KAZAKHSTAN – An environmental and safety engineer at a uranium mine in Kazakhstan last week explained there are certain measures the Russian company exploring for the rare mineral in the Omaheke region should undertake to ensure it does not contaminate a valuable water aquifer in the area.
These measures include monitoring wells at the discovered ore body, wells along the water source, and wells where communities actually access the
water. The Russian company, Uranium One Group, would then have to constantly monitor all these wells, in conjunction with an independent third party, to ensure the water is not contaminated.
The Uranium One Group last week took six Namibian journalists from different media groups to Kazakhstan to clarify some of the concerns emanating from their uranium exploration and proposed extraction method in Omaheke.
The proposed extraction method, known as in-situ leaching (ISL), is widely used in Kazakhstan, which is the largest uranium-producing country in the world. The majority of the mines use ISL techniques with sulfuric acid to dissolve the
uranium. Figures show that Kazakhstan was the leading uranium- producing country (by volume) in the world during 2021, with uranium production of 22 500 tonnes, up 15.5% year-on-year.
In-situ leaching, also called in-situ recovery (ISR) or solution mining, is a mining process used to recover minerals such as copper and uranium through boreholes drilled into a deposit.
The process initially involves the drilling of holes into the ore deposit. Explosive or hydraulic fracturing may be used to create open pathways in the deposit for a solution to penetrate. A leaching solution is pumped into the deposit, where it makes contact with the ore. The solution bearing the dissolved ore content is then pumped to the surface and processed.
Ensuring clean water
When asked how Namibia can preserve its water aquifer and save it from chemical contamination and from spreading these contaminants along the aquifer, Mikhail Zaika, the engineer in charge of environmental and radiation safety at Karatau mine in southern Kazakhstan, said there are measures that should be undertaken by the mining company. The Karatau mine started its operation in 2005, and is expected to conclude in 2032.
“There should be installation of one set of monitoring wells beyond the ore body contours and at the ore body depth. Once properly installed, these monitoring wells are subject to regular sampling and laboratorial essaying at a third-party lab in order to have objective test/analysis results. Frequency of such sampling is also important,” he explained.
Zaika added that there should be an installation of another set of monitoring wells along the water flow direction at the depth of aquifer(s). Once properly installed, it should undergo the same laboratorial essaying at a third-party lab.
He further advised the Uranium One Group to not only sample its monitoring wells within the perimeter of mining allotment, but also sample water wells at the nearest villages, settlements and townships used by local communities.
Zaika said if by any chance the aquifer is contaminated, the Uranium One Group should change out the wells by having the contaminated wells slowed down and the non-contaminating ones ramped up.
“Redrill new monitoring wells. Circulate more barren solution with no sulfuric acid chemicals to wash out the contamination. In any case, the contaminated area shall not exceed 10 to 50 metres,” he expounded.
Uranium One Group is a Russian state-owned entity involved in uranium exploration, mining and processing. The company is exploring in the Omaheke region, where farmers and community members raised many red flags about the proposed mining method, which they allege will contaminate the underground water that communities in the area depend on.
Meanwhile, Namibian farmers and government officials are expected to soon visit the same mine in Kazakhstan before the end of the year to experience and hear from experts how the contentious extraction method is safely implemented.
Uranium One spokesperson Riaan van Rooyen told New Era that the proposed 25-year uranium mine in Omaheke is anticipated to be of the same scale as one of the mines in Kazakhstan. Uranium One operates six in-situ recovery mines in Kazakhstan, which has a total yearly uranium production of 10 000 tonnes.
Upon the commencement of mining operations, Uranium One’s possible investment in Namibia is expected to range between US$300 million to US$500 million over 25 years.
And, according to the company’s project manager, Kirill Egorov, Uranium One has already invested about US$50 million in the Namibian economy during the exploration phase.
Other ISL mines around the world are located in Uzbekistan, the United States of America, Russia, Australia and China, while there is potential for ISL mining in Namibia, Tanzania, Brazil, Argentina and Niger.
Namibian Uranium Institute
Executive director at the Namibian Uranium Institute, Gabi Schneider, said techniques for ISL have evolved to the point where it is a controllable, safe and environmentally benign method of mining, which operates under strict operational and regulatory controls.
In Omaheke, the uranium ore bodies are found in the same geological environment as the Stampriet Artesian Aquifer, where Schneider noted it requires a comprehensive environmental impact assessment, which is currently being carried out. “Namibia has very good environmental management legislation. It is exactly for that reason that the comprehensive environmental impact assessment is carried out. Should farmers, however, still be worried, the environmental impact assessment procedure is the right process to raise any concerns or complaints,” she added.
Responding to questions last week in the National Assembly, mines minister Tom Alweendo stated that Uranium One Group’s drilling of boreholes is at a halt as the company is awaiting a new permit.
“The company received the needed permits from government on whatever they performed at the site. Currently, they are not drilling because the first water drilling permit lapsed, and they applied for a new one that is being processed by the ministry.
“We are going to continue to monitor to make sure the company does what is expected as per the permits issued, that is if they are going to be issued. But currently they are not drilling. We are equally concerned because if they do that without water management (processes), it may contaminate the underground water,” Alweendo cautioned.