|The Courier N° 127 May - June 1991- Dossier 'New' ACP Export Products - Country Reports Cape Verde - Namibia (EC Courier, 1991, 104 p.)|
|Namibia: Meeting challenge of nationhood|
The Rossing uranium mine in the heart of the Namib desert is a place which invites superlatives. For those of us who are used to existence on a more human scale, the first surprise, as the company plane from Windhoek starts its descent, is the sheer immensity of the hole which has been dug in the ground. Other attempts by man to leave his mark on the desert - the tarred road, the single track railway or the water-pumping stations - pale into insignificance beside the prodigious effort of shifting millions of tonnes of largely worthless rock, in order to extract precious grammes of energy-giving uranium.
The Rossing uranium deposit was discovered in the 1920s but it was not until 40 years later that a commercial evaluation led to the decision to begin mining. When full-scale production was reached in 1978, Rossing was the largest uranium mine in the world, with up to I million tonnes of rock being removed from the open pit every week.
Looking down into the pit, which like some amphitheatre of the gods, descends layer by layer to its flat surfaced bottom, one sees vehicles moving slowly but purposefully, laden with ore or returning empty from the dumping areas. There is nothing remarkable about them from a distance - it is only close up that one appreciates their dimensions indeed, the dumper trucks are so large, and their drivers are perched so high above the ground, that all conventional vehicles at the mine must be fitted with a device like an extended aeriel with a red if football on the end. This is to let the drivers know they are there!
The operation at Rossing has a number of stages. Once a dumper truck has been filled with rock, it is driven to a testing point in the pit itself where the concentration of uranium ore is measured. If the concentration is insufficient, the load is driven to a waste dump. Otherwise, it is taken for crushing, which is carried out in four stages at the plant attached to the mine. Various chemicals are used to extract the uranium from the ore and final processing converts the yellow cake which is produced into uranium oxide. This is the product which leaves the mine in steel drums for the overseas markets.
Rossing places considerable emphasis on safety and in addition to various protective measures, it performs regular i medical tests on its workers to ensure that they are not exposed to hazardous levels of radiation. In the mine itself, where exposure to radiation is at a very low level, the main concern is the dust raised by the mining operations. This is suppressed by vehicles which continuously spray the surface with water.
Most of the employees at the mine live in the nearby town of Arandis which was built and is still largely owned by the company. The housing is of a relatively high standard with families living in small bungalow-style units equipped with all basic utilities. One feature which may seem surprising in a town which is founded upon nuclear power generation is the solar panels which are fitted to all dwellings. This environmentally friendly way of supplying hot water to the inhabitants of Arandis is, however, easy to understand when one experiences the unremitting sun of the Namib desert. Single quarter units with communal lounges are available for workers without families. Rossing has also invested considerable resources in community services in Arandis, including education, skills training, small business ventures and sports and social facilities. Recently, there have been cutbacks in some areas which have provoked controversy but the company argues that this is essential given the current depressed market for its product.
There can be little doubt that Rossing is seen as a good employer by most of those who work for it. By local standards, remuneration is high and there is a very low turnover of staff (although this was not always the case). According to Sean James who is the assistant general manager at the mine, the company receives each month, some 1100 applications for only six to twelve vacancies.
For Namibia, the Rossing mine is extremely important. Before independence, it was seen by many as a villain of the apartheid system which evaded sanctions to exploit the countrys resources.
Indeed, many of the companys community-based investments were probably aimed at countering these criticisms. Nowadays, there is tacit relief that the sanctions efforts were not wholly successful since had the mine closed, it would almost certainly not have reopened and this would clearly have had serious consequences for the wider economy, given that the Rossing mine is responsible for a significant percentage of Namibias overall GDP.
The current situation in the market for uranium is giving some cause for concern. In particular, the opening up of Eastern Europe has led to the threat that uranium stockpiles from that source will become available at very low prices, as the countries involved close down nuclear installations and seek to obtain the hard currency which they so desperately need for investment in new areas. In addition, although Rossing survived the sanctions, it did not do so unscathed. The market in nuclear fuels is based to a large extent on long term contracts, and the effects of losing certain customers prior to independence will continue to be felt for some time. Despite these problems, Rossing is looking forward in the longer term to an upturn in the market. On present levels of extraction, the Rossing mine is expected to last until at least 2018. By then, the size of the hole in the Namib desert will be more than five square kilometres.