Tanzania has moved to speed up uranium extraction in Mkuju River in the Selous Game Reserve, Africa's biggest wildlife conservancy area, amid protests from wildlife conservationists.
The government has directed Mantra Tanzania Ltd to start mining within two years for citizens to benefit from the project and the country to earn foreign currency from mineral exports.
Deputy Minister for Energy and Minerals Medard Kalemani said extraction of uranium should have begun when the mining licence was granted on April 5, 2015.
"Mantra was given two years for construction of the mining infrastructure. This is the fourth year. We are therefore saying you must start uranium mining operations in the next two years," said Dr Kalemani. "We are urging Mantra to open the mine in order to pay taxes and employ Tanzanians."
Mantra Tanzania Ltd is a subsidiary of the Toronto-based Uranium Mining Company and its parent consortium, the Russian state-owned nuclear enterprise, Rosatom.
Tanzania hopes to capitalise on rising uranium prices from 2017 to 2020, driven by increased demand. Uranium is used as a feedstock in nuclear reactors for generation of electricity.
Economic and health risks
But the World Wide Fund for Nature has said that uranium mining and industrial activities being carried within the Selous reserve pose long-term economic and health risks to the people and economy of Tanzania.
"Selous is the only natural World Heritage Site in southern Tanzania and one of the largest wilderness areas left in Africa. Its value to Tanzania, and indeed to the rest of the world, is dependent on its large wildlife populations and pristine ecosystems," said country director Amani Ngusaru.
"By investing in tourism and conservation, Tanzania will ensure sustained growth in direct revenue from the tourism sector. WWF Tanzania continues to campaign for conservation of wildlife and halting uranium extraction and other industrial activities inside the Selous."
According to WWF, there are regulations that protect sites from harmful activities such as oil, gas and mineral extraction and that they should be enforced in full and without exception.
Dr Ngusaru said that the Selous Game Reserve, whose elephant population has decimated by poaching, would see it lose its global appeal as a World Heritage Site if uranium extraction and other industrial activities are carried out there.
Prof Hussein Sossovele, a senior environmental researcher said uranium mining within the reserve could lead to dangerous consequences.
"Comparably, uranium mining could generate $4 million or less per year when extraction kicks off, while gains from tourists visiting the park each year are multiple and therefore more beneficial to Tanzania and its people" he said.
Nuclear utilities buy uranium using long-term contracts beginning two to four years after signing, and provide for delivery from four to 10 years. Long term contracts started at $44 per pound of uranium in January 2016 and stood at $33 in November this year.
Mantra's mine is expected to create employment for 1,500 people during the construction phase. Over 2,000 people are expected to be employed when mining operations start.
Tanzania expects Mantra to build a processing plant within five years after mining starts in order to avoid export of raw ore.