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CSD 18: WECF Side Event on Uranium Mining - Clear Perspectives on a Dirty Business

Testimonies from indigenous people from uranium mining communities raise serious questions about industry's accountability during 18th session of UN Commission for Sustainable Development in New York

21.05.2010 |WECF Report

Indigenous people and experts from Niger, India, Kazakhstan, USA and Finland shared their testimonies with the 120 participants in this eye-opening event financially oragnised by WECF and supported by the Heinrich Boell Foundation, USA.

Read the full invitation for the side event here ....

"In my country, Kazakhstan, we have an estimate 200 million tons of low-radioactive waste from uranium mining which has contaminated the water, soil and air", said Kaisha Atakhanova, of the NGO Eco-Forum, one of the speakers. "For years the information on uranium mining and nuclear activities has been secret, and we have no independent data on how the low radioactivity has affected local people's health".

Uranium mining mainly takes place on indigenous peoples land like for example in Australia, Africa, USA and Asia. The native inhabitants mostly are unaware awareness of the dangers uranium mining activities can have on their communities. The WECF and Heinrich Boell event allowed uranium mining communities to share their testimonies and to raise awareness with international policy makers and civil society organisations at this years United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development in New Year.

As Dr. Bremley Lingdoh, researcher at the Columbia University of New York and member of the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya, India, said "if we get full scale uranium mining in my country, which is on the mountains, 5 kilometers from the border with Bangladesh, then Bangladeshi farmers will soon be eating radioactive rice". In first uranium mining tests, water, soil and the local people have been exposed and contaminated with radionuclides from the mining activities. The Meghalaya state is home of one of the oldest primary forests in the world with a great biodiversity richness, which will be destroyed if the uranium mining would start full scale. "It is very difficult to protect the local forests and indigenous peoples when biodiversity has no monetary value, and when uranium is so highly priced".

Almoustapha Alhacen, a mining worker from the Touareg tribe and President of the NGO Agrhirin'man for the protection of the environment and wellbeing, outlined the situation of the Tuareg tribes in Niger and the negative impacts of uranium mining activities of French nuclear operator AREVA on the local environment and peoples. Since 1968 the company has been exploiting uranium in Niger. Alhacen himself started working in the mines nearby the town Arlit 20 years ago. He said that his people were told that uranium mining will help them to overcome poverty. „In reality hundred thousands of tons of uranium have been mined so far, but we still have no covered streets, no clean drinking water and no electricity and children are playing in radioactive dust". Many miners suffer severe health effects. Women have problems with pregnancies, illnesses seem to be given from one generation to the next. The million year old fossil water sources are being depleted for the mining process, the plants and trees wither, the waste water coming back is low radioactive. Animals and plants disappear.

Greenpeace found 500 times the normal background level of radioactivity in Niger, which was much higher than what the French uranium mining company AREVA had expected. Areva invited Greenpeace to visit the uranium-mining region, but the results have been very shocking. Amongst others, local communities are selling radioactive scrap from the mines at local markets. Greenpeace has now called on the World Health Organisation (WHO) to do an independent check.

Bettie Yazzie and Gilbert Badoni, from the Navajo nation in New Mexico, USA presented the negative health impacts uranium mining has had on their indigenous communities. Bettie Yazzies husband worked for 10 years in a uranium mine operated by Union Carbide Corporation. He developed nbsp; lung cancer and silicosis and died in 1974. The wives and children of the uranium miners were staying in tent camps near the mines. „Our water source was nearby the mines, we would use the water for everything, for drinking, washing clothes and even for baby formula",

Gilbert Badoni, as son of a uranium miner explained how uranium was discovered in 1919 in the Navajo reservation which is situated in Utah and Arizona. He explained why working in the mines was so attractive for his community: „Navajo people found jobs within their homelands, fathers no longer had to travel to faraway places for railway jobs. Years later people began dying from lung cancer, fibrosis and silicosis - but the US government failed to inform them that uranium was dangerous to our health and environment - they often didn't even understand English, they were hard workers, dedicated themselves to these jobs to feed their families." Meanwhile Gilbert Badonis entire family has cancer. After more than 11 years, an amendment of the radio-exposure act is up for an amendment, to include a 3 million USD epidemiological study of the health effects on the families and children of uranium miners, the first ever study of its kind.

Sascha Gabizon, Executive Director of WECF, mentioned that it was very problematic that the UN bodies responsible for monitoring nuclear activities, including the IAEA and the WHO, have failed in gathering information and monitoring the long term health effects of low-dose radioactive exposure and contamination of natural resources.

Kaisha Athakanova, a biologist from Kazakhstan who did research on the atomic bomb test site Semipalatinsk, which until today is one the most radioactively contaminated areas in the world, explained that countries which have uranium mining will have severe future problems with the clean up. „Everyday radio-nuclides contaminate underground water resources, often with transboundary effect, and the soil. The long term effect of low dose radiation can be very harmful to health." Most of these countries do not have any financial support nor any technology for the clean up of uranium mining tailing. We need global measures which insist that uranium mining companies have to ensure immediate containment and clean up of uranium mining waste. For the old uranium mining tailing, where there is no company responsible anymore, as in the case of Soviet time pollution, we need a global financial mechanism to help developing and transition countries to pay for the clean up, which can reach up to 50 billion USD for one country.

Ulla Klotzer, representative of Women Against Nuclear Power and Women for Peace, in Finland, shared her experiences the first ever final nuclear waste repository system which Finland is building. She stated that the nuclear waste problem is not solved anywhere in the world. The new proposal of Finland, foresees in much to thin copper containers, and does not go deep enough into the earth, probably for financial reasons. However, according to scientists from Germany, Sweden and the USA, the Finnish waste repository will never be able to guarantee the necessary safe storage for at least 100,000 years.

In the following panel discussion the participants created the following policy recommendations for the UN CSD:

  1. No new uranium mines to be opened, BEFORE the old mines have been safely closed, i.e. no more contamination of air and water from low radioactive materials (not put the waste back into the mines without containment, thus polluting groundwater)
  2. Create a financial mechanisms paid for by nuclear industry to clean up uranium mining tailings. Just for one country, Kyrgyzstan, this requires 50 billion Euros.
  3. Assure the implementation of the right of local indigenous communities living in uranium areas to decide, based on prior informed consent. The "informed" has to be assured first.
  4. The IAEA is not independent enough. Independent control organisation(s) - with participation of effected communities - need to established to monitor all uranium mining and waste operations, they need to be able to control government activities.
  5. Help local populations in uranium mining areas with fair job transition and sustainable jobs.
  6. We encourage the initiative to phase out nuclear weapons. But this implies phasing out uranium mining. As long as uranium is mined, nuclear weapons can be made.
  7. The climate protection argument used by the nuclear industry is a scam. Uranium mining is the most carbon intensive, uranium transport is carbon intensive, decommissioning is carbon intensive.
  8. We encourage the initiative to phase out nuclear weapons. But this implies phasing out uranium mining. As long as uranium is mined, nuclear weapons can be made.
  9. The climate protection argument used by the nuclear industry is a scam. Uranium mining is the most carbon intensive, uranium transport is carbon intensive, decommissioning is carbon intensive.
  10. Stop subsidising nuclear industry! No development aid money for nuclear industry! No carbon credits for nuclear industry.
  11. Create a global independent data base with information, photos, video, testing reports from all, uranium mining communities from around the world as a basis for calculating the required cleanup and compensation payments from nuclear industry.
  12. The UN should hold an international tribunal on the effects of uranium mining and transboundary pollution
  13. Redirect funding from nuclear and weapons industry to sustainable development
  14. Strengthen the network of citizens organisations working on helping uranium mining communities
  15. Support the creation of the international environmental court of justice

About the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD)

The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was established by the UN General Assembly in December 1992 to ensure effective follow-up of United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Earth Summit.

CSD Responsibilities

The Commission is responsible for reviewing progress in the implementation of Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development; as well as providing policy guidance to follow up the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI) at the local, national, regional and international levels. The JPOI reaffirmed that the CSD is the high-level forum for sustainable development within the United Nations system.

CSD Meetings

The CSD meets annually in New York, in two-year cycles, with each cycle focusing on clusters of specific thematic and cross-sectoral issues, outlined in its new multi-year programme of work (2003-2017) (E/CN.17/2003/6)

The CSD has opened its sessions to broad participation from both governmental and non-governmental actors, and it supports a number of innovative activities, such as the Partnerships Fair, the Learning Centre and a series of panels, roundtables and side events. The High-level segment features dialogue among Ministers, and Ministers also hold a special dialogue session with Major Groups.

CSD Membership Bureau

As a functional commission of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), CSD has 53 member States (about one third of the members are elected on a yearly basis). Each session of the CSD elects a Bureau, comprised of a Chair and four vice-Chairs.

More info on the homepage of the CSD 18

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