Rising Interest in Nuclear Power Brings New Life to Uranium Mining

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

ARANDIS, Namibia -- This sandy little company town, with its tree-lined streets and concrete homes set amid a vast, forbidding desert, had all the signs of terminal decline just a few years back. Both banks closed. The only gas station shut off its pumps. And employable young men, realizing the bleak future of the giant uranium mine that gave Arandis life, began drifting away.

But something unexpected happened on the way to the funeral for Arandis: The nuclear industry, stagnant for two decades, reversed its fortunes at a time of rising oil prices and growing realization that burning fossil fuel caused global climate change. Nuclear went from being seen as a dirty source of energy to a comparatively clean, efficient one.

From that shift in perception, mainly in the minds of Westerners thousands of miles away, the fate of this remote African town went from doom to boom.

"The future was very dark," said the energetic mayor of Arandis, Daniel Muhuura, who like hundreds of residents here has spent his entire professional life working for Roessing Uranium Mine. "Now the future is very bright."

Dramatic turnarounds have happened across the continent as a quest for mineral riches, similar to the one that helped fuel the 19th century's "Scramble for Africa," has become a hot economic story of the decade. Decisions in boardrooms around the world have sent prices soaring for copper in Zambia, coltan in Congo and oil in Angola, Nigeria and Sudan.

From rising demand for these commodities, sub-Saharan Africa's economic growth has hit rates not seen in three decades.

Perhaps no renaissance, however, has matched that of the uranium industry's.

Roessing Uranium Mine opened in 1976 during nuclear power's heyday. But the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986 caused a profound political backlash that nearly halted new reactor construction. Uncertainty about how to handle the dangerous radioactive waste created by nuclear power plants also contributed to its unpopularity.

By 2001, the price for uranium oxide had fallen to about $7 a pound, one-sixth of its peak. Two years later, facing massive losses, Roessing announced plans to close.

Under that plan, the mine was to cease operations in 2007 after having dug 1 billion tons of rock out of a jagged, bleached landscape often compared to the surface of the moon. Instead, oil prices soared and global warming became the stuff of newspaper headlines and Hollywood movies. Interest in building new nuclear reactors grew, and the price of uranium oxide rose to $62.50 a pound.

Roessing, which recently made its first delivery to an increasingly energy-hungry China, has decided to continue mining until at least 2016, mine officials say.

They expect to end this year with Roessing's first substantial profit, and tax bill to the Namibian government, in five years.

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