The snowball that the Retortillo uranium mine has become is gigantic after almost a decade of rolling. But, after years in which the Administrations have not slowed down, the moment of truth is approaching for this controversial project that threatens the Salamanca pasture and that would leave behind a perpetual trace in the form of radioactive waste that must be made I carry future generations.
On the one hand, the Nuclear Safety Council (CSN) is finishing the analysis of the key permit for the construction of the uranium processing plant; If this authorization is not granted, the entire mine project would be economically unviable.
On the other, PSOE and United We can have agreed to an amendment to the future climate change law that closes the door in Spain to this specific mine and to uranium mining in general. The promoter company, Berkeley, threatens to claim 500 million euros from the State if the climate law stops its intentions.
“Since March 14, no one has come here,” Eugenia González (73 years old) and Tomás Romo (68) complain on the side of the road. They have four children, a dog named Pipo and a bar next to the Retortillo spa, one of the main economic engines in the area. For them, like everyone else, the COVID crisis has hit their pockets hard because the hotel has been closed since the spring of last year.
They expect the pandemic to pass, and what they are most concerned about is that the mine will succeed. The farm would be attached to the spa, which has more than a century of life and 140 rooms. “Leave us alone, leave,” Romo asks Berkeley. “This is a paradise”, he adds about the beauty of this place planted with centenary oaks and granite.
“Mining”, reads a yellow sign a few hundred meters from the bar of this couple. “Danger, explosive materials,” warns another, even though the loudest sound that can be heard here is the lowing of the cow that grazes in front of the fence on which the sign is hung. A little further on, a faded and half-fallen banner defends the project: “Yes to the mine, to work, to the future.”
These yellow notices and posters are posted on the parcels that Berkeley has acquired in recent years to develop a project of more than 680 hectares. “No to the mine, yes to life,” respond other anti-exploitation graffiti scattered on facades and traffic signs.
This silent discussion between posters and graffiti sums up well the division that exists regarding the plans of Berkeley, a company that calls itself a mining company but that neither exploits nor has ever exploited a uranium deposit or of any kind, according to the president of the company. , Francisco Bellón.
“There are people from both sides here,” says Eustaquio Martín (PP), mayor of Retortillo, with 200 inhabitants. “Those who have a determined life are against the mine,” describes the councilor with a very thick brush. He is in favor and acknowledges that his forestry services company has worked for Berkeley in recent years.
The Berkeley company has bought several plots in the Salamanca municipality of Retortillo to extract uranium in an open-pit mining. The project also includes a processing plant and the storage of radioactive waste.
Despite not having all the permits, Berkeley has already carried out several clearings – which have involved the elimination of hundreds of oaks – it has drilled the earth to create a large pond and even started a road whose construction is now paralyzed. Those are the scars you see. But there are other more profound ones: “Nobody can take away the evil they have done to us, I don’t talk to my brothers,” says Jesús Cruz, a member of the Stop Uranio platform, who has been battling the project for years.
“In all families there is someone for and against, relations are no longer the same as before,” adds Juan Matías Garzón, the socialist mayor of the neighboring municipality of Boada and also opposed to the mine. This regidor held a referendum among the 300 inhabitants of his town. “And 98% of the people are against it.”
But what does this project consist of? What Berkeley has been trying to do for a decade without success is to exploit a vein of uranium that lies under the feet of the municipality of Retortillo and neighboring Villavieja de Yeltes (800 inhabitants). For this, five mines would be opened to extract the mineral in the open pit. It would be the only operational uranium mine in Europe.
But the project does not stop there: the construction of a treatment plant for the manufacture of uranium concentrates is also contemplated. And, what is even more conflictive, in two of these cuts (one in Retortillo and another in Villavieja) the radioactive waste generated by the processes carried out in that plant will be buried. “They are radioactive waste of very low intensity with a long life, but they need perpetual surveillance,” explain sources from the Nuclear Safety Council.
The area in which the project is to be carried out is dotted with centuries-old holm oaks under which cattle graze, one of the residents’ sources of livelihood. CR
The company’s plans are to operate these fields for 10 years, although Bellón assures that it could even go up to 15. Then, its economic program foresees a surveillance plan with “an annual cost of 185,000 euros during the five years after the completion of the restoration ”, that is, 925,000 euros in total.
The question is what will happen next, starting in the sixth year, and who will assume the “perpetual radiological surveillance obligations”, as defined by the CSN in various reports related to the project. These technical documents already warn of the burden that this storage of radioactive waste will entail “for future generations”.
In Spain, between 1948 and 2000, there was uranium mining in deposits in Castilla y León, Extremadura and Andalusia. But at the end of the last century Enusa, the public company that has operated all those mines in the country , decided to close the last of its operations, considering that it was no longer profitable. The restoration and control of radioactive waste generated during half a century with this activity is carried out by Enusa and another public company: Enresa .
In the case of Retortillo the situation is different. “It would be the first time that an authorization would be granted that would generate a volume of uranium mining waste to a company whose capital is 100% private,” says Nieves Sánchez Guitián, president of the Professional Association of Technicians in Nuclear Safety and Radiological Protection .
The fear of many is that, in the end, a private company will exploit this Salamanca deposit (and obtain its benefits) but the costs of monitoring the waste will end up paying all Spaniards for many generations.
“They offered us to finish the nursing home, to build a new school,” says Jorge Rodríguez, socialist mayor of Villavieja de Yelves. A phone call interrupts the councilor’s explanations. “I would not put my money there,” he tells his interlocutor after a while.
On the other end of the phone, a person who identifies himself as an investor asks him if his Council plans to grant any new permits to the mine and if he thinks it will succeed. “It usually happens,” explains the mayor after hanging up. “Some investors call the City Council, give them my cell phone and ask me about the project,” says Rodríguez, who is also opposed to the mine.
Despite not exploiting any deposit and not having all the permits to start operating, Berkeley is listed on the Madrid Stock Exchange . And its shares as soon as they fall 50% one day and rise 65% a week later, to fall again shortly. This project has been defined as a “speculation bubble” by the deputy of United We Can Juan López de Uralde on several occasions.
The call Rodríguez received while he was speaking with the EL PAÍS reporters has an explanation. In recent days, shares in this company, which is also based in London and Australia, have been rising amid rumors.
Two weeks ago, the plenary session of the Nuclear Safety Council began the analysis of the final report for the authorization of the construction of the project’s processing plant. For now, the five CSN councilors (three appointed at the proposal of the PSOE, one from Podemos and the other from PP) have begun to study the sectorial reports of the ten long areas of this supervisor that have to be pronounced.
The sources of the organization consulted indicate that there are technical doubts regarding the project, such as those referring to the hydrogeology of the area and the possible leaks of hazardous materials into the aquifers. The work of analyzing the technical reports will take weeks, according to these sources, and the last word will be had by the five CSN councilors. Then, the Ministry for Ecological Transition would have to validate the construction authorization.
This would not be the last permission. An operating authorization would still be needed, among others, which would also depend on the Nuclear Safety Council. But Bellón admits that this is a “very important moment” for his project. And there is no technical reason why it should not be approved. “You can not ignore the permits already granted,” he adds about the pronouncements that the agency has made throughout the licensing process.
Berkeley has two mantras : the more than 120 permits it says it already has in its possession, and the more than 1,000 jobs it says it will create. Those 120 authorizations (the company includes many minor procedures with the Administrations there) portray very well one of the main problems of this mining adventure: the fragmentation of the project carried out by the company.
“They have chopped up the project,” warns Jorge Fabra, who was a CSN advisor until 2019. “Everything should be grouped into a single file,” adds this economist, who in his time at the supervisor was very critical of the processing that was being carried out. doing.
Regarding employment, the exploitation plan contemplates that the Retortillo and Villavieja de Yeltes fields would create 350 jobs in the construction phase and 196 during exploitation. The rest, up to a thousand, would be indirect, Berkeley says in its documentation.
“I am totally against it,” says Julián Sánchez with his cows. The company has tried to buy the land from this rancher, who has so far resisted pressure. “I eat livestock and my family works in the spa,” he explains about the effect that the mine would have on the employment that already exists in this area, which is highly affected by depopulation.
“They have offered me a lot for the land, but it is not a question of money.” Sánchez knows that if the exploitation were to obtain all the permits, the plot could be expropriated. However, this farmer thinks like most of the project’s detractors: “This is not going to be done, it is not profitable. Uranium is of low quality and there is little quantity ”.
Rodríguez, the mayor of Villavieja, recalls that Berkeley and the public company Enusa had a collaboration agreement to exploit the uranium deposits in Salamanca. But, as Enusa reported in 2012 , Berkeley’s feasibility studies did not prove that the exploitation of Salamanca’s resources “is viable and sustainable over time.”
Berkeley then filed a lawsuit against Enusa in the International Court of Arbitration, based in Paris, and valued the compensation it claimed at $ 200 million. “The lawsuit lasted three days,” says Bellón, who explains that an agreement was reached by which the two uranium reserves that they now want to operate were transferred. “The project is economically viable,” insists the Berkeley president despite serious doubts expressed by Enusa.
The possibility of a lawsuit looms again over this controversial mine almost a decade later. Now the claim would amount to 500 million euros. The Berkeley representatives have threatened this lawsuit publicly and also in several letters sent to the CSN.
In these briefs, which the supervisory body has interpreted as pressure , Bellón, his lawyers and even investor associations have warned that the approval of the amendment to the climate change law would lead to a lawsuit if it stops its project. The president of Berkeley confirms that his intention is to go to court if this law “expropriates” the “acquired rights” they have.
“I think this project is not going to go ahead,” insists the mayor of Villavieja de Yeltes. Rodríguez and his City Council were not opposed to the mine at first. But the councilor explains that everything changed after 2012, when Enusa withdrew and the project changed with the inclusion of a new treatment plant and the storage of radioactive waste that this adventure will leave as a legacy for future generations. A very different inheritance from the centuries-old holm oaks that the inhabitants of this region received in their day and that are now in danger.