Uranium Mining in Finland: Fighting Prospectors in the Nuclear Age

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A controversial law has forced some Finnish farmers to allow uranium prospecting on their pristine land. But an uncharacteristic protest movement is fighting back.

When Bertolt Brecht lived in Finland, as an exile, in 1940, he noticed two things: the beauty of the landscape and the silence of the people. "Waters full of fish! Forests with beautiful trees! The smell of birch trees and berries!" he wrote in one poem, which ends with a contemplation of "a people that keeps silent in two languages." (Finland has a long-established Swedish minority.)

Most Finns will admit they're not prone to outpourings of effusive emotion. Or Brecht-style protest: Which is why the construction of the nation's fifth nuclear reactor has proceeded apace, in spite of a number of accidents. A new terminal storage facility has also eaten its way, undisturbed, into the rocky landscape.

"But now," says 43-year-old agriculturist Markku Kavenius, "the quiet is over: Something is going to happen here." Kavenius and his wife Hanna, who keep 50 dairy cows in the Uusimaa region, belong to a national movement to resist prospectors for uranium ore.

An anti-uranium movement called "Uraaniton" is trying to stop French, Australian and Canadian prospectors who -- in collaboration with Finnish companies -- would like to stake land claims in Uusimaa, southwest of Helsinki, as well as in northern regions like Karelia and Lapland. With the stark rise in world prices for unranium, speculators have shown interest in northern European reserves despite the low concentrations of it there.

Scientists like geologist Matti Saarnisto warn that prospecting in Finland could pollute soil and water still praised as the cleanest in the world (according to the most recent United Nations World Water Development Report). "Uranium mines strain the environment for millennia, wherever they are," says Saarnisto.

An old mining law allows trial drilling just 50 meters (164 feet) from residential houses, as well as road construction and the setting up of power supply lines. Annual compensation payments for the farmers whose land would be ruined amount to €10 ($13) per hectare. Saarnisto believes the law "clearly conflicts with the Finnish constitution and property rights."

Ulla Klötzer, the country's best-known critic of nuclear energy, says the methods being used in the new search for Finnish uranium remind her of the Wild West.

A French company called Areva has set its sights on Uusimaa's idyllic landscape, where lots have been farmed for generations and where people from Helsinki have moved to escape city life. Areva is the firm in charge of building Olkiluoto 3, the country's fifth reactor, on Finland's western coast.

'Our Land is Becoming Worthless'

The company, which works with the German firm Siemens, is the world's largest builder of nuclear reactors. At the moment it faces ongoing problems with the new pressurized water reactor technology to be used in Olkiluoto 3. Finland's new reactor is meant to be the world's most powerful, with an output of 1,600 megawatts. But now the expected completion date is 2011, instead of 2009 as originally planned. This delay -- which costs billions -- is the result of numerous security and quality problems. "Olkiluoto 3 is developing into a nightmare," the pro-industry magazine Tekniikka & Talous ("Technology and Economics") declared in early February.

Radioactive legacies have already given Areva a bad reputation elsewhere: Exploited Areva uranium pits pollute stretches of land in Gabon and Niger. And Areva has managed to block legal trials related to consequential damage in Limousin, France, where the company left 24 million tons of radioactive rock waste.

Uranium prospectors also want to explore Sweden, but that country has a veto right, says Uusimaa's church warden Jouni Virtanen. There is no such right in Finland. And Virtanen has been told that if digging begins in Uusimaa, a dairy farm co-op called Valio will no longer buy milk from the region. "Our land is becoming worthless," he says.

Merja and Mauri Antilla, neighbors of the farmer Kavenius, say they've started to feel like indentured servants -- no better than farm laborers on borrowed land. Although they've just finished renovating a splendid old house for guests (with support from the state), Areva wants to search for uranium on 80 percent of their property.

'Sheer Desperation'

The government has been no help against the farmers' complaints, and the mood in Kuusamo has been one of "sheer desperation" since the news spread that the prospectors would be allowed to work, according to Onni Mämmikkö, whose farm has been family property for 300 years. Uranium prospecting in one of Finland's most beautiful regions could hurt its main source of revenue, which is tourism. "Everything was built with sweat and tears," complains the 67-year-old, adding that he's just paid off the mortgages on his summer homes.

A kilometer and a half away, on a facing beach, Canadian prospectors have staked their claims. Fishermen in the region fear pollution of their rivers and lakes. The bodies of water make up a densely interconnected system which could carry radioactive rock dust to many other parts of the country.

As recently as 2002, Minister of Trade and Industry Pekkarinen voted against more nuclear energy in Finland. Current Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen has also been against it. Now both are calling for an expansion. The Helsinki government has already planned a sixth nuclear reactor -- beyond the one now underway -- and the activists claim it has has made life all too easy for the prospectors. "If we've decided to expand the use of nuclear energy here," says the country's Minister of Trade and Industry Mauri Pekkarinen, by way of explanation, then Finland should extract the fuel from its own soil.

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