Expert warns on uranium long-term effects

French nuclear engineer Bruno Chereryon, an expert Paladin Africa Limited rejected two years ago, has warned about high radioactivity which may have graver long-term effects on the people surrounding the uranium mine.

Chereryon first visited the country in May 2012 when he discovered hot spots in the environment of the suspended mine and high concentration of uranium in the water flowing from the stream located in the eastern slopes below the open-pit mine.

Kayelekera Uranium Mine
Kayelekera Uranium Mine

The discovery of radioactive material in the stream that flows into Sele River, a tributary of North Rukuru River, which pours into Lake Malawi, watered down the good news that he found no radioactive waste rocks and recycled material in the populous Kayelekera Village.

At that time, the expert was denied entry into the country’s largest mine because he did not give the Australia Stock Exchange-listed mining firm prior notice of the trip, according to Paladin country manager Greg Walker.

The expert finally got his way into the contentious mine on Tuesday when he was admittedly shocked to see a guard sitting on a chair that measured 2 000 counts per second on a Geiger Mueller counter (radix), a reading he  described as way above the normal levels of about 100 counts/second.

He indicated this signals the magnitude of the job government, the civil society and other Malawians have to protect people, especially the workers, from the side effects of hugely radioactive work happening at Kayerekera.

“My main worry is not you and I who were exposed to high radioactivity for one day or two, but the workers who suffer exposure every day. What will happen in the future? Do we have a plan stipulating how we will take care of the impact of radioactivity on their lives and who will take care of treatment and compensation?” wondered Chereryron.

However, he billed as a graver risk the huge accumulation of radioactive waste at the mining area, especially the run-off dam which offloaded some spills following damage on January 5 and the tailings storage dam whose contents Paladin plans to treat and discharge.

According to Walker, the company has not yet treated or offloaded any liquid waste since October last year when it announced the highly criticised measure.

However, the French expert said treating and discharging the waste water into a river system—even if its uranium levels were diluted to the 30 microgram a litre level recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO)—would not be the best solution as a recent study in France has indicated small amounts of the radioactive metal offloaded into water have long-term effects on the water.

He joined the civil society in questioning Paladin’s intention to discharge the contaminated water having stated in its 2006 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that it would never produce any waste water and effluent into the river while the mine was running.

Karonga Natural Resources Justice Network and district council chairperson, councillor Ernest Kishombe, termed the expert’s findings a blessing and a timely eye-opener, accusing Paladin of failing to give the district’s citizens the whole truth about the negative impacts of uranium.

In interview, Walker assured Malawians about the safety of workers in view of the nature of radioactivity the expert had raised with technical people at the mine.

Minister of Mines Atupele Muluzi did not pick his phone when we called for his take on the findings.

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