AFRICA: Uranium rush gets under way in Zambia

Resurgent global interest in nuclear power has made Zambia, a country better known for its vast copper reserves, into a hotbed of uranium exploration.

The search for uranium in Zambia is part of a larger wave of uranium exploration and mining across mineral-rich Southern Africa that is raising hopes of new jobs and tax revenue, but also sparking debate over safety and security.

Radiation exposure is low in open cut mining, and can be further lessened by enforcing strict hygiene regulations on miners using uranium oxide concentrate, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Many countries are looking for cleaner and less-costly alternatives to oil and coal power, and uranium prices are high after a decades-long slump.

African Energy Resources, an Australian-owned mining outfit, is drilling on the southern border with Zimbabwe. Equinox, a Canadian-owned company, said in November that there was high-grade uranium in the Lumwana open pit copper mine in northwestern Zambia; it hopes to begin stockpiling it next year.

Zambia's government is now completing new regulations to cover the mining, processing and export of uranium products, said Maxwell Mwale, Zambia's deputy minister of mines and mineral development for large scale mining projects.

"We are assured of a market in the sense that demand for nuclear power is increasing," Mwale said. "Now there are these global warming concerns and issues of reducing carbon emissions, so nuclear power is attractive." Mwale added, "We had to put in place regulations that conformed to International Atomic Energy Agency standards."

Elsewhere in Africa, exploration is ramping up across the border in Botswana. Namibia's uranium exporting industry has seen a revival, with a $112 million expansion of the long-running Rossing open mine and the opening of a new mine in 2006 by Paladin Energy in Australia.

African Energy Resources has poured $8 million into its exploration project with Albidon Mining in southern Zambia over the past three years. The exploration is the "biggest push on uranium exploration since the late '70s," said Alasdair Cooke, executive chairman of African Energy. With the global energy market coming under so much pressure from new economies, "uranium has become part of the mix."

Faced with domestic energy shortages, the government of South Africa released a draft nuclear energy policy in August pledging a rebirth in the country's uranium mining, processing and enrichment industries, and the construction of new nuclear reactors over the next decade. The region's economic powerhouse, South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons program following the end of apartheid in the 1990s, but still has two nuclear reactors that produce 6 percent of the country's power.

The scramble for uranium marks a stark turnaround after an industry slump brought on by the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl that made nuclear power a dirty phrase, and by the end of the nuclear arms race of the Cold War.

Concerns over climate change and pollution created by coal, along with high oil prices, have sent uranium prices from less than $10 a pound at the start of the decade to a current price of $88 a pound.

Many countries, including the United States, are planning to build new nuclear reactors, and China is looking to imported uranium for the many nuclear reactors it will use to help propel its rapid economic growth.

Mining companies are looking to countries across Africa. in Western Africa is a leading uranium supplier and produced 3,434 metric tons in 2006.

In Southern Africa, the search focuses on the uranium-enriched crust of what geologists call the Karoo Basin. Namibia and South Africa are believed to hold 6 percent and 7 percent, respectively, of the world's recoverable uranium resources, trailing only Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada and the United States, according to the World Nuclear Association, a nuclear power industry advocacy group.

Up-to-date estimates of Zambia's potential are hard to pin down. Here, long-standing uranium exploration started by Italian and Japanese investors ground to a halt in the 1980s.

"With the price increase we've seen in the last couple of years, the uranium resource is now quite economical" to mine, said Harry Michael, chief operating officer of Equinox Minerals, an Australian and Canadian venture that is running Lumwana Mine, along Zambia's border with Congo. At Lumwana, uranium deposits mingle with copper, and will be mined as part of the same process.

Uranium mining could create valuable jobs in mining, transportation and other sectors in a country where about 20 percent of the work force is formally employed, Mwale, the deputy minister in Zambia, said.

Other than more developed South Africa, most nations in the region will remain, for the moment, suppliers of uranium rather than users of it. How much those countries will benefit from their exports will be a crucial question for policy makers.

The issue is sure get attention in Zambia, where the government has been promising for more than a year to increase taxes on foreign copper mining companies that secured minuscule tax rates early in the decade when copper prices were low, and are now reaping huge profits.

Even though nuclear power is seen by many as the environmentally friendly energy source of the future, industry officials still face opposition from some environmental groups and other skeptics.

Just east of Zambia, in Malawi, the government's grant of a uranium mining license to Paladin sparked complaints from the Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation. The Malawian government has a 15 percent stake in the project.

While the group acknowledged that the almost $200 million mining project could create jobs and profits, in a recent press statement it questioned its effect on the environment and whether "the economic benefits to Malawi through the introduction of uranium mining operations outweigh the social concerns and hazards associated with them."

Experts in the industry say that while radon gas emitted by uranium presents some radiation risks, modern technology makes them negligible to workers and the public.

Radiation exposure is low in open cut mining, and can be further lessened by enforcing strict hygiene regulations on miners using uranium oxide concentrate, according to the World Nuclear Association.

In an underground mine, modern ventilation systems are needed to keep miners safe, the association said.

In some regions, the increased demand for uranium has prompted security concerns, especially amid reports of illegal uranium mining across the border in Congo - the same area that produced some of the uranium used in the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

Counterterrorism experts worry about extremists getting radiation materials through a black market for nuclear components that operates despite attempts to tighten security. Growth in mining and processing could make security even more crucial.

Mwale, of the Zambia mining ministry, said that Zambia was being cautious.

"We are very particular, as a country, that there will be no lapses at any stage of the handling of the uranium product," he said.

Via: The Associated Press|By Joseph J. Schatz

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