Spain has licensed a uranium mine in Retortillo, about 40 kilometres from the Portuguese border, without consulting the Portuguese State or carrying out the necessary, cross-border environmental impact study.
In a move similar to the Almaraz nuclear power plant fuel dump project, where Spain ignored the cross-border rules and pressed ahead while ignoring its neighbour, the authorisation of a uranium mine is causing another diplomatic melt-down.
The project already is being set up in the province of Salamanca by the Australian company Berkeley, which was granted open cast exploitation rights in 2014, with a start date in 2019.
Portuguese MPs from the Environment Committee have visited the site where they found equipment in place and an area cleared of trees, with earthworks on land crossed by the Yeltes river, whose waters end up in the Douro.
“A uranium mine has long-term effects, it’s not the same as extracting copper or iron," said Pedro Soares, chairman of the Environment Committee, noting that Portugal ceased uranium mining in 2001 and that environmental liabilities remain, as well as health impacts.
In Portugal, the worry is river contamination, as with Almaraz - in Spain the concern is for the local agricultural and livestock industries.
Soares worries that uranium mining will damage the health of the local population, both Portuguese and Spanish, with radioactive contamination thrown up into the air - and finding its way into the water if the mine's run-off reaches the Yeltes River.
However, as in the licensing process for the nuclear waste dump in Almaraz, the Spanish government again has ignored the rules laid down by Brussels.
This serious non-compliance, coupled with hiding the information from the Portuguese government, has been confirmed in information sent by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Augusto Santos Silva, to MPs.
The minister said that when the Portuguese authorities received documentation on the uranium extraction project in April 2016, Spain already had issued the environmental impact statement (on September 25, 2013) and has authorised the project in June that year.
Spain argues, as in the Almaraz case, that it was not "necessary to conduct cross-border consultations, given the distance of the project from the border with Portugal."
The Portuguese Government says that the project could have significant environmental effects in Portuguese territory, "given the variability of the wind and the fact that the Yeltes River, which runs right through the mining site, is a tributary of the river Huebra, which joins the river Douro."
Spain was contacted by the Portuguese government on May 30, 2016, with a request for the submission of supplementary information.
Four months later, the Spanish authorities responded, stating that the uranium mining will not have any cross-boundary impacts and denying Portugal the opportunity to comment on the project because the environmental assessment process had already been completed.
Portugal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it was only after several attempts that it received documentation on the project.
What remains to be decided by Spain is the granting of the final license to operate the uranium processing unit, which Berkeley intends to build next to the mine. This licence is pending at Spain’s Nuclear Safety Council. Without this license, the project is dead in the water.
According to Pedro Soares, the clarification from minister Silva reveals that Spain again will fail to exchange the required information, leaving Portugal faced with another fait accompli.
“These attitudes undermine confidence between two countries. Once again, the Spanish government does not respect European legislation,” said Pedro Soares.
Information provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the members of the Environment Committee shows communication dated in 2016. However, the president of the Municipality of Almeida, whose border is about 40 kilometres from the future mine, says that he warned the Portuguese Environment Agency, the General Directorate of Energy and the Ministry of the Environment about this project back in 2013 and was ignored for four years.
"We never got a response until last year," said António Machado.
The mayor recalled that the uranium mine at Retortillo will not be the only one, as there is another project to extract uranium at another location just four kilometres from his council area.
"The Government should have a study of the real environmental impacts that uranium extraction can have in the catchment area of the river Douro and the possible health effects on the local population. If there are impacts, the enterprise will have to be suspended," insists the Almeida mayor, adding that "once again," the Spanish have not fulfilled their obligations.
Spanish activist are not best pleased either, a demonstration is scheduled by the Stop Uranium platform in Salamanca this coming Saturday.
The Almaraz nuclear dump triggered a formal 'cross-border' complaint by Portugal to Brussels. The government later was forced to withdraw the complaint after the occassionally sober Jean-Claude Juncker got involved and bullied the Portuguese government into submission.
Retortillo uranium mine earthworks