ROZNA MINE, Czech Republic (AP) — Deep beneath lush countryside, large pneumatic drills smash rock in search of uranium. An industry once associated here with forced labor, tragic deaths and terminal decline is staging a dramatic comeback.
By year's end, the Czech government is hoping to approve a plan to extend the life of this sprawling underground site — Europe's only large-scale, functioning uranium mine — and has identified eight other suitable locations elsewhere. It also wants to increase the number of nuclear reactors from six to nine.
With Germany announcing plans to shut down all of its nuclear power plants by 2022 in the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster — but still hungry for power — the Czechs believe they are in a position to cash in by selling nuclear energy. They have an estimated 110,000 metric tons of uranium left to exploit which would be enough to provide nuclear fuel for the country's reactors for an estimated 100 years.
The AP has learned that other nations are also planning similar ventures: EU countries such as Sweden are exploring their uranium deposits while others, including Hungary, have sought the Czechs' advice. Fact-finding missions from as far afield as Argentina, Brazil, China and Vietnam are regular visitors, with dozens of experts sent to the School of Uranium Production at the Czech state-run uranium monopoly Diamo.
Some are appalled at the project, mindful of the Communist era in then-Czechoslovakia when about 40,000 unprotected political prisoners were forced to work in the uranium mines. At least 500 died — some trying to escape, others driven to suicide by harsh conditions. Many others unknowingly contracted cancer from radiation exposure.
Czechoslovakia became the sixth largest producer of uranium in the world as it fed the Soviet nuclear program during the Cold War. Starving and badly equipped political prisoners were sent into the mines by the ruling Communists.
"Given the experience we have with uranium mining, it's not a good idea," said Bedrich Moldan, director of Prague's Charles University Environment Center. "It poses serious risks."
Jan Rovensky of Greenpeace called the plan "absurd, useless and damaging for the environment."
But many experts point to new technologies and strict rules on mining and say there's no cause for alarm.
Robert Vance of the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said he can understand why people "have a bad feeling about it," but added: "Today, it can be mined safely and be managed safely," citing work in Canada and Australia.
The uranium traditionally has been extracted here by a method that involves pumping sulfuric acid into uranium ore to dissolve the radioactive materials. In former mines near the northern town of Straz pod Ralskem, almost 5 million metric tons of acid were pumped directly into the ground over decades, causing large-scale environmental damage and contaminating some 370 million cubic meters of underground drinking water.
Officials at Diamo say the cleanup it started in 1996 will not be completed before 2037 at an estimated cost of 50 billion koruna ($3 billion).
Josef Jadrny, a leading opponent of new uranium mines, is angered that one of the proposed mine sites is just to the east of Straz pod Ralskem in an area that has one of the largest natural underground resources of drinking water in the country.
"We can do without uranium but we can't do without water," said Jadrny as he stood under a thousand-year-old lime tree that has become a symbol of local resistance against mining.
Company officials say opponents are living in the past.
"We have a technology available now that would not harm the environment," Diamo deputy director Marian Bohm told AP.
Diamo officials say less questionable methods could be used to extract uranium such as carbon dioxide, oxygen or ozone. At Rozna, mined ore is first transported to ground level, where uranium is extracted with sulfuric acid — a safer method than injecting the acid directly into the ground.
But Jadrny, who leads a non-governmental organization that now has some 200 mine opponents, says he hopes the plan to expand mining fails.
"The problem is hidden 400 meters under the ground," he said. "It's like cancer. Initially, you just can't see it. And at the moment you can see it and you feel the pain, it's much too late to do anything."
The Nuclear Energy Agency's Vance said mines in Australia and Kazakhstan, which operate the sulfuric acid method known as "in-situ leaching," take sufficient precautions to ensure the acid does not come into contact with ground water.
"Regulators in these countries are very well aware of the problems that this type of mining produced — particularly in the Czech Republic," Vance said. "They're not going to license mines unless they can be sure that this can be conducted safely and is not going to affect ground water."
"Everyone who is mining now has learned from those experiences."
But the Czechs aren't about to gamble with sulfuric acid again. The Industry and Trade Ministry says its use is "out of the question," although it has not specified what methods it will approve for future sites.
It calls uranium a "super strategic" commodity and uranium mining "a strategic advantage for the Czech Republic."
Currently, Czech uranium is taken for enrichment to the Netherlands or France before it is turned into nuclear fuel in Russia and shipped back to Czech nuclear power plants.
Some analysts expect electricity prices in Europe to increase 20 percent by 2015 and believe the Czechs are well positioned.
"Germany is facing a problem to meet power demand for several years," said Josef Nemy, an analyst at Komercni Banka in Prague. "It takes time to replace the nuclear plants."
Three major players — U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric Co., a subsidiary of Japan's Toshiba Corp., France's state-owned nuclear engineering giant Areva SA and a consortium led by Russia's Atomstroyexport — are bidding to win a lucrative tender to build two more reactors at the Czech Temelin power plant and possibly one more in another plant in Dukovany.
Despite health and environmental concerns, miners have welcomed the expansion plans.
The Rozna mine, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Prague, was facing closure several times but won a last-minute reprieve in 2007 on condition that it turn a profit. It now produces about 200 metric tons of uranium a year.
"It gives jobs to 1,000 people," said Jiri Sikula, a mine engineer. "If it's closed, we face an unemployment problem."
Today, powerful air circulation and personal radiation devices known as dosimeters, help protect the miners from excessive exposure to radon — a radioactive gas that is considered a major health hazard.
The political prisoners were not that lucky.
"Radiation definitely affected our health — it's obvious due to the radon," Hubert Prochazka, 81, told AP. He spent 3 1/2 years processing uranium in a mine as a prisoner in the 1950s and now has skin cancer.
"(Radon) is the carcinogenic agent that causes the cancer in the underground mines," said Kurt Straif, a senior cancer expert at the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization's cancer arm in Lyon.
Despite the prisoners' ordeal, the government plan has received some unlikely backing.
Jiri Marek, 80, who is deputy chairman of the Czeck Confederation of Political Prisoners and spent six years in uranium mines, told the AP he was all for the program — as long as workers aren't subjected to the hellish conditions of the Soviet era.
"Why not mine?" Marek said. "I personally think ... it's a good source of energy. I don't know why people oppose it."