Namibian mines get mixed messages

Namibian uranium mines have received mixed news on the prospects for an end to their struggle to secure cheaper and secure water supplies through new desalination facilities.

Months after unveiling plans to construct a desalination plant at its Rössing uranium mine in Namibia, mining giant, Rio Tinto, has yet to begin the work according to a report by the Economist. A Rio Tinto spokesman was reported to have told reporters: “We have not started any construction yet. The project is still in a very early stage.”

Meanwhile the Namibian state water company, Namwater, has confirmed earlier reported intentions to increase the capacity of a 20 million m³-a-year facility owned by French engineering firm, Areva.

The Areva plant is supplying about 10 million m³ of water a year to four uranium mines in the economically important but semi-arid Erongo region including Rio Tinto’s Rössing mine. Namwater anticipates being able to increase the Areva plant’s output to about 45 million m³. The plant was originally built to supply Areva’s currently mothballed uranium plant at Trekkopje.

Rio Tinto said it planned to build its own desalination plant north of Swakopmund because the price paid for water from the Areva desalination plant, was too high.

Consultants to Rössing Uranium, SLR Consulting and Aurecon, have said the potential cost savings from a new plant were about US$ 72 million over the planned ten years Rössing would use a new desalination plant. Rössing said it needed to halve its current US$ 4 a cubic metre cost of water to remain viable and a new plant could achieve that reduction.The planned new plant would meet Rössing Uranium’s entire water demand of 3 million cubic metres.

Rössing Uranium has said it was also motivated to build its own plant by Namwater’s failure to have constructed a desalination plant for mining purposes by October 2014. The Namibian government subsequently opted to buy the Areva desalination plant rather than construct its own facility.

According to reports, managing director of Areva’s Namibian unit, Hilifa Mbako, has made assurances that “negotiations with the government, which has offered to buy the plant, are under way and would probably be wrapped up in 2015.”