Africa's Uranium Treasure Hunt Is On: Nuclear Energy Is Now Considered the World's Only Sure Alternative to the Diminishing Reserves of Fossil Fuel. Africa Is Sitting on a Huge Pile of Uranium, the Principal Source of Nuclear Energy. Could This Be the Start of a Uranium Bonanza for Africa? Tom Nevin Reports

By Nevin, Tom | African Business, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Africa's Uranium Treasure Hunt Is On: Nuclear Energy Is Now Considered the World's Only Sure Alternative to the Diminishing Reserves of Fossil Fuel. Africa Is Sitting on a Huge Pile of Uranium, the Principal Source of Nuclear Energy. Could This Be the Start of a Uranium Bonanza for Africa? Tom Nevin Reports


Nevin, Tom, African Business


The inexorable rise in the price of oil, the choking effects of coal as a power generator and the irrational behaviour of rivers have all contributed to banishing the ghosts of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and welcoming back the atom as the only reliable source of electricity in a power hungry world. And Africa, as the planet's biggest repository of uranium, stands to be the big winner.

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To produce enough nuclear power, the world will need at least 25 new uranium mines by 2020, according to John Borshoff, managing director of Paladin Resources. "The demand for uranium and the resulting price hikes will reach the level of the oil shock of the 1970s," he maintains. In South Africa alone, five new nuclear power stations will probably be built in the next 20 years. Government approval for construction to start on the first has been given and site assessment is under way for the other four. Further afield, nuclear generation accounts for around 80% of France's energy needs, China is racing ahead with its nuclear energy programme and virtually every developed country is ratcheting up plans to deepen reliance on the atom.

All of this means a global treasure hunt for reserves of uranium, the fuel needed for the foreseeable future, to drive nuclear facilities. Like Europe, the US, China and Japan the atom will be South Africa's major source of energy within the next 30 years, an eventuality that has caused the price of uranium to leap to unprecedented levels.

The Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) says it expects electricity generated from nuclear energy to increase by 25,000MW by 2030, an installation programme that could cost as much as R100bn ($14.3bn). Necsa chief executive Rob Adam reports that this would probably comprise some 24 pebblebed modular nuclear reactors and 12 conventional nuclear power stations. South Africa's total current capacity is about 39,000MW and double that is needed in quick time if the country is to power its stated economic growth ambition of a sustainable 6% in this decade.

The major shift to nuclear power is aimed at reducing South Africa's dependence on coal-fired power stations, at present accountable for about 80% of the country's energy needs and the major source of greenhouse gases.

The race is on

Since 2003 the uranium spot price has increased more than five fold, from $11/lb to $60/lb today. This potential has been identified by key players in mineral investment and now the race is on to find the high-return deposits. Africa was the world's top producer of uranium in 1980, with South Africa, Namibia and Niger together accounting for a third of the total global output.

Production fell during a long period of weak prices, but a 10-fold price surge in the last five years has renewed interest in Africa's relatively easily-mined, shallow uranium deposits. Africa contributes 20% of world uranium production, behind top producer Canada.

According to mining analysts the continent has the potential to almost triple its output by 2011 with the expansion of existing mines and a slew of new projects starting up.

In Africa, the mineral the atom needs to work its magic is the commodity of the moment and everyone wants a slice of the yellowcake, as raw uranium is known in the world of mineralogy. Several exploration projects are underway in uranium-rich southern Africa, as prospectors scour the continent to uncover reserves in the most unlikely places.

In Namibia, the Langer Heinrich, Valencia and Trekoppje projects are viable prospects, along with the Kayelekera project in Malawi.

Zambia and Tanzaina have the potential to become world-standard uranium producers, says Alisdair Cooke, executive chairman of African Energy Resources. In fact, says Cooke, Zambia's Karoo uranium system has greater potential than the US's famous deposit from which a million tons has been extracted. …

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Africa's Uranium Treasure Hunt Is On: Nuclear Energy Is Now Considered the World's Only Sure Alternative to the Diminishing Reserves of Fossil Fuel. Africa Is Sitting on a Huge Pile of Uranium, the Principal Source of Nuclear Energy. Could This Be the Start of a Uranium Bonanza for Africa? Tom Nevin Reports
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