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Do jobs trump environment? Bucolic Swedish town faces uranium dilemma

As the pine trees part at the end of the country road, they reveal an unassuming red cottage with a rocking chair on the porch. White roses in the kitchen window give the impression that its occupants are just out running errands.

Yet this cottage, and the traces of upturned black earth around it, are at the heart of a conflict that has divided the highland village Oviken since its owner allowed Continental Precious Minerals (CPM) to take mineral samples beneath its soil.

With mineral prices rising on the global market, largely because of increased industrial and consumer demand in developing countries, international prospectors are at work all over Sweden. In Oviken, at the foot of the Scandes mountains (see map), the drilling of Canadian company CPM has launched a fierce argument over whether the financial opportunities that mining provides are worth the potential environmental impact and cost to the local tourism industry. 

The promise of 400 jobs is alluring in a community of 7,000, which predicts it will lose one-seventh of its inhabitants by 2025 as they flee widespread unemployment. But the village also has a middle class that makes a living off tourism and fears what a mine could do to the area's appeal to tourists. They’ve joined forces with the antinuclear lobby because the area's uranium deposits are the main lure for prospectors.

Oviken sits on top of the world’s largest uranium reserve, 1.038 billion pounds by CPM’s calculation. It has so far been left alone because the uranium contained there is below the grade usually deemed profitable to dig up and general resistance to mining. Improved mining techniques have helped changed that, but more importantly the uranium in Oviken is mixed in with vanadium and molybden, both used in alloys. Vanadium is rare and is used in electronic products.

While uranium prices are not stable, they are predicted to rise “because the oil is running out,” says analyst Lars Norin at the State Geology Authority.

Yet the price of uranium is less relevant than its nuclear associations. In Sweden, public opinion is still generally opposed to nuclear power, although lawmakers recently overturned the ban on adding more reactors, until now fueled by imported uranium.

Anything for jobs?

While the government is known for its pro-business stance, municipalities retain the right to veto uranium mining. Berg, the municipality that includes Oviken, has promised residents to do just that — a fact not everyone is happy about.

"If there aren’t any jobs you can’t stay,” says welder Henrik Larsson, who just finished high school. ”There are barely any girls left.”

Regional capital Östersund, located across Storsjön, Sweden's fifth-largest lake and a key drinking water supply, provides some jobs. Many local teenagers head there right after high school graduation, but some go farther afield for work.

“We keep hearing all the negative things,” Mr. Larsson says during a break from his work building snowmobile seating for tourists. ”But if there was a mine here we’d have guaranteed work, so get rid of it all, as long as there’s jobs.” 

With the phrase “get rid of it all,” Mr. Larsson homes in on one main reason for other villagers’ skepticism: A mine, if given the go ahead, would be open, literally shaving away parts of the ridge that Oviken sits on. 

Geologist Olle Holmstrand, who works at the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC), says he understands the plight of job seekers, but adds, “you can’t solve rural communities’ problems with heavy, dirty mining. Northern Sweden has become our domestic version of a developing country. They have to deal with the pollution while we take their natural resources with promises of jobs. It’s blackmail.”

With the snow-flecked mountains on the horizon and dense forest brushing against pebble beaches, the region's natural beauty has made it a domestic and international tourism destination. A villager who declined to give her name confides that there have already been some complaints. A Russian tourist said that a nearby windmill ruined its natural beauty. “Imagine what a mine would entail,” she says.

Fear of a Fukushima

Sweden has mined uranium only once before, during a brief quest to fuel its own reactors, but the Ranstad site was closed in the 1960s.  

“We’ve had one mine and we’ve seen what happens to the environment,” said lawmaker Marie Nordén of the Social Democrats, the main opposition party, on Swedish Public Service Radio earlier this month. The party's motion on March 14 to ban uranium mining was blocked by other members of parliament.

“Analyzing potential consequences where you look at jobs and environmental effects, both in the short and long term, is not done properly,” says economist Ing-Marie Green at the National Agricultural College. “There are no independent assessments carried out by the authorities, assessments come from the companies own hired-in analysts.”

To go ahead with a potential mine, CPM would have to apply for a permit from the National Environmental High Court.

Regardless of nuclear power's fraught history — Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and most recently, Fukushima – Sweden does still need nuclear power. This winter, as several reactors in the fleet of 10 were shut down for maintenance and security checks after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Sweden had to crank up its oil-burning generators down south to cope with the electricity demand.

While the antinuclear lobby still has many sympathizers, Göran Follstad, who moved north from Stockholm to breed horses many years ago, also speaks of environmental concerns — but as an incentive for Sweden to mine its own uranium. ”We have high environmental standards and strict laws here,” he says. ”It’s our moral responsibility to mine it by ourselves rather relying on developing countries who don’t protect their workers.”

While Follstad and his neighbor Kalle Malm have agreed to talk openly about the potential mine, many other villagers refuse to give their names and some shy away from the topic altogether. ”In the next door village, the prospectors were welcomed with a shotgun, so they didn’t drill there,” Malm says.

He and his two brothers have stayed on in Oviken to live on the family farm. Tractors litter the yard and in their car repair shop, a vintage American car is being lovingly restored. Mr. Malm works part-time for emergency services to make ends meet. 

One villager who is keeping tabs on the prospectors is retiree Diana Fernlund. On her floral kitchen wallpaper, she has pinned a geological survey of the creek and the hills with tracts lined in black marker. They show where the uranium ore is at its densest. She not only fears pollution but thinks there are better ways than mining to make a living in the north.

"This is paradise. This could be Sweden’s Miami, a place for people like me to enjoy their older years,” she says.

Ms. Fernlund moved here from southwestern Sweden to be close to her daughter, who runs a horse trekking business nearby, and her grandchildren. She has little sympathy for the young’s concerns that there are no jobs.

”They can take care of us,” she says, alluding to Sweden’s still strong welfare state where tax money pays for the care of the elderly.

Ann Törnkvist contributed reporting.

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