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Do jobs trump environment? Bucolic Swedish town faces uranium dilemma.

The Swedish town of Oviken, whose pristine natural surroundings have made it popular with tourists, has the blessing – and burden – of uranium deposits below its soil.

By Maria Adervall BerglundContributor / March 31, 2012



Oviken, Sweden

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.

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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.”

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