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Namibia’s Great Uranium Stampede, Boon Or Bane?

By: Staff writer

The idea of mining Leonardville’s uranium-rich soil has raised many questions among communities both in the Hardap and Omaheke region. Some are concerned of the risk of underwater pollution while others welcome the idea as an opportunity to help their impoverished community.

Like the “diamond rush” that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Namibia, the country is in the grips of another similar great stampede.

A new “diamond rush” is under way in Africa’s southwestern country, but this time the prospectors are out for another metal: uranium.

Namibia’s deserts are rich in supplies of uranium, which are drawing increased

foreign interest. Uranium is used to produce nuclear fuel, which is a carbon-neutral source of energy. This is different from the fossil fuel like petrol or diesel used to run cars or airplanes.

Nuclear-based power generators, floating nuclear power units and plants are powered by nuclear fuel. The element is regarded as the ‘Next Generation Fuel’ that will help humankind to survive and prosper, as this kind of energy is stable and “green”.

Prominent experts, including International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director general Rafael Grossi, have stressed the significant role of nuclear power in decarbonising the world economy.

As global demand for nuclear power has increased so has interest in the metal and, across the Namib and Kalahari deserts, companies are seeking permission to explore uranium for mining.

Namibia has significant uranium mines capable of providing 10% of world mining output, making it the world’s fourth-largest uranium producer.

The government has declared uranium as among the six strategic minerals, contending the development of new deposits will make a significant contribution to ensuring the economic security of Namibia and will contribute to the further sustainable development of the nation.

So far, uranium mining has proven to be an important economic factor in Namibia and in the Erongo Region in particular, where it has created substantial employment opportunities not only in the mining industry, but also in the supply and service industry.

The World Nuclear Association forecast that uranium demand from the world’s nuclear reactors was expected to rise to 79,400 metric tonnes of elemental uranium (MTU) in 2030, and 112,300 MTU in 2040. In 2021, global uranium demand from nuclear reactors was estimated at 62,500 MTU.

On the supply side, however, global uranium production plunged to 47,731 MTU in 2020, down from 63,207 MTU in 2016 due to a prolonged price depression, which discouraged exploration activities. Additionally, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 restricted mobility and cut uranium production.

Last month, the uranium futures price had eased to $48.30/pound. Despite recent weakness, uranium prices remain elevated in 2022 compared to previous years and have gained about 12% year-to-date, owing to tight supply.

The current recovery in world uranium prices offers Namibia a good chance for success for the mining projects launched in the past decade. As the global energy transition has begun, uranium demand is expected to grow, therefore the Namibian economy could get significant benefits in the long-term.

There is strong government support for expanding uranium mining and some interest in using nuclear power. But with the increase in uranium exploration comes fear that exploration could contaminate underground drinking water.

The case in point is the Russian state nuclear energy group Rosatom, whose subsidiary, One Uranium, received several exploration licences in Namibia in 2019.

After many years of exploring the uranium potential of Namibia’s subsoil, One Uranium applied for a permit to mine uranium in the east of the country. This project has generated intense debate.

Last month, however, government has stopped One Uranium’s uranium exploration over concerns about potential pollution with radioactive minerals of the underground water resource that covers the Stampriet Artesian Basin (SAB) aquifer, the largest artesian basin in the country, which covers 60 000 square kilometres in south-east Namibia, and expands into neighbouring Botswana and South Africa.

Voice of America’s freelance writer and commentator, Vitalio Angula reported on 29 December 2022 that the ministry of agriculture, water and land reform has refused to grant the Russian company a water use permit required for mining, saying the company failed to prove its uranium extraction method would not cause pollution.

A year ago, the agriculture ministry also cancelled Headspring Investments’ uranium exploration permit in the Leonardville area, citing failure by the company to meet the conditions under which permits were issued.

Headspring, a subsidiary of Rosatom’s Uranium One Group, holds eight EPLs in Namibia. These are EPLs 4654, 4655, 4656, 4657, 6780, 6781, 6782, and 6783.


The extraction of uranium in the Leonardville area, directly along the Nossob River and close to the aquifer located there, has drawn explosive concerns from farmers and communities in the area, as they believe it can potentially pose a threat to groundwater.

Namibian activists maintain the mining project is not worth the risk.

However, Petra Witbooi, a constituency councillor in Leonardville, was quoted by VOA as saying: “The advantages definitely outweigh the disadvantages and it will … include much-needed employment, contribution to the GDP of our republic..,” Witbooi said.

Agriculture minister Calle Schlettwein told VOA that no further permit would be granted because the method of mining the company proposed, known as the in-situ leaching, was raising environmental concerns.

“The permits that we’d given had conditions to make sure that we can monitor the activities and that we can assure ourselves continuously that no risk to the aquifer is happening,” Schlettwein said. “Now, unfortunately, the company did not conform to the conditions and we have now suspicion that the mining operation, which is called in situ leaching … mining, in fact, I see there is risk to the aquifer by polluting it.”

In situ mining involves recovering minerals by dissolving them in an acid pumped into the ground and then pumping the solution back to the surface.

Schlettwein told VOA that farmers in Namibia’s eastern Omaheke region had petitioned against the technique.

With a number of foreign companies eying Namibia’s uranium and its diverse basin of minerals such as diamonds, gold, lithium, lead, copper, zinc, natural gas as well as fisheries, the country is quickly getting the benefits of the partnerships, which is a boon for its economy. However, the country should do a careful check before partnering with the new entrants into the uranium race to ensure that this boon does not turn into a bane.

Staff Writer

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