MADRID – Maria Jose Alamo, whose 120 cattle graze on land close to the only major new uranium mine being developed in the world, is worried.
“I myself wouldn’t buy the meat of cattle raised close to such a mine,” said Alamo, 48, in an interview at a cafe in the hamlet of Banos de Retortillo, in Western Spain, close to the site. “So I suppose people would do the same with mine -- it would generate a stigma.”
Berkeley Energia, the Australian company developing the project on land near Salamanca, says it’s reviving Spain’s grand mining tradition as it begins uranium production at a time when the global energy industry faces higher prices over the long term for the radioactive metal used to power nuclear plants. While Berkeley expects its Spanish uranium mine to be in production by the end of next year, protesters like Alamo are taking heart from the unexpected arrival of a new government led by the Socialist party, comments from some of whose members show they may be less friendly toward the nuclear industry.
“The mayors of many of the villages affected by the mine are Socialist,” said Raquel Romo, the head of Stop Uranio, a platform with 400 members set up to fight the project. “So we hope the new government will help us.”
Berkeley began developing the Salamanca project in 2016 after lining up approvals for initial works on the site, which will become one of the top 10 largest uranium producers in the world when production gets underway.
The company says it will become a key supplier of fuel as governments recognize the role nuclear power will play in efforts to promote ways to generate power that cause less pollution.
According to the company, the project will entail investment of €250-million that will create 2 500 direct and indirect jobs in a rural region that suffers from population decline in part because of limited economic opportunities. Berkeley Energia, which has so far invested more than €70-million, hopes young people who work for the firm will “have families, which will rejuvenate the once-thriving local villages,” MD Paul Atherley said at a reception in Salamanca last month.
The firm is trying hard to win over local residents. Berkeley is providing free WiFi in surrounding villages and building outdoor fitness facilities, mending sewage plants and sponsoring sports events and festivals. The company has received more than 22 000 job applications, Atherley said.
“We fully understand there are lobby groups particularly those who are anti-nuclear who are creating issues which we don’t believe have any substance,”said Atherley in an interview in Madrid in May.
Environmental concerns include its impact on animals and the elimination of radioactive material from water, said Graciela Gomez Nicola, a professor at Castilla-La Mancha University in Toledo, who authored a report on the project for the World Wildlife Fund.
While Atherley is confident the mine will be working by the end of next year, the company still needs to line up final approvals. An urbanism license from the local authority is still pending. It also still needs two more permits from Spain’s Nuclear Security Council, or CSN.
What has changed for Berkeley in an unexpected way is the political climate in Spain. A Socialist-led government is now in power after Pedro Sanchez toppled former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote in parliament over corruption in his People’s Party.
The Socialists are less keen on nuclear power generally. Teresa Ribera, Spain’s new minister for ecological transition, has said the government will aim to stick to party pledges to close aging nuclear plants when they reach 40 years of age.
In 2015, the Socialist party Chairwoman Cristina Narbona abstained from a vote on an approval for the mine while she was board member of the CSN because she found the idea of renewed uranium mining morally repugnant. She would do the same again now, a party spokesperson said.
Exploration for uranium deposits in western Spain began in 1951, during the days of the dictator Francisco Franco. Berkeley acquired the Salamanca project in 2005.
The decision on approving the construction of a plant to treat uranium is pending the technical report from the CSN, a press officer for the government said, declining to say if they’ll oppose the project. A spokesman for CSN declined to say when it would release its report.
“It’s business as usual,” said Sean Wade, Berkeley’s COO, when asked about the implications of the Socialists taking power.
Berkeley says it is seeking to list its shares in Spain as well as the Main Board of the London Stock Exchange so that Spanish investors can also buy its shares. In so doing, it would offer investors in Spain the chance to own a locally-traded mining stock.
At the same time, the company says it would be restoring an old tradition of industrial mining in Spain. Rio Tinto Group, the world’s No. 2 iron-ore exporter, dates its origins to 1873 when the Spanish government sold copper mines in Andalusia exploited since antiquity by Romans and Moors.
“We think it’s remarkable that Spain does not have a listed mining company at present because Spain is the birthplace of modern mining,” said Atherley. “We see this as the first step toward long-term investment in the mining sector in Spain.”