Romania's Abandoned Uranium Mines Radiate Peril

By Alexandru Savulescu

BUCHAREST, Romania, September 11, 2000 (ENS) - Despite using Western technology for its reactors, and aspiring to be seen as environmentally conscious, Romania's nuclear industry has an radioactive Achilles heel - uranium mining. Abandoned mines not properly closed have left tons of waste rock, and radioactive water spills from the mine sites. Unauthorized, people take the waste rock to build their homes.

Over 80 Romanian and foreign experts gathered in Vata, a village in the Apuseni Mountains, 500 kilometers (300 miles) west of the capital Bucharest last week for the third National Symposium for Public Information on Peaceful Utilization of Nuclear Industry. Under discussion was radioactive waste management and site restoration in Romania's uranium industry.

Romania has a complete nuclear industry, from uranium mining to the production of electric energy. Since 1996, Romania has operated the first CANDU (CANada Deuterium Uranium) reactor in Europe, using Canadian and Italian technology.

mountains

All appears peaceful in Ronamia's Apuseni Mountains, but abandoned uranium mines are emitting radiation. (Photo courtesy Regional Center for Ecological Survey of the Apuseni Mountains)
The reactor is built according to western standards of safety and environmental protection, but the first link in the nuclear industry chain - uranium mining - does not comply with these standards, according to Romania's National Commission for the Control of Nuclear Activities (NCCNA).

Safety and environmental standards were unknown in 1950, when joint Soviet-Romanian companies first surveyed and extracted this strategic ore, exporting it to the Soviet Union, as war compensation.

It took Romania until 1961 to prepare its first nuclear regulations, which did not include mining, which was considered protected by military secrecy.

After the withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Romania, when limited reserves of uranium, sometimes 400 times less concentrated than what was already extracted, continued to be exploited by Romanians, safety and environmental concerns were still not addressed.

Slowly, safety concerns for miners started to be considered and health problems solved.

It is only now, half a century later, when two of the uranium areas in Romania have practically stopped any mining activity, that environmental concerns are being raised.

Of Romania's three uranium mining areas: the Banat region, in southwest Romania, near the Yugoslav border, the Apuseni Mountains, in the west of the country, close to Hungary, and at Crucea, in the northern part of the country, only Crucea is still operational.

But NCCNA says that even if all the uranium mines in Banat and the Apuseni Mountains uranium mines have been practically abandoned for years, not a single one has been properly closed.

Over 1,000 hectares of land contaminated with radioactivity still has not been restored. Restoration would mean taking care of tens of thousands of kilometers of mine galleries, taking care of an estimated volume of six million cubic meters of waste rock in almost 200 locations, and finding solutions for the radioactive water evacuated daily from the abandoned mines.

This is a typical example of what Dr. W. Eberhard Falck calls "orphan contamination," a continuous contamination produced by companies that no longer exist. Dr. Falck, from the Vienna based International Agency for Atomic Energy, says such things happen when remediation is not envisioned from the beginning of the uranium mining project.

According to Ovidiu Banciu from the Uranium National Company (UNC), the mining industry will not be able to solve these problems alone. Most of the abandoned mines are at high altitudes, in remote places, with difficult access, says Banciu. Therefore, recovering the sites will first have to include building access roads, which will raise the price of the operation.

The state owned UNC is presently not making a profit, as the price of uranium price has continually declined for the past 20 years.

Ten years ago, uranium mines in Romania employed 13,000 people, but now the figure is as low as 3,000, according to Olivia Comsa, from the CITON Research Institute.

Banat

Resort in Banat mountains offers healing baths, a business that could suffer if the radiation problems are not solved. (Photo courtesy National Institute for R&D in Informatics)
Money is not the only problem. How to close the mines is another contentious issue. The Banat region is the only area where studies have been carried out with the help of Western experts, with European Union funds. UNC's Lucian Grigorescu says the preferred solution for closing the mines in Banat appears to be controlled flooding.

But Romanian environmental protectionist Petrica Sandru disagrees. "I strongly oppose the flooding of abandoned uranium mines in Banat." As vice president of the Romanian Radioprotection Society, Sandru warns that this method incurs a great risk of crumbling in the galleries. There is also a risk of contaminating the underground water with heavy metals and radioactivity.

This contaminated underground water will make any further exploitation of other ores in the area impossible, says Sandru.

The Banat mine galleries are very close to the Yugoslav ones, practically connected. Has anybody asked the Yugoslavs if they agree to have the Romanian mines flooded? asks Sandru.

But despite the lack of money and disputes over technical solutions, Romania must comply with international standards and start to remediate the uranium mine sites because the risk of contaminating the population is too high, says Peter Stegnar, an IAEA expert from the Josef Stefan Institute, in Slovenia.

Stegnar points out that people may be exposing themselves to radiation by the unauthorized removal of waste rock for building houses.

While Romanian authorities minimize this possibility, Codruta Nedelcu, a geologist working for 14 years in uranium mining, and now turned environmental activist, confirms that she mapped a number of houses built using such materials in Stei, a city in the Apuseni Mountains created around the uranium industry.

"Could this be the reason why, as other women in the area, I could never have children?", asks Nedelcu. "I will probably never know, but I will do all possible that others don't have to ask this question again in the future."