AREVA’S Mbako on 2011 uranium prospects

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December2010/January 2011
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THE inauguration of the very first sea water desalination plant in Namibia in April 2010 north of Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast by AREVA, not only sent shockwaves across the globe about the country’s booming nuclear industry, but also established a legacy for Namibia’s future.

Hilifa Mbako, AREVA Resources Namibia, Country Liaison Manager shares the company’s thoughts on the mining project that has put Namibia on the mining map. Mbako, in this interview discusses how the largest foreign direct investment ever made in Namibia; the Trekkopje mining project will bring a new definition to mining in Namibia with a forecasted average annual production of 3000 tonnes of uranium.

PF: Who is AREVA?

HM: AREVA is a large international industrial company offering reliable solutions for Carbon Dioxide (CO2) free power generation and electricity transmission and distribution.

As the worldwide leader in nuclear energy, it is involved in all stages of the sector, playing a prominent role in searching for and extracting uranium, fuel fabrication, construction and servicing nuclear reactors, treating and recycling spent nuclear fuel.

AREVA develops its activities within the field of renewable energies too (wind, biomass, hydrogen). It is also the world’s third largest equipment manufacturer and service and systems provider for the transmission and distribution of electricity.

AREVA’s activities, and its 71,000 employees world-wide, are helping to meet the 21st century greatest challenges: making energy available to all, protecting the planet and acting responsibly towards future generations.

In Namibia, Areva Resources Namibia (ARN) was established in 2007 following AREVA’s acquisition of UraMin Inc. and its portfolio of advanced stage exploration projects in Africa. These included the Trekkopje project along with South Africa and Central African Republic uranium projects.

The Board Chairperson of ARN is Martha Namundjebo-Tilahun. As Country Liaison Manager for ARN, I report to Enrico Barbaglia, the Vice President of Areva Resources Southern Africa under whose group management Namibia also resorts. Paul Day is the Mine Manager responsible for Trekkopje.

The entire planning, design, construction and commissioning of the mine (including the Desalination Plant) is presided over by Alain L’Hour, who has over 25-years experience in setting up mines around the world for AREVA. Alain’s last assignment before coming to Namibia was the establishment of a uranium mine in Kazakhstan. He is assisted by a dedicated team of experts from mainly Namibia, France South Africa and other African countries.

PF: Tell us about the Trekkopje Mine

HM: This is Namibia’s newest uranium mine, and is located at Trekkopje, approximately 70 kilometres northeast of Swakopmund. It is still under construction by Areva Resources Namibia and Areva Processing Namibia, and it will be the world’s first uranium mine to utilize the alkaline heap leach process.

AREVA progressed Trekkopje to the mine development stage, and a mining license was granted by the Namibian government in February 2009. This investment, together with the desalination plant which we built near Wlotzkasbakken, is well over the US$ 1 billion mark, making it the largest single mining development to date in Namibia.

The Trekkopje deposit is a very large, shallow, high tonnage, low-grade uranium deposit hosted by calcretised palaeochannels with a main mineralization that covers an area of approximately 14km x 3km.

Upon commissioning, Trekkopje Mine will process 100 000 of crushed ore per day with an expected production of 3 000 tonnes of U3O3 per year. Mining activities will include topsoil and overburden removal, drilling, blasting, loading, hauling and feeding of ore to the plant for treatment. The ore will be processed using heap leach methodology, commencing with a 40-day wash period using fresh water to remove chlorides, followed by an alkali leach. Yellowcake is recovered using the Nimsix IEX technology and two-stage precipitation. The leach pad facility will extend over 3km in length and 810m wide, making it one of the biggest heap operations in the world.

The use of the Atlantic Ocean as a water resource and the On-Off Heap Leach Pad method provides a smaller environmental footprint than most other mines in the region.

PF: How is the mine developing?

HM: Due to the pioneering nature of this alkaline leach application, we are developing the mine in three distinct phases, the Mini, Midi and Maxi projects, covering, respectively, the technology demonstrator and industrial and full scale process development stages. The Midi project, for which Bateman Engineering was the contractor, has already been handed over to us.

The Maxi project is currently on schedule to ensure that the first ore stacking will start in the first quarter of 2012. This will be an open pit mining operation, followed by crushing; screening, agglomeration and a carbonate/bicarbonate heap leach process, which is in turn followed by ion-exchange peroxide (UO4) recovery.

PF: How are Namibians involved in the Trekkopje project?

HM: Of the all the employees currently engaged in the development of Trekkopje, 92% are Namibians. Recruitment of local people is therefore a deliberate strategy, underpinned by people development in the uranium industry which is currently booming. There are Namibian understudies for all expatriates in operation, and these expatriates will hand over their knowledge to Namibians. We have embarked on in-house training through a learning programme for operators. In addition, we have an extensive bursary scheme, whereby Namibian bursars are currently studying at various levels at universities in France, Namibia and South Africa.

A state-of-the-art Training Centre was re-launched from Swakopmund to Trekkopje Mine to fulfil the needs of employees and skills development.

Further, an integrated procurement strategy has been employed, using a progressive vendor database. While a procurement strategy was developed to ensure that all procurement is done from the best available global vendors and contractors, the strategy also aims to maximize the social footprint of AREVA in Namibia by using, where possible, Namibian contractors. We are, however, committed to world class safety standards and this has been emphasized by incentivising a strong safety culture for all contractors involved in the project.

With respect to ensuring Namibian participation, AREVA has initiated a joint-venture with the new state-owned mining company known as Epangelo and other Namibian entities. These partnerships will be dedicated to finding new ventures, thereby ensuring broad-based Namibian partnership in the uranium mining industry. The benefits from such joint ventures are enormous. Apart from the obvious local economic empowerment, it can bring about technology transfers and skills development, amongst others. I trust very much that our ongoing efforts for Namibianisation in this partnership will go a long way in opening up future avenues for business interaction and joint ventures with AREVA.

AREVA’s social responsibility and solidarity actions started almost on day one, with substantial investment in the educational and social fabric of the neighbouring Spitzkoppe community.

This involvement has now been replicated to the Arandis and Swakopmund communities on an ongoing basis. I believe that at AREVA we know a great deal about the rigours of the development agenda and that companies like ourselves should continue to play a positive role in improving the lives of those areas that we operate in. This belief, which is core to our values, is an enduring one and, I am proud to say, is widely shared by my colleagues.

PF: Of course the desalination plant was one of the major highlights of AREVA in 2010, but why the plant and what excites you most about this initiative?

HM: AREVA was very proud to announce the inauguration of the Erongo seawater desalination plant in April this year, the very first of its kind in Namibia and Africa south of the Sahara. This project is part of a broader investment in Namibia’s mining industry, and more specifically in our uranium mining sector. It is therefore a testimony to the confidence that we have in our economy. It signifies foresight and business acumen, engineering excellence and unwavering faith and commitment to social and environmental responsibility in Namibia.

The plant will produce 20 million cubic meters of potable water, thus in sufficient quantities to allow AREVA to operate the Trekkopje mine without pumping any water from the soil. Negotiations are underway with NamWater to allow excess production to serve other mines and local communities.

PF: Having seen 2010 come and go what are the benefits of nuclear energy?

HM: For decades, fossil fuels have been man’s main source of energy. But specialists are in agreement: these energies – oil, gas, and coal – are becoming exhausted.

It is estimated that there are 40 to 60 years’ worth of hydrocarbons (oil and gas) left, if worldwide consumption continues at the current rate.

Consumption is highly increasing, and this trend has led to a rise in the price of hydrocarbons. As long as this is the case, the agreement held by hydrocarbon-producing countries (60% of oil reserves and 40% of gas reserves are located in the Middle East) regarding volumes will maintain prices at a high level.

Moreover, using hydrocarbon and coal for fuel leads to the release of CO2 into the atmosphere which is one of the main greenhouse gases (CHG) responsible for climate change. At a time when man is urgently looking to rectify climate change, a real energy revolution is needed, using energies which do not have an impact on the climate (nuclear, wind, biomass, hydraulic, solar, etc.)

Nuclear energy use requires highly technical knowledge and expertise, but it releases almost no CHG into the atmosphere. This is one of the advantages that are making it an essential component of worldwide energy mix.

For example, almost 80% of France’s electricity comes from nuclear power plants. This source of energy, which has been used in industry throughout the world for the last 50 years, is now developing and expanding alongside renewable energies. PF