Uranium sector in price dilemma

By Hilary Mare

NAMIBIAN Uranium Institute executive director, Dr. Gabi Schneider has said that despite the prolonged period of low uranium prices, brought by the Fukushima tsunami and the subsequent oversupply caused by the shutdowns of nuclear power plants, the full development of new projects depends on an increase in the uranium price, which has consistently hovered between N$420 and N$450 in recent years.

“The uranium price is thus the single most important factor that affects the Namibian uranium industry, and it is, unfortunately, an external factor that cannot be addressed from within,” notes Schneider.

Uranium mining is an important economic factor in Namibia, particularly in the Erongo region, where it has created substantial employment opportunities in not only the mining industry but also the supply and service industry.

With more new nuclear power plants under construction worldwide than at any other time in the past 25 years, partly owing to the urgent need for electricity generation with low carbon dioxide emissions, uranium prices are expected to improve in time.

This will enable the uranium mining industry to prosper, grow and continue to play its important role in the socioeconomic development of not only the Erongo region but also Namibia, Schneider says.

According to the World Nuclear Association website, Namibia has the fourth-largest uranium reserves worldwide, providing 10 percent of global uranium production, and is reported to have produced 6 459t in 2019.

The association also reports that the Husab uranium open pit mine, in the Erongo region, and the Rössing uranium open pit mine in the Namib Desert, were among the top 10 largest-producing uranium mines in 2019.

The uranium deposits of central Namibia belong to two main types – primary uranium mineralisation in light-coloured granite, the so-called alaskite, produced by Rössing and Husab; and secondary uranium mineralisation in calcrete, previously produced by open pit miners Langer Heinrich and Trekkopje.

Secondary mineralisation is the result of the weathering of rocks that contain primary mineralisation. Both mineralisation types are amenable to opencast mining methods.

During the early 2000s, uranium prices reached an all-time high, and extensive exploration was undertaken in the western Erongo region, resulting in the establishment of the Langer Heinrich, Trekkopje and Husab mines.

Assisted by high-resolution airborne geophysical data provided by the Geological Survey of Namibia, this exploration led to the discovery of the Husab ore body, a world-class uranium deposit currently being turned into the world’s second-largest uranium mine by Swakop Uranium, Schneider says.

However, following the price decline, mines, such as Langer Heinrich and Trekkopje, were put on care and maintenance, in 2018 and 2013 respectively, awaiting a price increase, she notes.

In 2015, a feasibility study for the project was completed. The estimated measured and indicated resources are 265 million tonnes at a grade of 197 parts per million uranium oxide, which equates to 115 million pounds of uranium oxide, she points out.

Meanwhile, the latest developments in the Namibian uranium mining sector include the activities of uranium mining company Uranium One’s subsidiary Headspring Investments, which is undertaking an extensive drilling campaign in the south of Namibia in its search for on-site leaching opportunities.

Schneider concludes that the availability of water and electricity are key factors in any future development of the uranium sector and that there are several exploration projects by Namibian Uranium Association members that lend themselves to future uranium mining ventures, once the uranium price increases.