African and Kazakh Nuclear Experts Exchange Experience in Exploration of Uranium Resources

On the eve of the IAEA GC64, convened in Vienna from 21 through 25 September 2020, ISTC supported the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE) in the organization of an online discussion among experts on the topic African Uranium Resources: Exploration, Exploitation and Cooperation Opportunities. The event attracted the attention of approximately fifty experts from AFCONE, from the IAEA, from African countries as well as from Kazakhstan. The audience included government nuclear regulators, industry representatives and operators in the nuclear energy field, professional and research communities, academia, youth organizations.

In his opening remarks Dr. Messaoud Baaliouamer, AFCONE Executive Secretary, recalled that one of the main functions of AFCONE is to facilitate the exchange of information and the development of regional and sub-regional programs for co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology, and to promote international co-operation with extra-zonal States. Against the background of rapid economic and population growth in Africa and the challenges of the climate change, nuclear power should be considered an important component in the energy mix strategies of African countries. This is already the case in several countries: South Africa, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and other newcomers.

The AFCONE interest in the Uranium extracting and processing industry is related to the following parameters: twelve nations are developing energy planning and preparing infrastructure for nuclear power plant programs; the development of nuclear science and technology on the continent enables African countries to exploit their resources of Uranium and other fissile materials in a safe and secure manner; the introduction of modern management of radioactive waste creates conditions for the strict observation of nuclear safeguards obligations. Ten years ago, the African Mining Vision put forward by the African Union Commission called for a Resource-based African Industrialization and Development Strategy, underlining that including uranium mining can be used to develop partnerships in the expansion of economic infrastructure.

Africa and Kazakhstan are managing, respectively, about 20% and 14% of the global Uranium reserves. This noteworthy circumstance encouraged AFCONE to initiate a series of informal webinars designed to facilitate information exchange and peer-to-peer best practices sharing. AFCONE is inviting international expertise and technologies through the channels of the IAEA Technical Cooperation Programs, and also through its partnership with centers of excellence, like the International Science and Technology Center, which implements relevant EU projects in Africa.

In his welcoming remarks David Cleave, ISTC Executive Director, stated that the Center was proud of its partnership with AFCONE and the record of successful joint undertakings. This valuable interaction allows them to address some of the most pressing questions: What are the fundamental benefits of nuclear energy that should lead decision-makers to support its peaceful use? How can nuclear projects contribute to the recovery from the economic impact from COVID-19 and generate jobs? What role should nuclear energy play in the energy mix to facilitate the transition to clean energy?

Mr. Paul Msoma, representing the AUC Department of Trade and Industry, outlined the transformative role of the mineral sector in Africa. He underlined that the Africa Mining Vision is not about the science of the mining as such, but about the developmental agenda of the mining sector itself. From a developmental perspective, AUC’s work is anchored around seven seminal linkages: fiscal; spatial, creating critical infrastructure for other economic potentials; generating demand for capital goods and services to spur growth; STEM knowledge and new tech clusters, adaptable to other sectors; value-addition from export of resources; wages spend-induced consumption; and the lateral linkages to other sectors. In October 2020, the African Union Commodity Strategy will be adopted on the ministerial level, treating the uranium industry as part of the energy and mineral sections. The expected enhanced contribution of uranium resources to the economic development in Africa will be scrutinized in four focus areas.

Dr. Gabriele Schneider, the Executive Director of the Namibian Uranium Institute, provided a thorough and multifaceted survey of the current situation, prospects and challenges to the Uranium mining industry in Africa. Currently production of uranium takes place in Namibia, Niger, and South Africa. Past production is recorded in the DRC, Gabon, and Malawi. Exploration proceeds in Algeria, Botswana, the Central African Republic, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Activities might be accelerated if and when the price of uranium ore increases from the present low level. The leading role of Namibia as the principal African producer and provider of approximately 10% of the global supply was also outlined. From the comprehensive presentation by Dr. Schneider it became clear that Africa is host to a large variety of uranium deposits and that considerable resources remain untapped, including the potential for reprocessing waste material from gold mining. On the challenges side, licensing ought to be improved and international instruments controlling the trading of uranium need to be honored strictly.

Dr Timur Zhantikin, Director of Kazakhstan Nuclear Power Plant LLP, presented the approaches Kazakhstan adopted towards uranium mining and management. Kazakhstan has 67% of the world’s proven uranium reserves suitable for extraction using in-situ leaching. Currently, 14 deposits out of 56 known ones are in use. NAC Kazatomprom JSC is the national operator.  The Company employs twenty thousand people, five hundred out of whom are engaged in research. Kazatomprom provides a quarter of the world uranium production through its 40 subsidiaries and covers the entire front-end of the nuclear fuel cycle – from geological exploration, uranium mining, production of nuclear fuel, through to scientific research and development of patented technologies.

In his remarks Mr. Kanat Tumysh, Ambassador of Kazakhstan to South Africa, pointed out the importance of the interaction between the NWF Zones in Africa and in Central Asia that will culminate in the upcoming conclusion of a bilateral Memorandum of cooperation. Such region-to-region collaboration was proposed by Kazakhstan during its non-permanent membership in the UN Security Council, and the country is implementing this idea in practice.

The presentation by Mr. Mickel Edwerd, representing the IAEA Department for Technical Cooperation, Division for Africa, headed by Prof. Dr. Shaukat Abdulrazak, was dedicated to the regional and interregional cooperation programs in the field of Uranium production. Out of the eleven projects that the IAEA Secretariat provided to Member States in recent years seven are national, two regional, and two interregional. National projects aim at: improving technical infrastructure and regulatory control of Uranium sites, environmental protection and dosimetry monitoring, feasibility studies for uranium recovery and assessment of uranium resources. Regional projects in Africa, involving 32 IAEA Member States (MS), foster strong regional cooperation by promoting the region’s sustainability and self-reliance through collaboration with existing regional centres. Interregional projects (24 participating MS) deliver support between different regions and contribute to the promotion of interregional cooperation in this field. The IAEA Milestones approach in the development of the region’s national infrastructure for uranium production cycle (UPC) development helps to incorporate good practices for the sustainable development of UPC projects, to enhance Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives, and to carry out follow up studies on in situ leach operations that keep the orebody in the ground but avoid contamination of ground water.

The participants appreciated the AFCONE initiative for the webinar, supported by ISTC. The dispassionate, scientific debate over Uranium production based on empirical findings was essential and useful. Questions raised during the discussion referred to the need for an integrated approach in the management of the Uranium sector; the possible applicability of Kazakh documents and organizational frameworks in African countries; the forms of involvement of African Women in Nuclear in the process of securing safe exploitation of mineral resources.

The results of the webinar enabled the partners to include activities in the concrete plan of action designed to enhance Africa – Kazakhstan (Central Asia NWFZ) cooperation in exploration, exploitation, capacity building and research and innovation, and to up-scale initiatives and programs that have a regional and inter-regional dimension and aim to benefit the entire African continent.

Speakers' Presentations