Namibia Halts Russian Uranium Exploration Over Environmental Concerns

Namibia has halted Russia’s state atomic energy agency’s uranium exploration over concerns about potential contamination of underground water.

Namibia is Africa’s biggest producer of the nuclear fuel, the world’s second, and in 2019 granted Russia’s Rosatom subsidiary, One Uranium, exploration rights. But this month, Namibia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Land Reform refused to grant it a water use permit required for mining, saying the company failed to prove its uranium extraction method would not cause pollution.

Namibia’s Minister for Agriculture, Water, and Land Reform Calle Schlettwein told VOA this month they could not grant Russia’s atomic energy agency a permit for uranium mining.

Namibia, Africa’s biggest uranium producer and the world’s second, in 2019 gave Rosatom exploration rights.

But its local subsidiary, One Uranium, still requires a water use permit to begin mining.

Schlettwein said no further permit would be granted because the method of mining the company proposed, known as the in-situ leaching, was raising environmental concerns. 

“The permits that we’d given had conditions to make sure that we can monitor the activities and that we can ensure ourselves continuously that no risk to the aquifer is happening,” Schlettwein said. “Now, unfortunately, the company did not conform to the conditions and we have now suspicion that the mining operation, which is called in situ leaching … mining, in fact, I see there is risk to the aquifer by polluting it.”

In situ mining involves recovering minerals by dissolving them in an acid pumped into the ground and then pumping the solution back to the surface. 

Schlettwein said farmers in Namibia’s eastern Omaheke region had petitioned against the technique.

Roy Miller is a retired underground water geologist and member of the management committee of the Stampriet Aquifer Uranium Mining Association (SAUMA).

He also petitioned against in-situ mining and read his statement to VOA.

“Mine solutions do escape because of improper operations, leaks, equipment breakdowns, borehole problems, and geological problems. Spreading mine solutions become a major threat to the safety of the drinking water way beyond the confines of the mine area,” Miller said.

One Uranium’s spokesperson, Riaan Van Rooyen dismissed the concerns.

He told VOA the extraction method was used in Kazakhstan, the world’s largest uranium producer, without harming the environment. 

“Because it is a fairly new way in Africa, there is no such mine. It is the fear of the unknown that is mostly of concern for the local farmers,” Van Rooyen said.

Van Rooyen said halting the project would deprive one of Namibia’s poorest regions of about 600 jobs and a $55 million investment.

The Russian company in November took a delegation of national and community leaders and media from Namibia to Kazakhstan to show them how in-situ leaching works.

Petra Witbooi is a constituency councilor in Leonardville, where the project was proposed to take place.

She was on the trip to Kazakhstan and supports the project to help boost gross domestic product (GDP).

“The advantages definitely outweigh the disadvantages and it will … include much-needed employment, contribution to the GDP of our republic..,” Witbooi said. 

Namibian activists maintain the mining project is not worth the risk. 

Retired geologist Miller says allowing in-situ mining could create the perception that Namibian water, meat, fruit, and vegetables might be contaminated.

The International Monetary Fund says about 70% of Namibians depend on agriculture, though it contributes only 7% of GDP.

Namibia’s Uranium Institute says the mining sector in 2018 contributed about 17% of GDP, with uranium making up about 1.5%.

Rosatom’s subsidiary is expected to appeal Namibia’s decision against the water permit for uranium mining.    

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