Husab giant still growing

Big, beautiful uranium mine still ramping up production

07 May 2019 | Business

Percy McCallum, Swakop Uranium vice-president of human resources and business support: “I have all the confidence that this mine will be an icon of Namibia.”

Augetto Graig

The immaculate, purpose-built new road winds through the majestic rock formations that characterise the northern end of the legendary Namib-Naukluft National Park. A surreal landscape captivates all along the 22-km approach from the turn-off from the B2, marked by a gigantic rock embossed with the name ‘Husab Mine’.

Here Swakop Uranium has built one of the biggest open-pit uranium mines in the world, fast becoming the poster child for mining in Namibia. The 12-kilometre-long Husab uranium mine produced over 1 345 tonnes of uranium oxide in 2017. At that stage 150 million tonnes of rock were being moved per year, with 15 million tonnes of ore processed per year, and a 20-year life-of-mine envisioned. Since then they have been ramping up production slowly.

The Husab mine is one of the most significant direct investments made by China in Africa to date. By 2017 the investment was officially N$3.32 billion. Ownership of the mine is dominated by Taurus Investments, which holds 90% of the shareholding, and is in turn 60% owned by China’s CGN-Uranium Resources Co (CGN) and 40% by China-Africa Development Fund, set up by China Development Bank in 2007. The remaining 10% belongs to the Namibian government’s Epangelo Mining Company.

The first blasting at the mine started in March 2014, not long before the permanent access road and bridge over the Khan River were completed in May of that year. The ground-breaking ceremony had taken place the previous year, on 18 April 2013, when then President Hifikepunye Pohamba said: “The development and opening of this mine demonstrates that Namibia continues to be an attractive destination for foreign direct investment.” He called the development “one of the largest construction projects ever undertaken in Namibia.”

In May 2015 the first ore was mined and in September that year permanent water supply was secured. The first consignment of crushed rock was ready in July 2016. Since then the state-of-the-art processing plant has been commissioned. On 30 December 2016 the first barrel of export-quality U3O8 rolled off the production line.

The production facility sprawls from the ore stockpile placed at the start of the production line, which houses the pre-mixed ore concentrate grades delivered from the crusher. From there the ore goes for milling and leaching past the acid plant and tanks. The slurry gets fed through a counter current decantation (CCD) circuit, where the high-grade uranium solution is separated out. From there it goes for adsorption, elution, extraction and scrubbing, stripping, precipitation, washing and thickening, calcination and product packaging before it is ready for marketing.

Some significant milestones in production achieved last year include the drumming of 559.2 tonnes of U3O8 in August, confirming the monthly nameplate production capacity of the mine and plant. In October 2018 the throughput of the process plant reached a rate of 1 600 tonnes per hour for the first time, and on 13 October the threshold drummed product target of 3 000 tonnes was reached two months ahead of budget.

Husab enjoys the advantage of having a secured demand thanks to its partnership with CGN, which is one of the top five nuclear power generation companies in the world. In July 2014 CGN Global Uranium Ltd (CGU) was incorporated in the UK to sell Husab uranium on the world market. China General Nuclear had 18 reactors in operation by 2016 with 10 more in construction. Installed capacity in China equalled 19 300 MW, with another 12 436 MW then being built. CGN was already responsible for the supply of 62.7% of China’s electricity capacity thanks to installations like the Hongyanhe Nuclear Base, Yangjiang Nuclear Base, Ningde Nuclear Base, Daya Bay Nuclear Base and the Fangchenggang Nuclear Base, as well as expansions and construction of the Taishan Nuclear Base.

Husab Mine gets its water from NamWater, which makes use of desalinated seawater from the Erongo Desalination Plant near Wlotzkasbaken, mixed with groundwater from its own boreholes.

NamPower supplies the mine’s electricity needs. But Swakop Uranium has given notice of its intention to construct an on-site solar photovoltaic power plant at Husab. An environmental impact assessment will be conducted, and an application to amend the mine’s environmental clearance certificate will be submitted to the ministry of environment and tourism.

The proposed 12 MW solar power plant will be constructed within the mine’s ML 171 concession area, adjacent to the mine’s processing plant. The solar power plant will encompass an area of about 15.5 hectares and will be connected via a 33kV transmission line to the Husab mine substation, about 1.2 km from the proposed site.

One reason for the mine’s increased electrical demand is the ongoing installation of an electric trolley system, which will provide alternative power to the giant haul trucks that drive tonnes of ore out of the pit 24 hours a day. The trucks are being fitted with a system that will connect to overhead trolley cables supplying electricity to drive their engines.

This will realise significant fuel savings. Each haul truck uses up a full tank of 5 500 litres of diesel over the three shifts in a 24-hour cycle. Husab has more than twenty of the giant 960E Komatsu ultra-class haul trucks and a growing fleet of Chinese-made NHL haul trucks.

The giant LeTourneau L-1850 front-end wheel loader is usually employed at the bottom of one of the pits. Three rope shovels, six shovel load trucks and three hydraulic shovels make up the rest of the basis load and haul capacity at the mine. Apart from the smaller bakkies and occasional sedan, roads at the mine also teem with traffic including Komatsu bulldozers, excavators, wheel dozers, graders and water bowsers employed to suppress the dust levels.

Drilling and blasting operations make use of eight 165-mm mobile drills, four 251-mm drills, and eight MMU (Mobile Manufacturing Unit) trucks to mix and deliver explosive emulsion directly into blast holes, operated by more than 100 trained blasting crew members.

In the last months the mine has continued to grow and employment has crept up from 1620 in 2017 to 1650, according to the vice-president for human resources and business support, Percy McCallum. He says that figure does not include some 500 independent contractors, 96% of whom are Namibians, who also work on the site. The number of temporary employees stood at 176 at the end of 2017. Husab mine is now the biggest employer in Namibia’s mining sector and has created many jobs to support the government’s fight against unemployment, McCallum says.

According to him only 36 Chinese employees work at the mine, all highly qualified and experienced. These workers, seconded from nuclear power plants in China, add a lot of value to operations at Husab while providing good skill transfer opportunities, McCallum says. Many are employed in technical advisory roles, while the executive management of the mine is 50% Namibian, 50% foreign, he said. Of the management at Husab, 70% are from previously disadvantaged groups.

“There is a multicultural environment that we have created here, where Chinese and Namibians feel included and learn from each other’s strong points. The Chinese are very thorough and a lot of time is spent on planning.

“When they implement, they make sure to cover all the bases. From Namibians the Chinese learn how to operate in an African context. The world is full of cultural differences but through communication we can improve communities. Together we learn how to do it right the first time. I have all the confidence that this mine will be an icon of Namibia,” McCallum says.

McCallum, who joined Swakop Uranium in 2013 when the company had only 20 employees, is retiring in June. He was responsible for establishing the company’s board-approved internal recruitment policies, procedures and salary grading systems.

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