Story of a Namibian Graduate Working in the Uranium Industry

Фото © Из личного архива

Uranium is mined in over 20 countries worldwide. Namibia is - based on uranium reserves - ranked sixth globally, which makes cooperation with the state a matter of particular interest to Russia. Lydia Kuwilileni Mwatyony, a graduate of St. Petersburg Mining University, shares an opinion on how Russia can be useful to her homeland.

Namibia's exports to global markets include copper, gold, zinc, lead, and diamonds. The sixth mineral, recently added to the list, is uranium, which the Republic's Government declared to be a raw material of strategic importance. The history of mining for the metal is nonetheless a tangled up one. In 2009, no new exploration licences could be granted without the participation in projects of state mining enterprises. Then the issuance of licences was suspended altogether. Finally, the ban was lifted once the authorities realised the consequences of the hasty decision. And soon, potential mining developers from all over the world - South Africa, Canada, Australia, China, other states - started queueing up for the right to extract local resources.

According to Lydia, now Consultant Geologist at Headspring Investments, "Our economy is currently quite unstable. In 2016, when a prolonged drought started, it entered a recession that has been lasting ever since. It is generally believed that a natural disaster comes in the form of a hurricane or tsunami. However, if a semiarid area experiences a year with no rain, it is a real catastrophe. All the public funds were used to support the domestic agricultural industry and assist the local population. There were, of course, other countries - Russia among them - that helped us recover, also through providing humanitarian aid. But unfortunately, although little by little the economy was improving, this year the coronavirus pandemic emerged, leading to a decline in production across many industry sectors. Unemployment rates among locals aged under 35 soared to 46%. Even highly qualified and educated specialists do not have much of a choice but stay at home and send out their CVs.

I am lucky to be working for a uranium mining company. Because the fall in demand and global prices that affected many natural resources did not have a similar impact on uranium. To the contrary, uranium prices have increased and are still increasing - against the backdrop of the pandemic, they have reached a four-year peak."

Фото © Из личного архива

During the past ten years, the global market was vastly oversupplied with uranium. The Fukushima Daiichi accident resulted in the closure of several nuclear power plants; new projects were mostly frozen. As a result, mining companies had to keep an extra amount of raw materials in storage, which undoubtedly affected the price of uranium. An unexpected lockdown, however, caused many companies across the world to shut down their mines temporarily. As the two world's largest uranium producers - Kazatomprom and Cameco - suspended mining activities, the prices rose sharply. Now the prices have levelled off - but remain high, over $30 per pound.

Lydia was born and raised in Windhoek - the surrounded by rocky and mountainous areas capital of Namibia. Aside from studying, she used to spend all the time at her parents' country farm. There she explored locally occurring minerals, collected most intriguing samples and next went to the school library to learn more about them. Having chosen geology as a future profession, the schoolgirl started looking into higher education opportunities. There are three universities in Nambia offering engineering programmes. But it is worth noting that there are no non-profit higher education institutions in the country. The annual fee varies but most often makes about $6,500 per year - the sum that is way beyond what an average local family can afford.

Фото © Pavel Špindler, Википедия

Therefore when Lydia, who had scored high in the final exams, was invited to take part in the Rossotrudnichestvo competition, she agreed without hesitation. She says her decision cannot be explained only by the fact that she wanted to earn a quota for free studies in a Russian university. Lydia's family could pay for their daughter's education, regardless of whether she would stay at home or not. It is the quality of education that makes a local degree far less valuable than that from a foreign university.

"My specialisation in Mining University was 'Applied Geochemistry, Petrology, Mineralogy'. Graduates of this programme can solve a wide range of tasks - from geological exploration to microscopic examination that is needed to identify conditions of the formation of rocks. Through being able to handle a variety of issues, I was supposed to get a well-paid job in the future. I can work as a petroleum geologist, engineering hydrogeologist, or geochemist. My alma mater is the oldest engineering university in Russia. For example, the course on mineralogy started here back in the 18th century. Dmitri Mendeleev himself, while working on the Periodic Law, used samples from the University's collection of minerals. The University remains one of the best in its field today. Students can use modern labs and research centres to their benefit. They can attend lectures given by visiting professors from Europe, and undergo practical training at large organisations and government bodies," says Lydia.

Фото © Из личного архива

In her fourth year, she undertook an internship at the Ministry of Mines and Energy of Namibia. As part of her assignment, the student spent two months mapping and sampling rocks from copper and gold deposits.

After graduating with a Specialist's degree, Lydia returned to Namibia. Because of the high volatility of the economy, the most common type of employment in the country is contract work. Companies employ skilled professionals to tackle short- or medium-term tasks, thus limiting the term of employment to a period of between a few months and a year. Lydia went the same path: first few years upon her return, she had been conducting geological studies at copper, cobalt, gold, silver deposits, and exploring diamond resource potential within the shelf area of the Atlantic. But then the young specialist got a job offer she could not refuse.

Урановый рудник
Фото © IAEA Imagebank/ Урановый рудник Россинг

Whether working at uranium mines presents a danger for employees or not is of high interest to people outside of the industry. Lydia's family was concerned about that too. As it turned out, radiation background registered at Namibian uranium deposits is only slightly above the planet's average. Such level does not pose a threat to human health. Ore extracted at Rössing - the longest-running and one of the largest open-pit uranium mines in the world - is low-grade. It contains less than 0.05% uranium, with the rest being a waste rock. Thence in 2018, the mine was expanded in size to 5 km², or otherwise, extraction would soon become unprofitable.

Rocks are blasted and taken away twenty-four seven. Radiometric scanners, which measure the radioactive level of each load, are placed at the gates through which mine trucks pass. In case the level falls within a specific range, a dump truck will head towards the primary crusher, if not - to the waste rock dump area.

Фото © Заготовка высокообогащенного урана

Uranium production takes place in two stages: concentrating by mixing with water and leaching with dilution over sulphuric acid. Protective suits and flat dosimeters are given out to workers at the last step only, as then the metal takes its most concentrated form. The solution reacts with ammonia gas, resulting in a yellow-coloured paste, named ammonium diuranate. The latter is to be placed into a heated to 600 degrees furnace to make nitrogen burn out. The end product contains 70% uranium.

There is an alternative method to open-cut mining - ISL (in-situ leaching). This is a physicochemical process of extracting mineral resources by leaching them from rocks, which is achieved through pumping solvents into the basin via downhole. Russian investors are interested in this method and consider taking advantage of it in their new projects. It does not require a lot of digging, and even more importantly, miners may avoid direct contact with rocks in the place of their formation. This means this alternative is safer for employee health.

Фото © NAC Kazatomprom JSC/ Скважинное подземное выщелачивание

The most recent project of Headspring Investments is a new deposit in the Omaheke Region. The project is so far at the beginning stage, which involves drilling and identifying geological material to assess potential volumes of mineral reserves. Lydia is working there with three other geologists, all of whom are Namibians and graduates of Mining University. As the former student explains, a degree from the Russian University was a prerequisite, on which insisted the employer.

"Programmes that offer local universities differ from those of St. Petersburg Mining University a lot. Some subjects that I studied when I was in my third or fourth year, students of Namibian universities don't get to study unless they proceed to Master's studies. I think it may explain why I got a job, and local engineers did not. There are downsides of course: it is hardly a female occupation. I spend five weeks in the field and only a week at home. This is, on the other hand, a life of geologist I have always dreamt of," admits Lydia.

Over two thousand Namibians graduated from Russian educational institutions. Graduates of Soviet schools constitute an even larger number. Many moved up the career ladder with time and now head domestic enterprises. The head of the copper-producing Rosphina could serve as an example.