It is not the strongest of the species that will survive, or the most intelligent,
but the one most responsive to change.
By Wotan Swiegers, Chairman Namibian Atomic Energy Board and Director Namibian Uranium Institute and Hu Berry
Uranium, named after the planet Uranus, was among the elements that formed 500 million years ago when mineralisation took place in the granites that make out much of the bedrock of the Erongo Region. Change happened very slowly at first. Erosion and weathering scoured softer debris from the plains and riverbeds, depositing it into the infant Atlantic Ocean, leaving the mineral beds close to the surface. The geological clock ticked on at the pace of an aeon until, only 32 years ago, technology lifted the uranium up and out into the twentieth century. In 1976 Rio Tinto’s Rössing Mine began stripping away the overburden, beginning excavation on a pit that currently measures 3 km in length, 1.2 km in width and 345 m in depth.
In nature 99% of uranium atoms exist as uranium-238, giving it the highest atomic weight of the naturally occurring elements. It is 70% denser than lead, but not as dense as gold. Only weakly radioactive in the natural state, the silver-grey material occurs at a few parts per million in rock, soil and water. With a half-life of four and a half billion years, it is a tool that geophysicists use to date the age of the earth. Moreover, its unique nuclear properties make it a fertile agent, which can be transformed to plutonium in a nuclear reactor. Versatile uranium can also be used for less potent preparations, such as in early photography and for colouring glass with rich orange-red to lemon-yellow hues. Dating back to 79 AD, ceramic glazes from a Roman Villa in the Bay of Naples reflected the presence of this slightly magnetic metal. If you think that uranium is limited to nuclear energy, consider that it also occurs in abundance in homes and business offices. Uranium glazes account for the bulk of common bathroom and kitchen tiles that can be coloured green, yellow, mauve, black, blue and red. Even early dentures owed their appearance to the presence of uranium.
The radioactive properties of uranium were uncovered in 1896, resulting in the creation of the first nuclear weapon used in war when Little Boy, the atomic bomb that decimated Hiroshima, was unleashed in 1945. An ensuing arms race during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union produced tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, which used enriched uranium and uranium-derived plutonium. The security of those weapons and their fissile material following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 remains a concern for public health and safety. Now, peaceful nuclear power plants replace weapons of war and uranium takes its place as an efficient, economical and clean method of energy production, compared to the pollutants emitted by oil and gas power. When uranium-238 is completely fissioned (broken apart into lighter elements) it produces uranium-235, one kilogram of which can produce 25 trillion joules of energy. This is as much electricity as 1 500 tonnes of coal can generate.
The presence of uranium permeates much of the forthcoming change that we can expect in Namibia, with the advent of greatly increased exploration and mining of uranium ore. Namibia is now the fourth-largest exporter of non-fuel minerals in Africa, and also the world’s fourth-largest producer of uranium. Namibia, Niger and South Africa are currently the only three African producers of uranium, which is used mainly to fuel commercial nuclear power plants.
Namibia has a long history of uranium mining, dating back to 1976, when Rio Tinto’s Rössing Uranium Ltd opened. After 30 years of production and imminent closure, Rössing is responding to the boom by launching an expansion programme. Paladin Energy’s Langer Heinrich Uranium project came online in early 2007, bringing to two the number of yellowcake producing mines in the country. Together, these mines account for about 10 % of the world’s uranium.
The two existing uranium mines, Rössing Uranium and Langer Heinrich Uranium, are set to increase their production in the coming year and two more projects are expected to come on stream. This includes Areva’s Trekkopje, in late 2009, followed by Valencia in 2011. If the baseline feasibility and environmental impacts studies are accepted, Bannerman, Swakop Uranium and Reptile Uranium may come on line in 2013. Other projects are currently in exploration stages and analysts expect that uranium exploration and mining activities could have a significant impact on the Namibian economy during the next few years.
The mining and exploration activities could, however, have a considerable effect on the natural environment, whilst the cumulative impacts of this development on energy requirements, transportation, housing, schooling, medical services, immigration of job seekers, public health and social issues could be significant. More-over, some of this development is occurring in the Namib-Naukluft Park and the West Coast Recreation Area, both of which are sought-after national and international tourist destinations.
To mitigate the possible effects of these developments, the Namibia Chamber of Mines has formed several committees to deal with health, environmental, radiation and safety aspects. Moreover, the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the Chamber of Mines and the German Agency BGR initiated a Strategic Environmental Assessment, which is being undertaken by independent, qualified experts. The Chamber seeks good stewardship from its members to ensure that the Namibian brand is protected and generates a good name nationally and internationally.
Alternative energy source
What the future holds in store for the Erongo Region, and more specifically the towns of Swakopmund, Arandis and Usakos, indicates a period of unprecedented development. There are three realities that accompany the coming change. Firstly, the world is desperately looking for an immediate source of alternative energy to natural oil and gas supplies. This is because the human population is growing at an exponential rate. It is estimated that 74 million more people are added to the world’s population every year. This equates to a little more than two people per second, 140 per minute, 8 450 per hour and 200 000 in a day, which is more than the total population of Walvis Bay, Swakopmund, Lüderitz and Henties Bay put together. Secondly, Namibia is a fast-developing country, facing the challenges of poverty, unemployment, a growing demand for energy, a life expectancy that has decreased from 65 years at independence to 50 years now, and about 100 000 orphans that need education, health and housing. Thirdly, Namibia has extensive deposits of low-grade uranium and is regarded as a region of global importance for this source of energy. Namibia is currently fifth globally in identified uranium deposits, with Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada and South Africa in the lead positions.
Nuclear energy is a highly emotive subject that attracts a variety of views locally and internationally. Naturally, there is public concern about possible radiation emanating from the exploration and mining of a radioactive mineral like uranium. While there is much public debate around health and environmental impacts of uranium mines, such impacts are not radically different from those associated with other metal mines and in many low-grade uranium mines, radiation levels are close to the public exposure. The public also anticipates that uranium mining in the Erongo Region will affect natural resources such as water, air, earth and energy. Public discussion is, however, often based on perceptions rather than facts, and those perceptions sometimes relate to views shaped by events some decades ago. Whatever the perceptions are, imaginary or real, the fact is that ‘no mine is sustainable, only its legacy’. Consequently, the acid test to be met is whether adequate legislation is in place to monitor the environmental impacts effectively and to rehabilitate the areas affected by exploration and mining when the mines close.
Rate of change
The Namibian Government realises that the Namibian uranium brand will carry the reputation of the nation. As a global brand it will need to be vetted through the most stringent procedures to safeguard reputation and market forces, even in a market-driven world. The recent inauguration of the very first Namibian Atomic Energy Board underlines the commitment of the Namibian Government to ensure that Namibia fulfils its national and international obligations as a responsible world nuclear citizen.
The primary functions of the Chamber of Mines of Namibia is and must be to protect the interest of member organisations proactively, to uphold mining practice in Namibia to the highest standards, to observe international conventions and to ensure positive development of Namibia’s reputation as a mining nation. Leading practice (the best way of doing things at a given site) and a sustainable approach to management is critical for any mining company to gain and maintain its ‘social licence to operate’ in the community. It is essential to integrate environmental, economic and social aspects through all phases of mineral production from exploration through construction, operation and mine-site closure. As one operating company representative put it, “Failure of one to comply will impact all and this will have detrimental effects on the industry as a whole. The eyes of the world have always been scrutinising the nuclear industry and we cannot afford anything but the highest standards of environmental and radiation safety management.’’
If there is any doubt about the rate of change coming to the central Namib Desert, we should reflect on what the noted American writer Alvin Toffler said in his predictive book Future Shock in 1970: “The Future is coming Faster all the Time.”
This article appeared in the 2009/10 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.