Uranium Mining in Africa

Michael Anderson
July 16, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015


Fig. 1: Rösser Mine in Arandis, Namibia. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The average nuclear reactor requires 25 tons of Uranium to run for a year. To produce this Uranium 500,000 tons of waste rock and 100,000 tons of toxic mill tailings are generated. [1] Through conversion at the plant another 150 tons of solid waste and 1300+ cubic meters of waste water are created. Projected 2020 worldwide Uranium demand will yield over 50 million tons of radioactive waste byproducts annually. [1]

As of 2013 19% of the world's Uranium reserves are held by three African nations: Niger, Namibia, and South Africa. [1] Niger holds 7% of the World's reserves with Namibia and South Africa each accounting for 6%. [2] African output accounts for 18% of world production with Namibia-8%, Niger-7%, Malawi-1.2%, and South Africa-1% accounting for the vast majority on the continent. [3] In contrast the three largest producers in the world: Canada, Australia, and Kazakhstan account for 23%, 20%, and 16% of the world output respectively. [2] The largest single producer in Africa is the R¨osser mine in Namibia. (See Fig. 1.) This site accounts for 6.3% of world production. The Arlit and Akouta mines in Niger account for 4.2% and 3.6% respectively. Production in South Africa comes primarily as a byproduct of gold mining operations. [2] Agreements have also been signed with European and Australian corporations to pursue exploratory Uranium mining in Botswana, Guinea, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mali, and Mauritania. [3]

Demand for Uranium is only expected to climb over the coming decades. Interest in Nuclear power has been rekindled as energy demand has surged over the past decades. World electricity demand is expected to surge 76% between 2007 and 2030. [3] Concerns surrounding global warming and low carbon emission energy sources have also contributed to a surge in Uranium demand.

Much of this demand can be traced back to the emerging economies of China and India. Money has flowed from these nations to mining companies abroad. It is now commonplace to witness circumstances such as the 47% ownership of Australia's Extract Resources Lmtd, licensed to explore Niger, by China's Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Company. [4]

Environmental Consequences

Current mining operations at the Rösser-Arandis Mine, in the Namib Desert, threatens the local ecosystem, and may be causing irreparable damage to biological diversity in the region. [5] These impacts are being felt in the form of regionalized climactic changes that may been attributed to mining activities. [5] Three impacts felt by the mining have been determined by the Namibian government. These are "deterioration of water quantity and quality for biodiversity and ecosystem functioning; habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation caused by mines and infrastructure; [and] threats to specific plants and animals." [3]

In theory the mining companies are putting forth a good faith effort and have shown a desire to pursue sustainable mining practices. [6] In reality the governments of the nations where mining is taking place have little ability to monitor the practices of the mining companies. Often times government officials are more interested in mining revenues, whether through taxation, or via kickbacks, from the mining companies than they are in preserving the environment. [7] This reality makes it difficult to assess the mining companies environmental preservation efforts. [6]

Other Concerns

Presently laws and regulations rarely cater to Uranium mining and those that do are unable to be reinforced. [7] As such the mining companies have been largely left to monitor themselves. Seasonal employment cycles, where workers lose access to necessary radioactivity exposure monitoring as well as health treatment is another concern in these economies. What this concern boils down to is the fact that central governments on the continent tend to be weak and lack the ability to police the mining companies. [7] The mining companies in turn are free to conduct activities with a high level of independence. In this way the very well-being of the environment and the people proximal to these mines is falling on the shoulders of the mining companies - companies whose primary goal is to boost revenue.

© Michael Anderson. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. Dittmar, "The End of Cheap Uranium," Sci. Total Environ. 461-462, 792 (2013).

[2] G. M. Mudd and M. Diesendorf, "Sustainability of Uranium Mining and Milling: Toward Quantifying Resources and Eco-Efficiency," Environ. Sci. Technol. 42, 2624 (2008).

[3] G. Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Mit Press, 2012).

[4] P. Massot and Z.-M. Chen, "China and the Global Uranium Market: Prospects for Peaceful Coexistence," Scientific World Journal 2013, 672060 (2013).

[5] T. D. Wassenaar et al., "Ensuring the Future of the Namib's Biodiversity: Ecological Restoration as a Key Management Response to a Mining Boom," J. Arid Environ. 93, 126 (2013).

[6] G. Graetz, "Uranium Mining and First Peoples: the Nuclear Renaissance Confronts Historical Legacies," J. Clean. Prod. 84, 339 (2014).

[7] R. K. Larsen and C. A. Mamosso, "Aid with Blinkers: Environmental Governance of Uranium Mining in Niger," World Dev. 56, 62 (2014).