Saturday, December 29, 2007

Uranium exploration spurred by hunger for cleaner, cheaper energy

December 29, 2007

LUSAKA (Zambia): Resurgent global interest in nuclear power has made Zambia, a southern African nation better known for its vast copper reserves, into a hotbed of uranium exploration.

The search for uranium in Zambia is part of a larger wave of uranium exploration and mining across mineral-rich southern Africa that is raising hopes of new jobs and tax revenue, but also sparking debates over safety and security. Many countries are looking for cleaner and cheaper alternatives to oil and coal power, and uranium prices are high after a decades-long slump.

African Energy Resources Ltd., an Australian-owned mining outfit, is drilling on the southern border with Zimbabwe. Canadian-owned Equinox Ltd. said in November that there is high-grade uranium in the Lumwana open pit copper mine in northwestern Zambia, and hopes to begin stockpiling it next year.

Zambia’s government is now completing regulations to cover the mining, processing and export of uranium products, says Maxwell Mwale, Deputy Minister of Mines and Mineral Development for large scale mining projects.

Elsewhere in Africa, exploration is ramping up across the border in Botswana. Namibia’s uranium exporting industry has seen a revival, with a $112 million expansion of the long-running Rossing open mine and the opening of a new mine in 2006 by Australian-owned Paladin Energy Limited.

It’s the “biggest push on uranium exploration since the late ’70s,” says Alasdair Cooke, executive chairman of African Energy Resources, which has poured $8 million into its exploration project with Albidon Mining Ltd., in southern Zambia over the past three years. “With the global energy market coming under so much pressure [from] new economies, uranium has become part of the mix.”

The scramble for uranium marks a stark turnaround after a decades-long industry slump brought on by the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl that made nuclear power a dirty phrase, and the end of the nuclear arms race of the Cold War.

Concerns over climate change and pollution created by coal, along with high oil prices, have sent uranium prices from less than $10 per pound at the start of the decade to a current price of about $92 per pound. Many countries, including the U.S., are planning to build new nuclear reactors, and China is looking to imported uranium for the many nuclear reactors it will use to help fuel its massive economic growth.

Though nuclear power is seen by many as the environmentally friendly energy source of the future, industry officials still face opposition from some environmental groups and other sceptics.

Just east of Zambia, in Malawi, the government’s grant of a uranium mining licence to Paladin, sparked complaints from the Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation. The Malawian government has a 15 per cent stake in the project. While the local group acknowledged that the almost $200 million mining project could create jobs and profits, it questioned its effect on the environment and whether “the economic benefits to Malawi through the introduction of uranium mining operations outweigh the social concerns and hazards associated with them,” in a recent press statement.

Experts say while radon gas emitted by uranium presents some radiation risks, modern technology makes them negligible to workers and the public. Radiation exposure is low in open cut mining, and can be further lessened by enforcing strict hygiene regulations on miners using uranium oxide concentrate, according to the industry’s World Nuclear Association. In an underground mine, modern ventilation systems are needed to keep miners safe, the association says.

In some regions, the increased demand for uranium has prompted security concerns, especially amid reports of illegal uranium mining across the border in Congo — the same area that produced some of the uranium used in the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.

Counterterrorism experts worry about extremists getting radiation materials through a black market for nuclear components that operates despite attempts to tighten security. — AP

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