WINDHOEK, Dec. 2 — Headsprings Uranium’s representative and Uranium One President Andrey Shutov speak on the Industry as a whole in Namibia but also on the company.
This year, world uranium prices demonstrate a good recovery dynamic after an almost decade-long recession, although its current level is still not compatible with the 2000s highs. How sustainable, in your opinion, is the current rise in uranium prices? May this process be considered as an element in a new “commodities supercycle” in the world economy?
Indeed, in recent months there has been an increase in prices for natural uranium, the crucial raw material for the nuclear power industry. The trend towards a gradual rise in prices will continue in the long term. The main driver of this is expected to be the inevitable decline in low-cost uranium production.
Clearly, demand will continue to grow as new nuclear power plants are built. According to the World Nuclear Association forecast, by 2030 the global nuclear power plant capacity should increase by 70 GW, up to 462 GW. Much of this dynamic derives from China with its largest nuclear energy development program in the world. Other nations, surely, will also make their contribution, taking into account some “newcomers”. Today the state corporation Rosatom is constructing or planning to construct nuclear power units in several countries, which previously lacked those facilities. In the future, various types of small and medium-sized reactors will also contribute to an increase in demand for uranium.
Today the global community has returned to discussing the prospects for nuclear energy, as this kind of energy is stable and “green”. Some European nations intend to include nuclear power generation in their green investment classification. During the recent UN international summit on climate change COP26 in Glasgow, prominent experts, including IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi, stressed the significant role of nuclear power in the task of decarbonizing the world economy. Therefore, securing the resources for nuclear generation, i.e. uranium, is certainly essential to achieve the world’s climate targets.
What is your vision on the importance of uranium mining and export for the Namibian economy in the future? What factors determine the current attractiveness of the sector for investments?
Uranium mining is principal for the country’s economy: in 2020, Namibia ranked third in terms of its volume after Kazakhstan and Australia. Uranium was among the six minerals that have been declared strategic by the Namibian government. Of course, the development of new deposits will make a significant contribution to ensuring the economic security of Namibia and will contribute to the further sustainable development of the nation.
Could you tell us the history of the Headspring Investments uranium mining program in Namibia? What is the current stage of the project? Has it already been confirmed that it would be possible to successfully apply in-situ leaching (ISL) technologies in Namibia, which are considered to be much less hazardous to the environment than open-pit mining?
The project was launched in 2010, when, at the initiative of the Namibian side, geologists from Rosatom and the Russian Institute of Mineral Resources identified promising uranium deposits of the Kazakh type. Indeed, these deposits could be developed via the most advanced, environmentally friendly, and economically viable in-situ leaching method.
2019 was a crucial period for the furthering of our project. The geological exploration works carried out with a small amount of drilling resulted in a potentially large uranium deposit being identified. In 2021, the Pre-Feasibility Study project confirmed the positive economic result in the future. Now we are in the process of approval with the national regulator.
What are the details of the ISL method? Could you give us some information about its application in those countries where Uranium One operates?
Uranium One has been successfully using this method for many years at joint ventures with NAC Kazatomprom JSC in Kazakhstan. As a leader in the production of natural uranium, this Asian country provides more than 40% of its global volume (19,800 tons in 2020). All uranium in Kazakhstan is mined using the ISL method.
In addition, Rosatom’s Mining Division has successfully used the ISL method in uranium mining in two regions of Russia, Kurgan Region, and Buryatia. The IAEA has recognized this technology as the most environmentally friendly. Currently, the share of uranium production by the ISL method has reached 60% worldwide. Indeed, if we compare this technology with open-pit or underground mining methods, there are significant advantages. There is no change in the geological condition of the subsurface, as no mining mass is excavated. There are no subsidence and earth surface disturbances, no dumping of off-balance ores and waste rock, and no tailings dams. The natural radioactivity of the ore body remains deep underground. In 2020-2021 alone, Russian regulators approved projects to develop three uranium deposits in Buryatia and Trans-Urals using the ISL method, noting that “it is the most environmentally safe and cost-effective mining method”.
Compared to conventional open-pit or underground mining, the ISL method is internationally recognized as the most sustainable mining technology available. ISL also offers lower capital and operating costs. In effect, the natural landscape suffers minimal changes, no waste rock residues (dumps) or tailings with ore processing waste are formed. Groundwater at the site of uranium mining is restored overtime to its initial condition. After decommissioning, the wells would be abandoned, the technological units would be dismantled, soils would be reclaimed. Thus, the territory is ready for further use for other purposes, e.g., agriculture.
Would you be so kind to comment on the recent media reports regarding the revocation of drilling permits for Headspring Investments? Is it true that the company committed numerous violations on spot?
Yes, we have received a letter from the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform (MAWLR) containing the revocation of drilling permits. The document contains information on the organization of work in violation of the established requirements.
On October 15, a field check from MAWLR arrived at the site. During its conduct, the officials prohibited Headspring Investments personnel from being present when interviewing contractors and landowners. The results of the check have not yet been provided. After receiving the verification report, with the specific claims identified, we will provide an official response.
Anyway, we are ready to assure that all works on the site are carried out by Headspring Investments in strict accordance with the laws of Namibia. Let me remind you that Headspring Investments has been conducting exploration work in Namibia since 2010 and has 8 exploration licenses. To date, investments in the project have already amounted to more than $ 28 million, more than 100 Namibian citizens are provided with jobs.
Our company has always complied with all the rules stipulated by Namibian law. According to the results of the work carried out, the company provides information to the Ministry of Mines and Energy on a regular basis. During the entire period of explorations, the ministry has not received any instructions or complaints concerning the quality and conformity of the work performed.
Moreover, hydrogeological surveys at the Stampriet Artesian Basin near Leonardville Village (a specially protected water area) required a separate permit from MAWLR. In 2019-21, permission was obtained to drill 78 hydrogeological wells. 37 wells have already been drilled in strict accordance with the issued permits. The company regularly informs drilling contractors about the permit conditions.
Is it true that only 80% of the uranium will be successfully mined within the Headspring Investments project, and the remaining 20% will remain in the ground and pose an environmental risk?
For now, it is incorrect to make such statements. Development has not yet begun, so 100% of uranium is still in the ground. Indeed, part of the reserves may reside in a poorly soluble form or in zones with low permeability to solutions. But in practice, it is usually possible to extract more than 90% of the uranium. The unrecovered uranium remaining in the subsoil has the same effect on the ecosystem as the uranium that was in the ore before the start of leaching.
Are there any activities currently being implemented to manage the potential environmental impact of the project? What policies of this kind does the company plan to set in the future?
Effective management of social, economic, and environmental impacts is of crucial priority for Uranium One in all ongoing projects. We rely primarily on generally recognized international norms and standards, ensuring strict compliance with the requirements of the legislation of the countries and regions of our presence.
With the participation of expert institutions, we have drawn up a guide for the management of impacts – the Environmental Management Plan (EMP). It includes the results of baseline studies, a scale of potential impacts, and a set of measures to prevent or mitigate them. These are measures for the preservation of flora and fauna, responsible waste management, protection of surface and ground waters, ensuring radiation safety, preventing negative impacts on the health of the project personnel and the population, etc. In order to control compliance with the EMP requirements, regular monitoring is carried out, including mandatory reporting to the Nature Conservation Commissioner of the Ministry of Nature and Tourism of Namibia.
To ensure radiation safety, a special Radiation Management Plan has been developed. We are currently conducting an additional Environmental Impact Assessment – a study on the impact of the ISL method on groundwater in the region. The leading research institutes and companies from Kazakhstan and South Africa are involved in the work. In effect, we will receive a comprehensive assessment of the potential impact on the environment.
How fundamentally justified are the recent concerns of the Agricultural Union of Namibia that the Headspring Investments project will negatively impact the Stampriet artesian basin, which extends to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa?
The uranium deposit is indeed located within one of the aquifers. So, avoiding contamination of the water used by the local population is the highest priority for us. Therefore, in order to effectively manage water resources, a study of the characteristics of the aquifer was carried out, as well as the model of groundwater flow on a regional scale.
The modeling results showed that the total rate of groundwater flow in the region is quite low – just 1-3 meters per year, while the rate of movement of man-made waters is three times lower. The area of movement of technogenic solutions will initially contribute to the deposition of uranium, and the resulting sediment will prevent the spread of pollution. At the same time, the solutions will be cleaned in a natural way. Thus, the good design is safe and reliably preventing any mixing of aquifers.
What other measures to achieve sustainable development could Namibia expect from your company?
Currently, we run several corporate social responsibility initiatives and programs. They are designed in collaboration with local communities, non-governmental organizations, government agencies, and other stakeholders.
When implementing these programs, we focus on the specific needs of the local population in the regions where Uranium One operates. Typically, the company seeks to encourage and support community development initiatives to improve local education and health care. These are, for example, recruitment and training programs to ensure the maximum level of employment and improve the skills of local residents. We also welcome initiatives aimed at developing local business and entrepreneurship, ensuring the availability and quality of local suppliers of services and materials. We also implement initiatives to repair local roads, to equip and improve schools and health facilities, and conservation initiatives to protect, strengthen and preserve local ecosystems, the environment, and wildlife resources.
What kind of environmental initiatives in Namibia is Uranium One able to offer in case its uranium mining project is approved by the government? Is it possible for Namibia, say, to reproduce Rosatom previous expertise in the fighting against poachers in Tanzania and South Africa?
The uranium mining project in Namibia is among the most promising for Uranium One. Therefore, it is especially important for us that its implementation should take into account the needs and expectations of all stakeholders, primarily the local population. In so doing, we carry out the procedures established by the legislation of Namibia for interaction with all stakeholders and also strive to use the positive experience gained in other projects.
Rosatom and Uranium One as its subsidiary have already launched several successful programs for environment protection in Africa. For instance, Mkuju River project in Tanzania, which is being implemented by Mantra Tanzania Ltd., a subsidiary of Uranium One, is demonstrative in terms of interaction with local communities, as well as preserving the ecological balance of the territories of our presence.
Starting from the preliminary stage of work, Mantra Tanzania successfully performs a number of significant social and infrastructural tasks, including road construction and water supply, donation of specialized equipment for schools and hospitals, inclusive initiatives for schoolchildren and farmers with disabilities, programs to support local suppliers and provide employment to the population, etc. The launch of a massive anti-poaching program with the Tanzanian government has contributed to a 70% reduction in illegal hunting in the region since 2013.
The more recent example is the international innovative project Rhisotope, aimed at combating the extermination of rhinos. To do this, mildly radioactive isotopic marks are inserted into the horns of rhinos. This is expected to help reduce demand for horns as well as increase the likelihood of detecting contraband. Experts are confident that with more than 10,000 radiation detection devices installed at various border crossing points, transporting the horn will no longer be attractive and lucrative for poachers.
We are carefully studying the flora and fauna around a potential uranium field in Namibia and, I hope, will be able to apply our experience in this country as well. We are concerned with the negative climate change leading to the increasing desertification of Namibia and the reduction of its energy and agricultural potential. In tight interaction with the local communities, our sustainable solutions can be used to mitigate the effects of global warming in Namibia.