Nuclear Industry in South Africa

Uranium Mining: South Africa features a variety of landscapes: deserts, dry savannahs, bushland, rainforests, lagoons, wetlands high plateaus and high mountains. Additional to that there is more than 2000 km of coastline with beautiful beaches.

In South Africa, uranium is most usually associated with gold or copper ores. Up until the recent surge in the price of uranium, the generally low grades of uranium at the gold and copper mines did not make uranium extraction a commercially viable proposition. Therefore, it has been discarded as waste rock or in mill tailings. Thus, although the grades are typically low, ranging from 0.002 – 0.08% Uranium, the resources are easily and cheaply extractable, which makes their future exploitation more attractive.

During the 1970s, the South African government had secretly embarked on the development of 6 atomic bombs under the guise of nuclear fuel enrichment. Thus there was significant interest in Namibia (then a South African Trust Territory) from South African mining companies to find primary sources of uranium to supplement the low-grade output from the South African gold mines. Thus companies such as Anglo American, General Mining and Gold Fields carried out extensive exploration for uranium in the central Namib up until the 1980s, but no new mines were ever developed. Thereafter the uranium price slowly declined and even the well established Rössing Mine considered early closure several times during the 1990s and early 2000s.

In the region around Johannesburg and Krugersdorp, a densely populated area of 400 square kilometers is surrounded by six billion tons of radioactive tailings. Tons of uranium enter the water cycle. The already highly set maximum radiation levels regulated by law are surpassed by five times in this area.

Earthlife Africa Johannesburg writes: Around Johannesburg the impact of uranium mining is widely detectable. Huge parts of its population struggling with its Legacy. About 2.5 million people are living close to South Africa’s radioactive and toxic mine dump sites, containing high levels of uranium, sulphates, cyanides. The toxic dust finds its way into the food chain by acid mine drainage, leakages and radioactive dust. The sludge is being used for cosmetics, Kids play soccer on radioactive dust, people use polluted water for irrigation. The number of disabled kids is alarmingly high. The industry behind is escaping its responsibilities.
The Council for Nuclear Safety (CNS) estimates that at least 10,000 mineworkers, or roughly one in 20 mineworkers, have been exposed to radiation levels that exceeded safety limits. In 1998, according to CNS estimates, 1000 employees at Harmony Gold mine were exposed to radiation levels that in some instances were three times higher than the annual dose limit of 20 mSv a year.

The South African Institute of International Affairs says: Today, Africa accounts for 18% of world uranium production with mining operations taking place in Namibia (8% of global production), Niger (7%), Malawi (1.2%) and South Africa (1%). Most of South Africa’s uranium output is a by-product of gold or copper mining. The country is Africa’s fourth- and the world’s twelfth-largest producer, with 1% of total production. While production fell by 23% between 2000 and 2010 from 758 tU to 583 tU, South Africa contains 4.6% of the world’s most accessible uranium, and possesses the second largest reserves in the world. Despite this potential, relatively little extraction takes place: interest in uranium mining in South Africa is confined to domestic (AngloGold Ashanti Ltd), Indian (South African/Indian company Shiva Uranium Pty) and Canadian (Toronto-based First Uranium Corporation) firms.

In July 2016, the Karoo uranium mining developers Australian Tasman Pacific Minerals Limited and the South African Lukisa JVCo have announced the withdrawal of their joint application for mining rights to 570,000 hectares of Central Karoo farmlands in the Western Cape. “Tasman has therefore withdrawn all its mining rights applications lodged in the Western and Northern Cape and lodged new Mining Rights applications in the Western Cape limited to areas that are located within the original Eastern and Quaggasfontein Blocks.”
Strefan Cramer from Bread of the World commends: “On several occasions uranium has been mined already in the past, although these mines were usually short-lived. Karoo uranium is found in so-called Palaeo-Channels, hosted in riverbed sandstones of the Permian age. This is the reason why the deposits are in narrow lines across the Karoo. Most uranium-bearing sandstones are at a shallow depth of 5 to 50 metres below the current surface and will thus be excavated in open pit mining. The uranium deposits are scattered over large zone of 200 by 300 kilometers which will necessitate trucking of ores over poorly constructed dust roads for hundreds of kilometers to reach the Central Processing Plant.”

(Source: Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, South African Institute of International Affairs, Southern African Institute for Environmental Assessment, uranium network, wise-uranium, Bread of the World)