Namibian drought hits uranium mines

By Felix Njini Time of article published Nov 20, 2013

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Windhoek - Uranium mines operated by companies including Rio Tinto and Paladin Energy in Namibia face a water shortage as a drought in the country curbs supply to operations as well as three coastal towns.

Volumes from the Omaruru Delta aquifer, about 200km northwest of the capital, Windhoek, had declined to 4 million cubic metres this year from 9 million cubic metres a year earlier, said Nehemia Abraham, the under-secretary for water and forestry in the Department of Agriculture.

The source is in the semi-arid Erongo region, which supplies the towns of Swakopmund, Walvis Bay and Henties Bay and suffers from severe shortages. Water from a desalination plant owned by Areva, the country’s first such facility, is not enough to meet the needs of Paladin’s Langer Heinrich uranium mine, China Guangdong Nuclear Power’s Husab uranium project and Rio Tinto’s Rossing complex.

“The water-supply situation at the coastal area has become too critical,” Abraham said by phone yesterday. “Mining companies in the area will have to operate with less water. We are reviewing the situation now and from end of November we might be unable to get enough water from the aquifer to supply to mines.”

Langer Heinrich spokeswoman Ratonda Murangi did not immediately respond to e-mailed questions. Botha Ellis, a spokesman for Rossing, directed queries to Namibia Water, the country’s state-owned utility known as Namwater.

Rossing’s total water requirement for 2012 was 7.48 million cubic metres, 41 percent of which was for fresh water, while the rest was recycled, according to its website.

The three towns used about 4.5 million cubic metres and there was no spare capacity from the aquifer, known as Omdel, Abraham said.

Areva, the biggest nuclear reactor builder, signed an agreement in August with Namwater for it to supply 10 million cubic metres to the three uranium mines from its desalination facility. The plant was built to supply the Trekkopje complex, which was mothballed last year after the fuel’s price fell.

The government of the country, which is enduring its worst drought in three decades, said in August that it would name a private investor to build a second desalination plant, which would cost N$1.5 billion (R1.5bn).

The state was evaluating three bids for the project, which would have the capacity of 20 million cubic metres annually, Abraham said.

“We want this plant to be in operation yesterday because of the serious water crisis the Erongo region is facing. We can’t take chances; all the financial, technical capacity and social issues pertaining to this project have to be properly looked into.”

Construction of the facility will start only next year.

Rio Tinto shares declined 1 percent to £32.32 (R527.83) by 8.12am in London, extending the drop this year to 8 percent. Paladin fell 3.7 percent to A$0.39 (R3.71) in Sydney. – Bloomberg

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