Amid a depressed market and low uranium prices, the Namibian uranium industry is streamlining operations through process optimisation and undertaking additional exploration, to overcome these challenges and be prepared for when the market improves, says Namibian Uranium Institute (NUI) executive director Gabi Schneider.
The challenges in the uranium market over the past seven years have placed a difficult burden on Rio Tinto’s uranium assets, including Rössing – the longest operating opencast uranium mine globally – and most other uranium miners globally.
“Given Rössing’s economic importance to Namibia, it was decided that the operation would be in a better position under the leadership of a new owner with a long-term view of nuclear power demand growth and nuclear fuel supply. It can be expected that the transaction will enable Rössing to preserve jobs,” explains Schneider.
She further notes that the Namibian uranium industry is quite unique, as it operates in a province that not only hosts a variety of uranium deposits but also has a high conservation value. It also operates in a country with untapped potential for economic growth, albeit its fair share of socioeconomic challenges.
The NUI – a subsidiary of the Namibian Uranium Association – is uniquely placed to assist the industry in meeting environmental and socio- economic challenges through transparent consultation with all stakeholders, evidence-based teaching and continuous improvement, relays Schneider.
“Exploration and mining companies involved in the Namibian uranium sector have fully recognised that managing environmental issues, radiation, health and safety, and waste is of paramount importance to protect staff, the general public and the environment.”
Rössing mine has continuously been driving cost and operations improvement.
“Meanwhile, following the mining curtailment programme, only stockpile material has been processed since 2017 at Paladin’s Langer Heinrich mine, but the mine eventually had to be put on care and maintenance in August 2018.”
Schneider notes that, notwithstanding, the mine was named as the lowest-cost opencast producer in the world, which is an important factor once uranium prices recover.
Swakop Uranium’s Husab mine continues to ramp up to become one of the largest uranium mines in the world. It has the biggest uranium processing plant worldwide, which will eventually process a nameplate target of 140-million tons a year of uranium ore.
Although uranium producer Orano’s Trekkopje mine remains on care and maintenance, Schneider says research and testing are carried out on ore samples to optimise the recovery process.
Minerals company Zhonghe Resources continues with geophysical and geological work to increase the resource base and plans to do leaching testwork in cooperation with uranium developer Bannerman Resources.
She adds that, “Valencia uranium mine has a definitive feasibility study and a mining licence in place, and is therefore construction-ready once the uranium price increases.”
Moreover, she points out that the processing optimisation study was completed at Bannerman Resources’ Etango demonstration plant, resulting in a significant operating-cost reduction. The Etango project is covered by a mineral deposit retention licence, and exploration work continues on the adjacent exclusive prospecting licence to target satellite deposits with the potential to extend the life of the project.
Further, mining and exploration company Reptile Mineral Resources & Exploration continues to focus on achieving a meaningful increase in the existing uranium resource base for its primary and secondary ore targets.
A new entrant in the Namibian uranium sector is Uranium One’s Headspring Investments that is looking for in situ leaching opportunities in the south of the country.
Meanwhile, Schneider notes that it is expected that the Husab mine will complete its ramp-up and reach nameplate production over the next 18 months, while future plans at Rössing will depend on the new owners once the transfer of shares has been completed.
“The other players, including the two mines on care and maintenance, are positioning themselves for the time when prices will enable them to produce economically.”
Schneider concludes that any development during 2019 depends entirely on how quickly the uranium price continues with its upward trend.Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor: Features