THE fear that Russian-backed Uranium One, which is seeking to mine uranium in the Stampriet area, may pollute the aquifers can be quelled if those concerned fully understand the mining method to be used – and that this method has been used for over 50 years.
This is the call of Dinis Ezhurov, the chief executive officer at a Rosatom partly owned uranium recovery company based in Russia’s Kurgan Region.
The company’s mine, Dalur, is located in the Uksganskoc village, which is home to about 3 000 people who are predominantly crop and livestock farmers.
Rosatom, or Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation, is a Russian state corporation headquartered in Moscow that specializes in nuclear energy, nuclear non-energy goods and high-tech products.
Reporters from Namibia and Tanzania recently visited the operations, which is surrounded by wheat farms, and closer to the mining operations, the only divider is a semi-tarred road.
A stone’s throw from the pipelines and boreholes is a green wheat field, which local farmers said has yielded the same output, if not better, since Dalur’s operations started in 2019.
The uranium recovery method called in-situ mining involves drilling a series of boreholes into an ore body and using acids or bases to dissolve mineral deposits.
Water may be added to increase efficiency.
Dissolved minerals are then pumped to the surface for collection, leaving behind a large cavity.
Several boreholes are drilled – some to inject the acid and water into the ore body where there is uranium, and others to recover that solution to the ground for processing.
These injections and recovery boreholes are accompanied by monitoring boreholes which detect any contamination present.
Ezhurov said this method has been used by 28 enterprises around the world – 13 in Khazakstan, eight in the United States, four in Uzbekistan, two in Russia, and one in Australia.
“It is therefore not a strange method. And since our operations began in 2019, we had no reported issues around pollution,” he said.
About 200m from the recovery plant is a freshwater borehole, which feeds the areas around the mine.
Ezhurov said the in-situ method has been in use for over 50 years, and according to the World Nuclear Association, 57% of global uranium production was produced using this method in 2019.
In-situ mining has been gaining traction compared to open-pit mining, as its set-up is not as capital intensive, and reasonable profits are earned.
In Namibia, uranium companies have been reporting losses, despite billion-dollar exports every month.
Much of these losses are due to the capital outlay among other big expenses of operating an open-pit mine.
In-situ mining could have the company recovering its capital expenditure in about five to seven years, executives at the Dalur mine said.
The area where Uranium One is seeking to recover uranium has about four aquifers, of which one is allegedly already partly polluted by farmers.
Last year, New Era reported that the Stampriet Aquifer Uranium Mining Committee, representing the interests of inhabitants of south-east Namibia in the Omaheke region, has raised concerns that proposed uranium extraction methods could potentially harm an aquifer that supplies the only fresh drinking water in the area.
However, Uranium One remains adamant that its planned uranium mining poses no threat to the underground water resource.
The aquifers are a freshwater source stretching over 63 000 square kilometres.
In another report, Uranium One’s spokesperson, Riaan van Rooyen, said in-situ recovery technology has been in use for over half a century.
“The sulphuric acid is used as a weak solution (only 1% to 5%). This weak solution poses no danger to the underground water resource,” he stated.
Ezhurov said the same opposition was experienced in Russia before operations started.
“We, however, had to explain the method we intended to use fully to the residents, and had regulatory bodies evaluate our exploration and intended recovery method, and that eased the tension,” he said.
Ezhurov said opposition is common for mining operations, however, once there is commitment to adherence to environmental laws and it can be proven that the mining method would not cause any pollution, concerns are normally quelled.
Late last year, the government, through minister of agriculture, water and land reform Calle Schlettwein, said no mineral exploration drilling and in-situ leaching activities would occur in any aquifer, which led to Uranium One to counter this in court, citing it was not given an opportunity to show that the in-situ method would not contaminate underground water.
Uranium One is confident that the courts will rule in its favour, and last month, parent company Rosatom told Russian media outlet Sputnik it planned to start mining uranium in Namibia in 2029, while the estimated investment in this project would reach US$500 million.
“We plan to complete exploration work in 2026 and start mining uranium in 2029, with a mining period of more than 25 years. The estimated investment in the project is up to $500 million, and the annual output is 3 000 tonnes of uranium per year,” the company said.
This project will create new jobs in the region and employ up to 600 people, the company claimed.
In addition, it will also increase Namibia’s gross domestic product by 1% to 2% in annual terms, Rosatom noted.