By Andrew Meldrum
Zimbabwe has recently discovered uranium deposits and plans to process the mineral in order to resolve its chronic power shortages, state radio quoted President Robert Mugabe as saying yesterday.
“The discovery of uranium will go a long way in further enhancing the government’s rural electrification programme,” he was quoted as saying, according to Associated Press.
It has been known for many years that uranium deposits lie in the Zambezi river valley in northern Zimbabwe. But mining experts in Harare say these were not thought to be large enough to support a viable mine.
“It is a huge step from locating some uranium deposits to developing a working uranium mine and refinery, and it is an even bigger leap to establish a nuclear reactor,” said John Robertson, an economist in Harare. “Where would Mugabe source the substantial finance and technical expertise needed to build a nuclear reactor?”
It could take four to five years to set up a uranium mine. Considerable technical skills would then be needed to produce the uranium concentrate needed for a nuclear reactor, said Robertson.
Zimbabwe has poor relations with Britain, the European Union and the United States, but has close ties with two countries that have controversial nuclear programmes – Iran and North Korea.
Mugabe made mention of Zimbabwe’s uranium deposits once before, in the 1990s, when he announced plans to acquire a nuclear reactor from Argentina, but nothing else was ever heard about the proposal. Neighbouring Namibia has a uranium mine near the port of Walvis Bay. South Africa has southern Africa’s only nuclear power station at Koeberg and is currently developing a new “pebble-bed” design of reactor.
Zimbabwe has been plagued with a shortage of electricity for several years, resulting in power blackouts to industrial and residential areas across the capital. The country currently has a shortfall on mosy days of 400 to 450 megawatts of its requirements of 2,100 megawatts.
The state-owned power company, the Zimbabwe Electric Supply Authority, has imported power from South Africa, Mozambique and Congo on the regional grid, but has been late in paying its bills to those countries.
By suggesting that Zimbabwe will develop its own source of nuclear power, Mugabe may be seeking to offer a glimmer of hope to frustrated citizens coping with worsening shortages of electricity, water, fuel and food.
“Perhaps Mugabe is also trying to get Zimbabwe to be considered as a strategically important state in the international community,” said Robertson. “He can see how Iran and North Korea are using the threat of developing nuclear power as a bargaining chip with the United States.”
The real concern of the international community would be if Zimbabwe built a nuclear reactor that produced, as a by-product, high-grade plutonium that could be used to make nuclear weapons.
Zimbabwe has rich mineral resources, including the world’s second-largest platinum deposits, high-quality chrome, gold and several other metals. – Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005