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Less than three years from now, Swakop Uranium’s Husab mine in Namibia will be operational, forever changing the face of mining in the country writes Laura Cornish.

Husab is set to be the world’s third largest uranium mine, which will see Namibia emerge as the second largest uranium producer in the world.

At full production, it is expected to mine and produce 15 million pounds of uranium oxide (U₃O₈) every year. This is a substantial amount, considering the world’s largest uranium mine, McArthur River in Canada, can produce up to 18 million pounds per annum.

At nameplate capacity, Husab will dwarf its operating competitors’ uranium output, substantially. This includes next door neighbour Rössing, the longest running uranium opencast mine (about 4 million pounds a year) and Langer Heinrich (around 5 million pounds a year).

It has cemented its place as one of the largest resource drilling projects globally, with over 800 000 m (or 800 km) of combined reverse circulation and diamond core drilling completed since April 2006.

The long-term uranium price outlook

Despite the concern over the uranium price at present, Swakop Uranium’s Grant Marais, director of communications and stakeholder involvement, says that even though the uranium price will remain low in the short term, the company believes that prices will increase substantially in the medium and long term.

“In fact, the World Nuclear Association 2011 Market Report reference scenario (post the Fukushima accident) shows a 48% increase in uranium demand from 2013 to 2023.” And the reason is simple Marias continues. “About 435 reactors with a combined capacity of over 370 GWe, require some 78 000 t of uranium oxide concentrate, containing 66 000 t of uranium from mines, or the equivalent from stockpiles or secondary sources, each year. This includes initial cores for new reactors coming on line.”

Countries like China and India are expanding their nuclear capacity, while Japan is gradually restarting reactors that were shut down after the Fukushima accident. China’s new built programme will give a five- to sixfold increase in nuclear capacity to at least 60 GWe by 2020 and a massive 400 GWe by 2050. The programme is seen as an alternative to the polluting, CO2 emitting coal-fired plants that supply 80% of the country’s electricity. India has a flourishing nuclear power programme and expects to have 14 600 MWe nuclear capacity on line by 2020. It aims to supply 25% of electricity from nuclear power by 2050.

“Bear in mind that each gigawatt electrical of increased new capacity will require about 150 tpa of extra uranium mine production routinely, and about 300 to 450 t of uranium for the first fuel load. Uranium mines worldwide currently supply some 68 800 t of uranium oxide, containing 58 344 t of uranium, about 86% of utilities’ annual requirements: a significant shortfall,” Marais explains.

Project stats and status

Swakop Uranium’s promise to deliver on what it has confirmed as the highest grade granite-hosted uranium deposit in Namibia, and one of the world’s most significant discoveries in decades, is sound. Unlike many mining companies that over promise at feasibility stage, the Husab project is well into execution phase and is on track to meet its production start-up target – the end of 2015. “At the end of June, we have passed the first quarter construction mark,” Marais notes

The project is on track to achieve the following milestones:

  • Q2, 2014: pre-stripping commences
  • Q2, 2015: 1 Mt ROM stockpile ready
  • Q3, 2015: permanent water supply available
  • Q3, 2015: cold commissioning of plant complete
  • Q4, 2015:  uranium oxide production starts
  • Q4, 2016: sustainable production.
The mine itself is being developed as a conventional, large-scale load-and-haul opencast mine, feeding directly into a conventional agitated acid lead process, incorporating ion exchange and solvent extraction circuits. Both are essential in extracting maximum uranium, upgrading the uranium concentration and preparing it for precipitation, while removing impurities.

The plant will process up to 15 Mtpa, producing approximately 15 million pounds of uranium oxide per annum, at an average 517 ppm grade for 20 years. There is also at least 280 Mt of reserves in the ground. The strip ratio is 6.2:1 – meaning just over 6 t of waste rock has to be removed to obtain 1 t of ore. For now, Husab will comprise two pits, each of which will be about 3 km long, 1 km wide and 410 m deep after 20 years of mining.

Despite the project’s enormity, there remains opportunity to increase the reserve base, although this is not an immediate priority. “ The focus is currently on the development of zones 1 and 2, while new defined resources will come from zones 3 to 5.” There is further exploration upside as well.

Water and power

Water supply is essential both for the construction period and for the operation over the mine’s lifespan.

Temporary water (during the construction period) will be sourced from the Rössing reservoir via a temporary pipeline. For this purpose, Swakop Uranium purchased a redundant pipeline from Areva (owner and developer of the Trekkopje uranium mine). Permanent water will be desalinated, either from the large-scale Areva desalination plant built to supply water to its mine, or from a new desalination plant that will be built near Swakopmund.

In terms of electricity, rented diesel generators will be used for the first year of the project, after which NamPower will supply a temporary 66 kV supply. About 17 MvA provides sufficient power to operate the electrically powered shovels and drills as well as construction power needs. Towards month 30 of the project, NamPower will provide permanent 220 kV powerline.

Boosting the Namibian economy

It is astounding to think that a single project can have such a dramatic impact on the economy, but in Africa, it is possible.

The Husab project is expected to contribute between 5 and 6% of total government income. It will pay between N$1.1 and 1.7 billion (R1.1 and 1.7 billion) per year in corporate tax and N$220 million per year in royalty payments. It will also contribute an additional N$7.3 billion, or 20%, to Namibian exports.

“Our mine will create 2 000 permanent employment opportunities (including contractors), resulting in at least another 8 000 jobs indirectly. Throughout the construction period, more than 6 000 jobs will be created,” states Marais. The number of people employed in the mining sector in Namibia will increase by 17%.

Ownership

Until April 2012, Swakop Uranium was a 100% subsidiary of Extract Resources, an Australian company listed on the Australian, Canadian and Namibian stock exchanges. During April 2012, Taurus Minerals of Hong Kong became the new owner, following a successful takeover of Extract Resources. Extract Resources has subsequently been delisted.

Taurus, an entity owned by China General Nuclear Power Company (CGNPC), Uranium Resources and the China-Africa Development Fund, has aggressively been pursuing Swakop Uranium’s Husab ore body since 2011; first by successfully launching a takeover bid for Extract’s majority shareholder, Kalahari Minerals, which owned 43% of Extract. This was followed by a US$2.2 billion (R22.1 billion) takeover offer for Extract.

In November 2012, the Namibian state-owned mining company, Epangelo, and Swakop Uranium finalised an agreement for the subscription of a 10% stake in Swakop Uranium in a deal valued at N$1.88 billion. At the signing ceremony, Zheng Keping, CEO of Swakop Uranium, said the Husab project has been brought to this stage of development in record time by a dedicated and professional management team, engineers and staff. “We are proud to confirm that more than N$1 billion has already been spent to get the project to its current state. Our budgets estimate a further N$20 billion will be required to bring the project to fruition.”

 

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