After a devastating downturn, there is hope for the revival of Namibia’s uranium sector, writes Nicolaas C. Steenkamp.
All images by Leon Louw.
Apart from diamonds, Namibia is known for its rich uranium deposits and according to the World Nuclear Association it was ranked as the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium. In 2018, the country produced more than 5 525 tonnes (t) of uranium. The top producer of uranium in 2018 was Kazakhstan, followed by Canada and Australia (World Nuclear Association) (see Table 1).
Table 1: Production from mines in tonnes of Uranium 2018 [adapted from World Nuclear Association].
*Data from the World Nuclear Association. NB: the figures in this table are subject to change as new data becomes available.
If all uranium mines in Namibia would fire on all cylinders, estimates are that uranium output in Namibia could provide about 10% of the world’s supply by 2035, possibly making it the third largest global producer.
The uranium sector in Namibia has seen some boom times, but more recently suffered a series of misfortunes. The success of uranium projects is not only dependent on market demand and fluctuating prices, but also public sentiments regarding nuclear energy, specifically following the Fukushima disaster in July 2012 in Japan, which left the country, and the uranium market, in tatters. But memories are short, nonetheless, and uranium demand has gradually started to pick up. There is renewed interest in uranium projects, and it is projected that uranium prices may improve in the next two to three years as new uses for the metal are discovered. Apart from its use in nuclear energy, possible future application for uranium include nuclear medicine, composite materials, robotics and supercomputers.
Orano Resources’ desalination plant was originally built to supply the Trekkopje uranium mine with water, but the project has been placed on care-and-maintenance and the plant now supplies a number of other uranium projects with water.
Exploration gets green light
In May 2019, the Namibian government announced that it had lifted a ten‑year moratorium on new applications for uranium mines, and repealed rules mandating that companies seeking mining exploration licences be partially owned and managed by Namibians. This decision will hopefully revive interest in new uranium deposits and attract international interest from companies outside of China.
Currently, the uranium sector in Namibia is dominated by Chinese-owned and -operated mining companies. However, the big challenge for mining companies in Namibia is the availability of surface water. Namibia is an arid, water scarce country and the prolonged drought in the region adds to the woes of not only operating mines, but also mothballed operations thinking about starting up their processing plants again. At the moment there are still strict restrictions on the use of surface water in Namibia.
Orano Resources’ desalination plant is a good example of how mining companies can deal with a shortage of surface water.
A uranium giant
Despite the challenges, Namibia has some of the largest and most prolific uranium mines in the world. According to the World Nuclear Association, Swakop Uranium’s Husab mine produced the third most uranium in the world in 2018 (3028t). That is 926t more than Rössing uranium mine, that produced 2102t in 2018. Rössing was the fifth largest producer of uranium in 2018. The largest producer of uranium in the world is Cigar Lake in Canada, which produced 6924t in 2018. Cigar Lake is owned Cameco/Orano. The second largest producer was BHP Biliton’s Olympic Dam. Olympic Dam pushed 3159t through its processing plant in the same year.
Rössing was owned by multinational giant Rio Tinto, but the company announced last year that it had completed the sale of its interest in the Rössing to China National Uranium Corporation (CNUC). The sale was approved by Namibia’s Mines and Energy Minister, on the provision that China respects the African nation’s law. The Rössing open pit mine has been operational since 1976 and in 2017, before operations were discontinued, it supplied enriched yellowcake uranium to power stations in France, UK, USA and Japan.
After having been placed on care-and-maintenance, the Langer Heinrich uranium project is now the subject of a prefeasibility study into its restart potential. Paladin Energy indicated that there was an opportunity to increase production to 6.5-million pounds a year through an additional high-return, discretionary capital spent of USD30-million, further enhancing access to offtake and financing.
The Husab uranium mine, operated by Swakop Uranium, is located close to Rössing and combined with Ida Dome, it is set to become the second largest uranium mine in the world. The mine is 90% owned by China’s public enterprise, China General Nuclear Power Holding Company and the China-Africa Development Fund. The remaining 10% is owned by Epangelo Mining, Namibia’s loss-making state-owned company.
The Trekkopje mine, owned by Orano Resources (previously the Areva Group), has put the project on care-and-maintenance. The mine has constructed a desalination plant which is expected to be operating until around 2024. Other known uranium project includes Forsys Metals Corporation’s development of the Valencia and Namibplaas uranium deposits, located just north of Langer Heinrich. In addition, Bannerman Resources is involved in the Etango project, just south of Rössing, while ASX-listed Deep Yellow announced in early 2020 that they would be undertaking a Prefeasibility Study (PFS) on their Reptile uranium project’s Tumas deposit, following a positive scoping study. According to Deep Yellow, the aim is to develop a multi-mine, five- to ten-million-pound-a-year low-cost uranium production company with the expectation of each project achieving a minimum of two- to three-million-pound-a-year production capacity. It is expected that the PFS will be completed by December 2020.
More projects in the pipeline
Opportunities in the uranium sector of Namibia abound, and it does seem that more companies are considering investing in uranium again. Marenica Energy, an Australian-based company, was recently awarded five exploration licences covering an area of 180km2. This makes Marenica the largest tenement holder, granted and in application, for nuclear fuel minerals in Namibia. Russia’s Rosatom also has a project in Namibia. This is done in line with Russia’s increasing efforts to strengthen ties in Africa and diversify their business. Not much is currently known regarding the status of this project. India is also engaged with talks to obtain uranium projects in the country.
An early indication of an uptick in activity in Namibia is the increased import of Pyrolusite by Swakop Uranium. It is reported that in November 2019, a third consignment of about 7 500 metric tons was delivered at the Port of Walvis Bay. Manganese is used as a reducing agent during uranium production. The expected rise in demand for uranium, places Namibia in a prime position to become one of the worlds leading uranium producers. The water challenges aside, Namibia remains one of the best countries to do business with in Africa, and with its good road and rail infrastructure, and a world class port, most mining companies that have operated there before, rate it as one of the best mining destinations in the world.
Uranium geology of Namibia
Tertiary and sedimentary deposits in sandstone of the Karoo Supergroup host the three major types of uranium-bearing lithologies in Namibia. Rössing and Valencia are of granitic origin. The other main deposit type is paleaochannel calcrete deposits, such as Langer Heinrich and Tumas. Uranium mineralisation was first discovered in Namibia’s Rössing Mountains, Namib Desert in 1928, by Capt. G. Peter Louw.