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   28/03/2011
 
March 2011
 
The first question we had to answer after an 9 magnitude earthquake hit Japan on March 11 was: “How did the disaster affect mining in Japan?” Of particular concern was the tsunami that followed the earthquake; the worst in the country’s history.

Japan is not a mining country

Japan is almost completely dependent on imported minerals to keep its industries in production. There were many metal and coalmines in Japan in the past, but they closed down one after another, some after having been in operation for centuries.

Many mines reached peak production as far back as the 16th and 17th century.
Today, the Hishikari gold mine is the only domestic metal mine being operated on a commercial scale.
Japan produced 161 t/au in 2003. In 2004 production was down to 137 tonnes.

Role of human error

The Hishikari mine situated some 1 100 km from Sendai which was hardest hit by the tsunami was not affected by the earthquake. One commentator who attracted some publicity on the internet alleged that deep drilling at the Hishikari Mine triggered the earthquake in Japan. While that asinine statement is ludicrous it would be correct to say that human error did play a part in the Japanese disaster.

Many disasters that are viewed as natural disasters are in fact man-made, this we know.

Was it a mistake to build nuclear plants in areas plagued by earthquakes?

It is on record that when Japan’s nuclear plants were designed 40 years ago, due consideration was given to the possibility of earthquakes and tsunamis. No one ever thought that a tsunami would by so powerful as to cripple a nuclear plant.

Where human error comes into the picture is evident from a statement made by a 75 year old engineer who installed pumps in nuclear plants 40 years ago. He said that when reactors were designed engineers had no experience with nuclear power at the time and that no one could foresee tsunamis big enough to affect generators.

Do we really know enough about nuclear technology?

One observer, Jonathan Schell, said that we may be wise enough to use atomic power responsibly in 12 000 years. He based his calculation on the information that plutonium, a component of nuclear waste has half-life of 24 000 years.
Japan is blessed with an array of technological-minded people, people who are confident that whatever disaster may strike they would be able to cope.

There was an earthquake in 1995 – the Great Hanshui earthquake – in which 5000 people died and nearly half a million people were injured. It proved that scientists and technologists with all their skills and knowledge couldn’t predict with accuracy or avert a natural disaster.

Nuclear plants must have electric power

At the Fukushima Daiichi plant in northeastern Japan the tsunami knocked out power and ruined the back-up generators for the cooling systems. Fearing that radioactive material could be released because there was no water in a storage pool for cooling nuclear fuel rods, immediate action was required. Dousing the crippled reactors with seawater released by aircraft from the sky did not work.

On March 20, it was reported that technicians had managed to attach new power cables to all six reactors and started an electric-powered water pump at one of them to cool overheating nuclear fuel rods. This achievement has raised hopes that a meltdown catastrophe may still be averted.

Japan had planned to bury the entire complex under sand and concrete if attempts to avert a meltdown failed.
People in
Tokyo who have been staying indoors working from home because of radiation fears have started to go back to work. The earthquake flattened the city. Only tall modern structures designed to withstand earthquakes remained standing.

Nuclear plans to be reviewed

Sensibly,
China’s security council announced that they would stop approving new nuclear plants until safety and improved long-term plans were approved. China is susceptible to earthquakes. If there is one country that should review its plans for adding 27 nuclear reactors over five years, then it is China.

An earthquake of the magnitude that hit Japan could cause havoc, not only in the country’s infrastructure but it would certainly have a devastating effect on world markets.

Countries where there are nuclear plants in operation are certain to review their safety systems to ensure that they will withstand natural disasters.



South Africa to go ahead with nuclear plant

While China and several European countries have suspended their nuclear programmes in the light of the Japanese nuclear crisis, the South African government said that it would not put its planned nuclear expansion on hold.
The cabinet has approved
South Africa’s 20-year electricity master plan, which will mean that 23 percent of new energy between now and 2030 will be nuclear. The cost of the new nuclear power stations at today’s prices would be around R420 billion.

South Africa’s nuclear plant at Koeberg, which can be seen from Cape Town, has been described by nuclear engineers and scientists as safe while anti-nuclear activists argue that it would require just one major ‘act of God’ to plunge Cape Town and its surroundings into another Chernobyl.

Nuclear energy debate

The endless vehement debates between those who favour nuclear energy and those who do not, is rather perplexing.

It can be expected that the voices of anti-nuclear activists will become louder as they site the disaster in Japan as corroboration of their view that nuclear power is dangerous.

“Why bother with nuclear energy if we have enough coal reserves to last 200 years?” is an argument often heard.

Activists could well ask: do we not have a clear indication in the case of the meltdown in Fukushima of how dangerous nuclear is?

Scientists are human. Humans are imperfect. So, humans are no matches for the immense forces that govern the universe.

What will remain forever after, long after our children’s children have inhabited the earth, is the lethal radioactive material produced.

Earthlife Africa Johannesburg and Greenpeace SA condemned the South African government for its decision to go ahead with the 9600 MW expansion of nuclear power set out in the Integrated Resource Plan 2010 (IRP). If the plan is approved by parliament 42% of energy generation will come from renewable energy sources, 15% will originate from coal-fired power stations and 23% from nuclear generators.

Some observers say that those favouring coal and bad-mouthing nuclear energy are doing so to keep coalmines alive for one reason only – employment. But we have read reports to the effect that the estimated coal reserves have been largely exaggerated.

In favour of nuclear are those who say the pros of nuclear power far outweigh the cons. There are indeed hundreds of reactors working safely and efficiently in dozens of countries. Barring force majeure, the chances of meltdown and associated dangers are remote.

South Africa, it is reported, does not import food from Japan, which means that the population will not be exposed to radiation from radioactive food. There is some concern that other commodities purchased from Japan could be radioactive. This would apply to cars, heavy equipment, electronics and other equipment.



Did you know?

·         According to geological evidence, search for gold in Japan was in progress long before the Christian era. Methods of searching for and mining the metal were probably introduced from Korea

·         Most of the gold deposits in Japan are contained in a vein system of a stable, high gold value. True deposits are usually 150-250 meter below surface and mining costs are much lower than the mining cost of deep mines in South Africa.

·         Recent research has shown that in hot spring locations (of which there are many in Japan) there is a good chance that there could be some hydrothermal gold and silver.

·         Hydrothermal deposits have been found over the past few years and scientists keep trying to discover more about the location of their mineral veins deposits. The search continues deep under the ocean off Japan.

·         Hishikari Mine in Kagoshima in southern Kyushu is the only gold mine in operation in Japan today. In the country’s long history of mining, there has never been a more productive a mine yielding better quality gold.

·         All the gold produced from all mines in Japan throughout history comes to around 1300 tons including 300 tons from Hishikari.

·         In 1997 Hishikari became the largest gold producer in Japan. The mine produced 83.1 t/au 12 years after it started. The grade is fabulously high. The world average is 5 to 6 g/t and at Hishikari it is 45 to 50 g/t.

·         Geologists explain that in a volcanic part of the world like Japan, molten magma that may contain gold and silver rises up and make a hydrothermal fluid. The fluid rises higher and boils and then, as it cools, the minerals in it settle and forms veins in the rock. At the same time the hydrothermal fluid on the upper part of the veins reacts with the surrounding rocks, making them metamorphic. The metamorphic rock could be a marker indicating the presence of gold.

·         The Beshi Copper Mine a rich source of copper in Japan that was discovered in 1690 was in operation for nearly 300 years. The mine produced 700 000 tons of copper in its lifetime. Beshi was closed in 1973.

·         The Ashio Copper mine in the Toshigo prefecture of Japan mined copper since 1600 and shut in 1973. The mine was a site of major pollution in the 1880’s.

·         Another mine, the Osarizawa copper mine that produced gold from the 17th century, also ceased operation about three centuries later.

·         When call buttons went dead in a Tokyo hospital nurses placed small rocks in plastic bottles so that patients cold call for attention by rattling the bottles.

·         A rumour that salt can guard against radiation exposure from fall-out from a crippled The National Nuclear Regulator said the impact of the nuclear accident in Japan on the loss of lives seems to be insignificant in comparison with lives lost as a result of the devastating effect of flooding. nuclear plant in Japan caused a rush for salt in China. In the false belief that iodised salt can ward off radiation poisoning and that nuclear fumes could spread from Japan throughout Asia triggered panic buying and hoarding of salt.

 


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