not be surprised to find out that its encroachment on the population’s natural environment and its attempts to pass off its corporate interests as those of the state may – and will usually – be met with sturdy resistance.

Krasny Chikoi residents have already twice said “No” to uranium mining in their region – in the referendum and during the November public hearing. If Russia’s top nuclear authority and its numerous subsidiaries continue to ignore the population’s opinion and keep going heedlessly after their uranium profits, social tensions will likely aggravate in this small Siberian municipality – and protests may grow into something even less palatable for Rosatom.