Uranium was first discovered in the Namib Desert in 1928, but it was only following intensive exploration in the late 1950s that the mining industry’s interest was piqued. Rio Tinto originally secured the rights to the low-grade Rössing deposit in 1966. A decade later in 1976, Rössing Uranium, Namibia’s first commercial uranium mine, started production. Today, Namibia has two significant uranium mines (Rössing Uranium and Swakop Uranium) which together provide 11% of the world’s uranium oxide output in 2019; in 2019 Rössing Uranium produced 3.9% of that total. The mine has a capacity of 4,500 tonnes of uranium oxide per year and, by the end of 2019, had supplied a total of 137,537 tonnes of uranium oxide to the world.
The mine is located 12km from the town of Arandis, which lies 70 km inland from the coastal town of Swakopmund in Namibia’s Erongo Region. Walvis Bay, Namibia’s only deep-water harbour, is located 30km south of Swakopmund. The mine site encompasses a mining licence and accessory works areas of about 129.79 km2, of which 25 km2 is used for mining, waste disposal and processing. Mining is done by blasting, loading and hauling from the open pit before the uranium-bearing rock is processed to produce uranium oxide.
A nuclear option
A depressed global uranium market might have been a challenge for Rio Tinto but it presented a golden opportunity for China’s CNUC (China National Uranium Corporation) taking over in Namibia as the 68.62% majority shareholder at Rössing Uranium in July 2019. Liezl Davies, General Manager,: Operations, explains that the move by CNUC represented a new lease of life for the mine which was facing the threat of early closure. “Since CNUC took over as the majority shareholder, we are now part of a vertically integrated nuclear business because its parent company, CNNC (China National Nuclear Corporation), is a major supplier of nuclear power in China. Now we need to consider plant readiness for possible mine life extension. The past two years there was a lack of capital investment in the operation and since we now have a new lease of life, we need to catch up on this backlog and get ourselves set up for the future to survive this depressed uranium market.”
After two years of uncertainty during the build-up to CNNC’s takeover, Davies and her team are now busy planning a way forward at Rössing to innovate and build a path for optimisation. “We have a 44-year-old plant, so we’re looking at new technologies to address leaching efficiency and improve extraction and recovery processes,” she says. “We’re thrilled about the appetite for a new life of mine extension as the business case for this becomes more viable.”
The team at Rössing is working with the CNNC owned Beijing Research Institute of Chemical Engineering and Metallurgy, investigating opportunities for various improvements at in the plant in terms of uranium production, including precipitation optimisation of the existing filtration equipment. “We are working very closely with them and are excited to move forward with feasibility studies on getting newer technology into the plant,” confirms Davies. “We’ll be leveraging our new connections in the Chinese market to improve efficiency across our operations.”
“Our workforce was relieved when CNNC came on board, because it ended a long period of uncertainty,” says Davies. “We now have more opportunities for the future. One of the first things CNNC did was to bring their senior leadership to the site and to carry out sessions with all of our employees and contractors across the group, allowing everyone’s questions to be heard. It was very well received and left our team keen to build for the future.”
Davies is cognisant of the fact that, in the context of Namibia, Rössing is a relatively mature operation with the legacy of generations that have worked at the mine. “We need to utilise their experience and integrate that with the expectations of our new majority shareholder and their vision for the company,” she says. “We have a strong performance culture at Rössing and a committed and dedicated workforce, so we’re aiming to keep them on board with the future plans for the company. I always joke that nothing is new at Rössing, everything has been tried before, if you just ask the right person. We need to go build on that, and leverage the wealth of experience we have in our workforce.”
The Rössing Foundation
“We're very pleased CNNC has committed to continue to support our Rössing Foundation, which was established for our community outreach work already in 1978,” reveals Davies. “Because of the synergies within CNNC and their plans for continued operation, we can continue to be a strong contributor to the economy of Namibia for longer than would have been possible before the takeover.”
Davies explains that the company’s foundation is one of the oldest community outreach programmes of all the mines in Namibia. “Along with the Namibia Diamond Mining Company, we have the most active programmes running,” she highlights. “Rössing’s focus is mostly on education. We feel it's a very strong lever that we should pull in supporting future generations. We're also proud to have broken the mould. Normally across Namibia these types of programmes, even legislatively, are only in the area of a company’s operations but the Rössing Foundation operates programmes nationally, which has now become the standard.”
Partnering for a successful future in Namibia
Rössing Uranium has strong ties with Namibia’s government and is also working closely with the Chamber of Mines of Namibia, of which it is a founding member. “We’ve always aimed to make a positive impact on the nation as a whole,” says Davies who has continued in her role as General Manager, Operations following eight years working for Rössing’s previous majority shareholder Rio Tinto. “We’re working with CNNC to ensure we continue to contribute towards taking our country forward. Just as important as these board level partnerships are those we forge with our employees and the wider community, both locally and nationally. We need these alliances to be strong to achieve our goals for the future.”
Davies is excited about the potential for the introduction of new technologies to improve the company’s bottom line and support opportunities for life of mine extension. “We need to get our business more cost efficient so we can fast track these plans,” she adds. “If we can bring in our product at a lower price there will be a bigger appetite for future investment from CNNC. We must leverage the technological advancement that's happening in the world, and use it to our benefit. We’ll be looking at ways to mine more efficiently and use our human resources for thinking as well as physical work. We’ll also be looking at ways we take certain risks out of the business and make it an even safer place for our people to work at. Our focus will turn to the online monitoring of equipment and operations, using real time data for more reliable information, which in turn will help take our employees out of more risky environments. We’re proud of our safety record at Rössing; in 2017 our safety performance was the best in the mine’s 44-year history, while last year we were again among the safest mining operations in Namibia, winning the Chamber of Mines’ Safety Award for the second year running.”
The goal now for Davies and her team is to ride the current fluctuations of the uranium market and, with CNNC’s help, reposition Rössing Uranium for growth in the years to come. “We have a new lease of life going forward and a reason to be excited for the future as we keep our people working for Namibia’s people.”