Last week, Namibian authorities discovered four unguarded barrels of radioactive uranium oxide on a beach near the coastal town of Swakopmund. Each barrel is estimated to contain between 150 and 180 kilograms of so-called yellowcake, a powdered form of concentrated uranium produced in an intermediary step during the processing of uranium ore.
Four people were arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle the barrels, worth an estimated $100,000, out of the country. Police are still looking for another suspect.
Reports suggest that the dangerously radioactive material was stolen from the Trekkopje uranium mine owned by French energy giant Areva. Namibia is a major exporter of uranium and the mine in question is slated to become the largest uranium mine in southern Africa once it reaches full production capacity.
This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened in Namibia. Last year three men, including an officer of the Namibian Defence Force, were arrested for being in possession of and attempting to smuggle almost 170 kilograms of uranium oxide. In that instance the material came from another major uranium mine, Rössing Uranium, 69% of which is owned by the British-Australian Rio Tinto Group, one of the largest mining companies in the world.
There are a number of reasons why the latest incident is of great concern:
• it puts into question the level of security at Namibian uranium mining operations, with the worry being that radioactive uranium oxide could get into the “wrong hands”;
• it raises issues about the potential human health effects of the stolen radioactive materials;
• it highlights the risk of possible radioactive contamination of the local environment, including vital water resources; and
• it warrants queries about the capacity of local authorities to deal effectively and quickly with potentially large environmental disasters related to such materials.
Andreas is a book shop manager and freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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