Nambia-based uranium mine Langer Heinrich is one of two new generation (conventional) uranium projects in the world, and has been successfully expanding ever since it first started producing, writes Laura Cornish.

Ongoing expansions

Located at the foot of the Langer Heinrich Mountain in the Namib Desert in western Namibia, the Langer Heinrich mine is in close proximity to the major port of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. It is 100% owned by Paladin Energy, a uranium-focused company listed on the Australian, Canadian (Toronto) and Namibian stock exchanges.

Considering it was the company’s first uranium-producing mine – and remains the largest producer within Paladin’s two operational mine portfolio – Langer Heinrich will retain its flagship status for the foreseeable future.

“The mine is truly a success story, considering it has undergone three major expansions since its start-up production date in 2008,” says Paladin Energy’s executive general manager, Mark Chalmers.

Having reached its initial production of 2.6 Mlb/year of uranium oxide (U3O8) in 2008, the mine completed a Stage 2 expansion to 3.7 Mlb/year in 2010 and, most recently, completed a Stage 3 expansion to 5.2 Mlb/year.

“Stage 3 was initiated in the same year (2010) that we achieved our Stage 2 nameplate capacity, and has been delivering at its designed nameplate capacity, at the 5.3 Mlb/year rate, for the last three months already,” Chalmers continues.

Major engineering and construction company Aveng, through its mining engineering house subsidiary E&PC, was responsible for the plant expansion EPCM contract.

With a number of pits mined out since startup, Langer Heinrich will look to dispose its tailings material in-pit within the next 12 months, which will help reduce the mine’s environmental footprint.

“Although we have started with the feasibility study work aimed at commencing with a Stage 4 expansion, increasing production up to 10 Mlb/year, we have decided not to complete all aspects of the study at present,” Chalmers explains.

The reason for this is two-fold – the first being that although uranium prices remain fairly stable at present, Paladin would look to see it increase by at least US$20/lb (R164.74/lb) to ensure another expansion would be economically viable.

The current average price for uranium has softened over recent months, settling around US$50/lb. “The short- to mid-term outlook for uranium is expected to increase to about US$70/lb, although we could ideally like to see it stabilise closer to the US$100/lb mark,” Chalmers mentions.

“The second reason is that we are also investigating and exploring opportunities to optimise our recently commissioned Stage 3 plant equipment with regard to further uprating of process capabilities and thus output,” Chalmers adds.

“While the larger plant is running and functioning well, we believe there is definite opportunity to optimise on the equipment and increase the plant’s output capacity.”

The large-scale pit averages depths of 60 to 70 m and is expected to achieve a lifespan of at least 20 years

It has been a relatively smooth transition between expansion phases, considering the mine has 15 MW of secured commercial power (as well as on-site generators for emergencies).

Although water is a constraint the desert country, the mine is connected to the main water pipeline from Swakopmund. “We do need to ensure that we manage our water consumption carefully and conserve our usage wherever possible.”

The reasons behind the expansions

Because Langer Heinrich is such a large deposit (with a 75 000 t U3O8 resource), it has the capacity to produce at large economies of scale. Its average grade – about 600 ppm (parts per million) – is relatively low in comparison with global uranium mines, further necessitating its large mining volumes. The operation is viable and financially profitable at these grades, particularly with the cutting edge technologies that have been applied, Chalmers notes. Compared with Rio Tinto’s mature Rössing uranium mine nearby, Langer Heinrich grades are high.

Expanding the mine in stages means the mine is able to generate cash to provide capital funding for expansion costs.

Sidebar: Kayelekera – the second new generation uranium mine

Paladin (Africa) is a member of the Paladin Energy group of companies and is the corporate entity that holds the group’s interest in its second operating mine, Kayelekera. The Malawi government holds a 15% shareholding in this company.

The Kayelekera mine is located in northern Malawi, 52 km west of the provincial town of Karonga and 575 km north of the capital city, Lilongwe.

Kayelekera was officially opened in April 2009 and has now reached design production rates of 3.3 Mlb/year of U3O8. The mine’s lifespan is eight years at the 3.3 Mlb/year rate with potential for a further 1.1 Mlb/year U3O8 for another four years. There is also scope to increase the mine life with ongoing exploration in the local area.

Sidebar 2: The remaining deposits and prospects

  • Agadez: Niger
  • Michelin: Canada
  • Valhalla/Skal: Australia
  • Bigrlyi:Australia
  • Angela/Pamela: Australia
  • Manyingee: Australia (potentially set to be Paladin’s third operational mine with resource drilling currently under way)
  • Oobagooma: Australia

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