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.
And the mine, whose workforce dropped from 3,800 in the 1970s to 860 last year, has begun hiring again.
"It is definitely a dramatic change," said company spokesman Rehabeam Hoveka. "It is good news for Arandis. It is good news for Namibia, too."
A second uranium mine, meanwhile, is slated to open nearby soon. Three others within 60 miles are in various stages of development. So where Arandis was once going to be a mining town without a mine, soon there could be five in the area.
The boom in uranium mining has caused grumbling from the tourism industry, which fears the loss of pristine landscapes, and environmentalists, who fear damage to the fragile biodiversity of the Namib, regarded as the driest and oldest desert in the world. Some environmentalists also are concerned about the renewed growth of an industry they still regard as dangerous despite industry claims of safety improvements since the Chernobyl disaster.
"They cannot tell us that they are safer than before," said Bertchen Kohrs, head of Earthlife Namibia, speaking from Windhoek, the capital. "It starts here with mining uranium, the whole cycle starts. Who says that some day we won't have to take back the nuclear waste here in Namibia?"
Roessing mine is a massive, dun-colored canyon two miles long, nearly a mile wide and more than 1,000 feet deep. From its lip, the giant dump trucks that haul uranium ore from the mine floor look like children's toys.
Several crushing machines pulverize the rock into sand, then powerful acids extract the traces of uranium. The end product, after processing, is a fine gray powder that leaves the mine in steel drums weighing 900 pounds. Mine officials say each holds as much potential energy as 40,000 barrels of oil.
All of Roessing's uranium oxide is used by civilian reactors, mine officials say, and is exported only to countries approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The government of Iran owns 15 percent of Roessing, a legacy of early investment in the 1960s by the shah there. Mine officials say no shipment of uranium has ever been made to Iran, and the country has no right to the mine's product. Roessing's majority owner is Rio Tinto, a global mining conglomerate.
Officials in Arandis say they hope to use the unexpected revival of the mine to secure the future of their town, which already has, by African standards, an enviable infrastructure, including paved roads, a soccer stadium, a library, streetlights and steady sources of electricity and clean water. Two small clothing factories and a technical college provide some jobs not directly affiliated with the mine.
The banks have not resumed operations, but one recently opened a cash machine in Arandis, and work on a new gas station is to begin this month, said Muhuura, the mayor. With population on the rise again, the town recently made a deal with a builder to construct 50 homes.
The mine also has donated one of its dump trucks to Arandis, where it sits massively, with giant rubber wheels twice the height of most men, in the center of town. It is the first piece of what town officials hope is an eventual mining museum, part of the plan to help the town survive the next big downturn in uranium demand, whenever it comes.
"We want to turn around to show the world that this town will never be a ghost town," Muhuura said.