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FEATURE STORY

Mendoza’s Trace Uranium Clean-up Moves Forward

September 10, 2012

Environmental restoration in Malargüe, province of Mendoza, Argentina.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • This is Argentina’s first undertaking to encase the mineral remains.
  • It seeks to address the city’s environmental legacy.
  • A theme park will be built, once the project is completed.

A few minutes after the sun begins to warm the snowy peaks of the Andes, in the city of Malargüe in Mendoza, an atypical workday begins, not only for the community but also for the entire country. It just happens that the first environmental restoration of uranium mining in Argentina is being carried out there.

"The remediation uses natural materials such as clay, sand, gravel and rock. Thanks to this mix, it’s possible to encase the uranium tailings, which were left accumulating after the Malargüe factory building closed in 1986. This factory processed uranium to produce elements for nuclear reactors or power stations," explains Juan Guillermo Diaz, chief engineer for the Argentina Mining Environmental Restoration Project (PRAMU) in Malargüe who is in charge of the Atomic Energy National Commission (CNEA).

In all, 710,000 metric tons of residual uranium soil, containing low levels of radioactivity, will be encased within an area of ​​12 hectares, located in an area of ​​42 hectares where a theme park will be built.

"About 15 percent of the work has already been done and we estimate that it will all be completed by 2015," says Diaz. Once finished, the procedure will prevent the release of radioactive material into the soil, air and water, minimizing contact with the environment and the community, which is home to 28,000 people.

"The project seeks to reduce potential health risks to the population resulting from long-term contact with the waste products, especially considering that the site is on the outskirts of the city," says Catalina Marulanda, World Bank Project Manager. Furthermore, it strengthens the CNEA when managing the closure of these mines according to international practices.

"Across the country, there are another seven sites with residual radioactive waste, and so, within the project, we will also study different remediation options together with the CNEA and in accordance with good environmental and social practices," says Marcelo Acerbi, Environmental Specialist Bank.

Open Quotes

I am the only one who’s worked on the site since 1976, when it was a working factory. Now, as administrative coordinator, I hope to see the area decontaminated before I retire Close Quotes

Daniel Blajevitch
Worker at the area

A controlled area

Approximately 15 trucks a day are used to move material from clay and rock quarries located just a few kilometers from the work site and within the controlled area, where different technicians and operators work in an orderly and precise manner. "It is important to respect the safety of the employees and the cleaning routines of the trucks," says Diaz.

In addition to the tasks related to encasing the mineral, various environmental monitoring tasks are also taking place in the area: taking soil and water samples, radiation controls (gamma and radon) and measuring particles in the air. In addition, they are also monitoring neighboring areas and water measurements are taken up to 40 kilometers away. "All of these results are within the range allowed by current regulations," states Diaz.

Daniel Blajevitch, 62, turned this project into a personal challenge. "I am the only one who’s worked on the site since 1976, when it was a working factory. Now, as administrative coordinator, I hope to see the area decontaminated before I retire", he admits.

The Malargüe factory building opened in 1954 and it was the first uranium concentrate plant in Latin America. The uranium came from the mines located in Huemul, 50 kilometers south of Malargüe, and Sierra Pintada, near San Rafael, 200 kilometers away.

Uranium is used in nuclear power plants (as Atucha I and Embalse) which generate electricity for domestic and industrial use, and research reactors, which are used in industry, agriculture and health, such as of nuclear medicine.