|Namibia is planning on enacting a new nuclear policy that could provide thousands of jobs, and making a new sector of the economy that is not so reliant on tourism [GETTY]
Namibia is set to develop its rich uranium resources and intends to pursue uranium enrichment locally. It also plans to build its own nuclear electricity plant.
Nuclear energy experts from Finland's Nuclear and Radiation Authority are currently helping the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MME) to draft Namibia's first ever nuclear policy, which is to be completed mid-2011, together with relevant laws. Namibia plans to generate electricity from its own nuclear reactor by 2018.
"It is the expressed decision of the Namibian government to seriously consider the development of nuclear power in order to complete the national energy mix and provide sufficient energy for our development," said mining minister Isak Katali at an introductory nuclear policy conference recently.
"The uranium and nuclear energy policy to be developed will cover the entire nuclear fuel cycle, being uranium exploration, mining, milling and nuclear energy (generation)," Katali added.
The nuclear policy will include the establishment of a nuclear waste management fund, black economic empowerment through equity participation in the uranium sector, skills transfer to Namibians and using uranium only for peaceful purposes.
Namibia is producing about 5,000 tons of uranium annually and was the world's fourth-largest producer in 2009, providing nearly ten percent of the global needs.
"It is no secret that our government made the decision to develop nuclear power locally - the demand for energy is growing," says Joseph Iita permanent secretary in the MME.
"We have big uranium resources and we work together with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to achieve a strong policy framework for a safe and efficient nuclear policy for peaceful purposes only."
Namibia is signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement in Connection with the NPT and Protocol Additional to the Safeguards Agreement. The country established the Namibian Atomic Energy Board in February 2009.
"Namibia is committed to achieving a world free of nuclear weapons, where nations and peoples can live in peace and harmony and we welcome the entry into force of the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Treaty - the Pelindaba Treaty," Namibia's foreign affairs minister Utoni Nujoma told the NPT Review Conference in New York last year
"We regard this milestone as an important step for regional peace and security. Namibia is in the process of ratifying this important instrument," said Nujoma.
Due to the lack of a policy framework, the government put a moratorium on issuing uranium exclusive exploration licences (EPLs) in 2007.
Some 66, mostly foreign companies from Australia, Canada and China companies have EPLs for uranium exploration in Namibia, mainly in the coastal Erongo Region.
Only four uranium companies obtained uranium mining licences with two mines operational and two new mines under construction among them
The oldest mine, Rössing Uranium of British Rio Tinto started in 1976, only to be joined three decades later in 2007 by Langer Heinrich Uranium (LHU). LHU is owned by Australian mining outfit Paladin Energy, which produced 1,170 tons of processed uranium called yellow cake in 2009.
The Iranian government has a 15 per cent stake in Rössing Uranium.
At least five more uranium mines are in the pipeline within the next three to four years and the national power utility NamPower is already expanding its power grid and electricity generation capability
The new uranium mining areas are partly located in a proclaimed national park and one of the most popular tourist hotspots in the country.
"Unless all this is well-managed and the necessary safeguards are in place, the uranium rush will negatively affect the environment - both at individual mine level and on a cumulative basis, which will affect sense of place, tourism, lives and livelihoods," says Peter Tarr, one of the experts who completed an in-depth study on the impact of the future uranium industry.
Peter Versveld works for a tourism company in the Namib Desert and takes visitors to breathtaking views over the rugged mountain ranges called the 'moon landscape' and to the famous Welwitschia desert plants, some of them being a thousand years old.
"We are very worried about the bad impact the uranium boom will have on the beautiful landscape here and the possibility of a nuclear reactor being built. It will negatively affect our tourism sector at the coast and the nearby desert," says Versveld.
But Johannes Goraseb, whose family has lived for generations in humble dwellings some 80 kilometres east of the coastal town of Swakopmund near another tourism hot spot - the Spitzkoppe Mountains, which gave ancient rock paintings - looks forward to getting a job.
"There are not enough tourists coming here to sustain all of us so when the uranium mine under construction nearby becomes operational, I hope I will get a job there," he says. "Already Areva, which owns the new mine, has donated water tanks to us. They bring development as they will also build a mining village for their staff and this will bring development here in the desert," he added.
Erongo Regional governor Samuel Nuuyoma says uranium mining was an important economic pillar and expected to grow from 5.54 percent of Namibian GDP in 2008 to 14.78 per cent by 2015. "Contribution to the economy is expected to more than double from the current $150 mn to 305 in 2015," Nuuyoma says.
Mike Leech, the president of the Chamber of Mines, said, "Uranium producing countries such as Namibia are inevitably surrounded by questions of health, environmental and radiation safety, waste and non-proliferation".
With new uranium mines on the horizon and expansion projects at existing mines, it is estimated that thousands of jobs may be created in the Erongo region alone.
A version of this article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.