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    Spanish company Ferry Group is to invest €42/US$55.2 million in a project for the production of biomass fuel pellets in Bulgaria. The 3-year project consists of establishing plantations of paulownia trees near the city of Tran. Paulownia is a fast-growing tree used for the commercial production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Hungary's BHD Hõerõmû Zrt. is to build a 35 billion Forint (€138/US$182 million) commercial biomass-fired power plant with a maximum output of 49.9 MW in Szerencs (northeast Hungary). Portfolio.hu - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Tonight at 9pm, BBC Two will be showing a program on geo-engineering techniques to 'save' the planet from global warming. Five of the world's top scientists propose five radical scientific inventions which could stop climate change dead in its tracks. The ideas include: a giant sunshade in space to filter out the sun's rays and help cool us down; forests of artificial trees that would breath in carbon dioxide and stop the green house effect and a fleet futuristic yachts that will shoot salt water into the clouds thickening them and cooling the planet. BBC News - Feb. 19, 2007.

    Archer Daniels Midland, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, is planning to open a biodiesel plant in Indonesia with Wilmar International Ltd. this year and a wholly owned biodiesel plant in Brazil before July, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The Brazil plant is expected to be the nation's largest, the paper said. Worldwide, the company projects a fourfold rise in biodiesel production over the next five years. ADM was not immediately available to comment. Reuters - Feb. 16, 2007.

    Finnish engineering firm Pöyry Oyj has been awarded contracts by San Carlos Bioenergy Inc. to provide services for the first bioethanol plant in the Philippines. The aggregate contract value is EUR 10 million. The plant is to be build in the Province of San Carlos on the north-eastern tip of Negros Island. The plant is expected to deliver 120,000 liters/day of bioethanol and 4 MW of excess power to the grid. Kauppalehti Online - Feb. 15, 2007.

    In order to reduce fuel costs, a Mukono-based flower farm which exports to Europe, is building its own biodiesel plant, based on using Jatropha curcas seeds. It estimates the fuel will cut production costs by up to 20%. New Vision (Kampala, Uganda) - Feb. 12, 2007.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has decided to use 10% biodiesel in its fleet of public buses. The world's largest city is served by the Toei Bus System, which is used by some 570,000 people daily. Digital World Tokyo - Feb. 12, 2007.

    Fearing lack of electricity supply in South Africa and a price tag on CO2, WSP Group SA is investing in a biomass power plant that will replace coal in the Letaba Citrus juicing plant which is located in Tzaneen. Mining Weekly - Feb. 8, 2007.

    In what it calls an important addition to its global R&D capabilities, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is to build a new bioenergy research center in Hamburg, Germany. World Grain - Feb. 5, 2007.

    EthaBlog's Henrique Oliveira interviews leading Brazilian biofuels consultant Marcelo Coelho who offers insights into the (foreign) investment dynamics in the sector, the history of Brazilian ethanol and the relationship between oil price trends and biofuels. EthaBlog - Feb. 2, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan has announced its renewable energy target: 12% of all energy should come from renewables by 2020. The plan is expected to revitalise Taiwan's agricultural sector and to boost its nascent biomass industry. China Post - Feb. 2, 2007.

    Production at Cantarell, the world's second biggest oil field, declined by 500,000 barrels or 25% last year. This virtual collapse is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos. Wall Street Journal - Jan. 30, 2007.

    Dubai-based and AIM listed Teejori Ltd. has entered into an agreement to invest €6 million to acquire a 16.7% interest in Bekon, which developed two proprietary technologies enabling dry-fermentation of biomass. Both technologies allow it to design, establish and operate biogas plants in a highly efficient way. Dry-Fermentation offers significant advantages to the existing widely used wet fermentation process of converting biomass to biogas. Ame Info - Jan. 22, 2007.

    Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited is to build a biofuel production plant in the tribal belt of Banswara, Rajasthan, India. The petroleum company has acquired 20,000 hectares of low value land in the district, which it plans to commit to growing jatropha and other biofuel crops. The company's chairman said HPCL was also looking for similar wasteland in the state of Chhattisgarh. Zee News - Jan. 15, 2007.

    The Zimbabwean national police begins planting jatropha for a pilot project that must result in a daily production of 1000 liters of biodiesel. The Herald (Harare), Via AllAfrica - Jan. 12, 2007.

    In order to meet its Kyoto obligations and to cut dependence on oil, Japan has started importing biofuels from Brazil and elsewhere. And even though the country has limited local bioenergy potential, its Agriculture Ministry will begin a search for natural resources, including farm products and their residues, that can be used to make biofuels in Japan. To this end, studies will be conducted at 900 locations nationwide over a three-year period. The Japan Times - Jan. 12, 2007.

    Chrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint has launched an arrogant attack on "quasi-hysterical Europeans" and their attitudes to global warming, calling the Stern Review 'dubious'. The remarks illustrate the yawning gap between opinions on climate change among Europeans and Americans, but they also strengthen the view that announcements by US car makers and legislators about the development of green vehicles are nothing more than window dressing. Today, the EU announced its comprehensive energy policy for the 21st century, with climate change at the center of it. BBC News - Jan. 10, 2007.

    The new Canadian government is investing $840,000 into BioMatera Inc. a biotech company that develops industrial biopolymers (such as PHA) that have wide-scale applications in the plastics, farmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Plant-based biopolymers such as PHA are biodegradable and renewable. Government of Canada - Jan. 9, 2007.

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

The hidden health costs of uranium mining

Earlier we referred to the high health costs of (open-pit) mining in the developing world, especially in Africa, and how local bioenergy production could remediate some of these problems. One of the most common but most serious risks is the air and water pollution by small toxic particles which poisons people and their crops in the vicinity of the mines. Our idea: bioremediate the (old) mines by planting bioenergy crops on them, which reduces erosion, air and water pollution. The bioenergy can be used locally to power mining operations, and with the money saved, food can be imported from safer places.

Now recently, a group of Belgian nuclear scientists revealed that the health costs involved in uranium mining are much higher than previously assumed. The cause is the same as the one we sketched: pollution by radioactive particles that are taken up in the food chain that is present near the uranium mines. The researchers looked at the mountain village of Kara Agach in Kyrgyzstan where people are unwittingly eating radioactive waste. Radium left behind by more than two decades of uranium mining during the Soviet era has contaminated their chickens, milk, potatoes and pears.

The study has shown that villagers are receiving radiation doses up to 40 times the internationally recommended safety limit, mostly from the food they grow. If the uranium waste dumps were dislodged by earthquakes or landslides, thousands more could be in danger. "There is a potential for a radiological disaster to happen," says Hildegarde Vandenhove from the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre in Mol.

In the debate over the merits and demerits of nuclear energy, the situation in Kara Agach is a warning. Often the people and places that have to deal with the hazards of uranium mining are forgotten in discussions of the environmental costs of nuclear fuel. As the world gears up to build more nuclear reactors to augment energy supply, maybe even combat climate change, mining risks look set to rise.

We think this is another argument in favor of bioenergy, against nuclear energy. A lot of the uranium is mined in the developing world, where safety measures are virtually non-existent and where health costs are simply not taken into account. Take the Shinkolobwe mine in Congo [see picture]. This mine delivered the uranium for the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is an open-pit, where the ore is dug up in very unsafe circumstances, with shovels and bags, by some 20,000 'illegal' local creuseurs who continuously risk their lives (as was recently revealed by the United Nations who issued a warning over the potential health disaster that's in the making there). The uranium is sold on the local market, in bags, to the highest bidder. Thousands of people live in the vicinity of the mine, where they grow their daily food.
This is of course an extreme example, but even when 'basic' safety standards are implemented, the human health costs of uranium mining are seriously underestimated.

Bioenergy can both locally remediate some of the problems associated with uranium mining, and it can do so globally. But let us first have a closer look at the Belgian study:
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Uranium mining is a major worldwide industry. In 2004, about 50 mines in 16 countries produced more than 40,000 tonnes of uranium. Business is booming, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), which has 28 industrialised countries as members. In a report published on 1 June it says that uranium production increased 11 per cent between 2002 and 2004, and has the potential to double by 2010 to feed new nuclear reactors.

Digging uranium out of the ground is an even messier business than mining other ores. After the uranium is extracted from the ore, usually by acid or alkali digestion, the remaining liquid contains radioisotopes that occur naturally alongside uranium, predominantly radium-226. This has a half-life of 1600 years and decays into radon gas, a known cause of lung cancer. The toxic sludge, known as tailings, remains radioactive for thousands of years.

In Kara Agach, there are 23 uranium waste dumps in a region prone to landslides and earthquakes. If one of them were to be dislodged, the Mailuu Suu river could be contaminated and threaten the health of the 25,000 people who live 3 kilometres downstream. Worse, it could carry pollution 20 kilometres over the border into Uzbekistan's Fergana valley, the country's main agricultural region (/Journal of Environmental Radioactivity/, vol 88, p 118).

Kyrgyzstan is not the only country contaminated by radium-226 from the sprawling mines that fuelled the Soviet Union's reactors and bombs. An unpublished survey for the European Union completed in 2002 found over 7000 old mines, dumps, ponds and plants that needed cleaning up in 11 central European countries.

"It is a huge and daunting legacy," says Mike Thorne, a British consultant who helped with the EU survey. "I estimated that some people would be receiving radiation doses 10, 20 or 30 times higher than the recommended safety limits, in the range that requires remedial action to protect their health."

Communities are also at risk elsewhere in Europe and Russia, Thorne says. In the former East Germany there is a $9 billion clean-up programme under way to tackle over 170 million tonnes of tailings dumped at 12 sites between 1946 and 1990. And a new study has confirmed that the country's 400,000 uranium miners suffered at least a 10 per cent increased risk of lung cancer (/Health Physics/, vol 90, p 208).

Western nations, too, have reminders of past bad practice. The US government has to shift more than 10 million tonnes of uranium tailings from the banks of the Colorado river in Utah to a site 48 kilometres away in order to prevent the contamination of water supplies in southern California. Some 200 million tonnes of tailings at Elliot Lake in Canada pose persistent storage problems. In Australia, mining at Jabiluka near Darwin in the Northern Territory has been suspended because of opposition from Aboriginal landowners.

If safe established mines can't satisfy the demand for uranium, environmental regulations could come under pressure”Even as it tries to address past blunders, the nuclear industry says it has cleaned up its act for future mines. The environmental impacts of new mines are "vastly less" than in the past, says Ian Hore-Lacy from the World Nuclear Association in London. "Any mine started up in the west in the past 20 years would be properly managed for rehabilitation. I don't see standards slipping in the future." Measures include keeping tailings underwater during mining and subsequently burying them to prevent the emission of radon gas.

But Hore-Lacy does not have "great confidence" that high standards will be maintained in all countries. "Some countries have great regulations, but if they are not enforced, they are meaningless," he says. Uranium to help meet the demand for new nuclear power programmes in Asia will come partly from increasing production at existing mines in China, India and Australia, and according to last week's report from the NEA, a host of new mines are also being planned. The report lists 20 mines scheduled to open before 2030, including one each in Russia, India, Namibia, Niger and Brazil, two in Canada, two in Iran and 11 in Kazakhstan.

“Radium-226 in the tailings left over from uranium mining decays into radon gas, a known cause of lung cancer”

Luis Echávarri, director-general of the NEA, accepts that there might be problems in less developed countries. "Economic conditions have an influence on how you protect the environment," he says. The NEA report says that if global nuclear capacity was to increase by 44 per cent by 2025 - the maximum it envisages - uranium demand could start to outstrip supply by 2018. If safe, established mines can't satisfy the demand, environmental regulations everywhere, including the west, could come under pressure.

At the moment uranium recycled from old nuclear plants makes up 40 per cent of world supplies. According to the NEA report, this is due to decline after 2015, as stocks of uranium from 50 years of civil and military programmes run out. This means that an increasing proportion will have to be dug out of the ground. Couple this with increasing uranium prices because of growing demand, and it is inevitable that there will be prospecting for fresh sources of uranium ore. One consequence could be that lower-grade ores will be exploited, leading to more environmental damage. "Sites will have to be cleaned up by the taxpayer, at a cost that may reach the value of the uranium mined," says Peter Diehl, the author of a report on world uranium resources for Greenpeace.

The nuclear industry could deal with this looming uranium shortage by reverting to a technology that was abandoned after considerable investment in both the US and Europe: the fast breeder reactor (FBR). Even as they burn uranium, these reactors make plutonium that can be used as fuel. Only Russia, China, Japan and India are working on FBRs at present. FBRs will soon have to be back on the agenda in the west, nuclear advocates believe. In 30 years they will be commercially viable and in 60 years they will be necessary, Echávarri says. Because they can increase 30-fold the amount of energy extracted from uranium, they are "most attractive from a sustainable point of view", he argues. Meanwhile, India is investigating reactors that can burn thorium, which is more abundant than uranium.

But these alternatives are aspirations, not plans, and they all come with downsides. Thorium, says Hore-Lacy, has metallurgical problems, and FBRs have yet to be proved economic. Besides, the FBR's dependence on plutonium could speed the proliferation of nuclear weapons,.

Which leaves the nuclear industry mining for uranium, at least for the next couple of decades. And that is something about which we still have lessons to learn, says radiation consultant Mike Thorne. "Maybe we should solve the problems of the past before we create new ones."


New Scientist (10 June 2006): "Human health may be the cost of a nuclear future" [preview > subscription req'd].

United Nations Environment Programme: Les Nations Unies conduisent une mission d’évaluation dans la mine d’uranium de Shinkolobwe en République Démocratique du Congo

Reuters (21 juli 2006): Illegal uranium mining at shuttered Congo site -UN

BBC (12 July 2004): DR Congo uranium mine collapses

BBC (25 March 2004): Congo wants help at uranium mine

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