Life after the closure of Rössing Uranium

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ARANDIS, 09 April 2010 - Rossing Uranium Limited's open pit is pictured during the media tour of the mine on Friday. Rossing is now the third largest open pit mine in the world. (Photo by: Abigail Raubenheimer) NAMPA

Desie Heita

Windhoek-It is official, or so it appears: Rössing Uranium, the world’s largest open pit uranium mine – which also happens to have been in operation for the longest period – is scheduled to cease operations in 2025.

Rössing’s managing director, Werner Duvenhage, says: “There are currently no drilling initiatives and existing mineral resources, which could expand mining beyond this period into the next decade.”

However, this does not mean Rio Tinto, the majority shareholder in Rössing Uranium, is done with Namibia. Rio Tinto is looking to a new investment in the mining sector, specifically mining copper in the two Kavango regions.

For now, Duvenhage says, there is not much to be said about the exploration activities taking place in Kavango. “It is really the early days [of exploration], there is nothing we can say at this moment,” he says.

As for the closure of Rössing Uranium, Rio Tinto is ready as year 2025 approaches –less than ten years away. Money is being put aside each year in a kitty that has been set up to rehabilitate the environment around the Arandis Mountains, where the mine is located. As of now this fund holds some N$600 million, which although it may appear as a lot of money, is not nearly sufficient to deal with the projected costs. Rio Tinto’s budget is set at N$1,5 billion. That includes the total cost of closure, excluding retrenchments costs, according to Duvenhage.

“The mine will make additional payments to the fund each year for the eventual total cost of closure by 2025,” he says.

Preparations also include a medical study – an epidemiological study – on all employees who have worked on the mine since 1976 until 2010, as well as anyone who had worked at the mine for more than 12 months continuously.

Duvenhage says the study aims to look at what has been the impact, – if any – of occupational radiation exposure at Rössing Uranium Mine on workers’ health. The study is being done by the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Manchester in the UK in collaboration with the Namibian and South African cancer registries, who would help identify cancer case studies.

“All cases will be identifying [people] who have been diagnosed with cancers that could potentially have resulted from working at the mine,” said Duvenhage.

The screening looks at respiratory cancers, cancers of the blood and blood-forming organs, as well as brain and kidney cancers.

For each identified case a number of employees known not to have been diagnosed with any of the listed cancers would be selected as the control group and compared to those diagnosed with cancer, to allow for a judgment of “whether an excess occupational exposure might have caused an excess cancer incidence”. “At the mine we are working to quantify the occupational exposure of all workers in the cohort. All data used in the study is anonymised to ensure that no personal information is conveyed to anyone, even the researchers. This is achieved by way of a data management protocol that ensures information is coded before it is transmitted for analysis,” Duvenhage explained.

An external advisory committee, consisting of members of the Mineworkers Union of Namibia, the Namibian Uranium Association, the Ministry of Health and Social Services and the Ministry of Mines and Energy, has been appointed to provide community oversight and input to the project. The collection of data and subsequent analysis is expected to take approximately two years, after which the study will be submitted for publication in the internationally peer-reviewed scientific literature. The actual study was able to kick off in 2015, building on the scope determined in 2014.

Rio Tinto Mining and Exploration is also the holder of three prospecting licenses (EPL 5606, 5712 5713) and has entered into a joint venture with H Sands Trading Enterprises cc, known as Rundu Exploration (Pty) Ltd (Rundu Exploration) on the fourth EPL, located in the middle of the other three areas under exploration.

The first phase of exploration started in early 2015 with airborne geophysical surveys, and based on the observations of the equipment trucked to Kavango, Rio Tinto appears to have now moved into the second phase of drilling for samples in the specified areas. – A longer version of this article was first published in New Era Weekend on April 29.

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