MAC: Mines and Communities

Africa's No-Win on Uranium

Published by MAC on 2006-01-18

Africa's No-Win on Uranium

18th January 2006

One thing seems clear: today's uranium exploration is being targeted primarily at Africa. But that's perhaps the only certainty in the debate over future reliance on nuclear-powered (we should really call it "uranium powered") electricity generation.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IEAE) last week cast a shadow over the optimism, recently expressed by certain governments (notably India, China and Australia), that the world is on the brink of a major expansion in atomic energy which, some claim, will miraculously counter the impacts of global greenhouse gas contributions to adverse climate change.

In fact, according to the IAEA, there will probably be no major expansion in nuclear generation over the next 20-30 years (the period in which massive reductions of carbon output are essential) . Moreover, uranium's share of gross electricity output is actually likely to go down from the present 16% to around 12%. Although this proportion may have risen to 20-25% by 2050, by then it will be far too late for uranium power to have made any substantial impact on reducing global warming.

Twenty nine reactors are currently under construction around the world - just over half of which are located in Asia, with INDIA leading the way and CHINA not far behind.

How many of these will actually come on stream? And how much uranium will they require? At present that's almost anyone's guess. The IAEA itself predicts that coal, "renewables", and gas will far outstrip uranium in meeting electricity demand within the next twenty three years. But, even if demand for nucear power were to double over the next quarter of a century, African mining authorities would be wildly over-optimistic to bank on bringing into production more than a tiny fraction of the curent prospects on the continent.

While Namibia (which hosts Rio Tinto's Rossing mine) has awarded more than a score of licences to uranium miners in the past six months alone, the Zambian government recently declared it wouldn't rush into doing so and there is strong resistance to the Australian company, Paladin ,from civil society in Malawi.

For Africans, it almost inevitably seems like a Losers' game. If you pin your hopes on uranium mining as a new generator of GDP, they will be dashed as expansion in global nuclear demand fails to materialise.

But, if African peoples once again yield their resources to foreign powers, they may end up with the worst of the potentially deadly (and radioactive) consequences of mining them.

[Comment by Nostromo Research, London January 18 2007]

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