A glimpse back to the beginning of Rössing mine

John Louw celebrated his 40th year as a Rössing board director in 2012. He is one of the three sons of the geologist Captain Peter Louw, who discovered the first traces of uranium in the Namib Desert, which ultimately led to the establishment of Rössing. Below is an extract from a speech given by him at a dinner held in his honour towards the end of 2012.

I would like to tell you a little story. Rewind to the mid-1920s. My parents had settled in Swakopmund, which prior to World War One (1914-1918) had been part of German South West Africa. Swakopmund was little more than a village in the grips of the beginning of the Great Depression (1929-1934). The entire world seemed to be suffering, and Swakop was no exception.

With several friends, including German residents from earlier years, my parents started to investigate the possibility of local mineral prospects, particularly radium. Traces of radium had apparently been identified near Rössing Mountain by geologists who had done a sterling survey of the mineral wealth of South West Africa when it was part of the German Empire. My British mother, who came from a medical background, was quick to realise the possible value of radium, used to this day in the treatment of cancerous tumours.

So, the group went prospecting and searched certain target areas. Eventually, they found some of the smallish black stones which showed a 'metallescent' fracture when broken. These were considered to be markers for a possible radium source. Samples were duly collected and sorted, and under my mother's guidance they were dispatched to Teddington laboratory in Britain for evaluation. The samples were confirmed to be radioactive but, regrettably, of no apparent financial value.

Now fast-forward to the latter days of World War Two (1939- 1945). I was a young sapper in active service in Italy. The war in Europe was clearly drawing to a close; indeed, hostilities in Europe ended in May 1945. In the Far East, however, Japan was still actively engaged in war against the USA and its allies, with considerable casualties on both sides and no sign of a Japanese surrender. In early August, the USA ended the war by dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both cities were completely destroyed. The world instantly became aware of the awesome power of uranium.

By the mid-1950s, the energy potential of a peaceful application of nuclear power was fully recognised. The first nuclear reactors for the production of electricity were taking shape. This, in turn, led to a growing need for an adequate and reliable supply of uranium. As a student of industrial chemistry, employed in the laboratories of an energyconscious petroleum company in Cape Town, I began to think again about the small black stones I knew as a boy. I understood from the periodic table of elements that uranium could belong to the same family of minerals as radium, and that the presence of radium might well indicate a source of uranium in the area of Swakopmund.

Some time later, on a visit to Swakopmund, I discussed my theory with my father and suggested we drive out to the old radium prospect area of those early years to investigate the possibility of a uranium presence. Somewhat reluctantly he agreed, and early the following morning we set out for what we remembered to be the original site. An hour or so later, my father turned off to the right of the main road, a bit beyond Rössing Mountain, and stopped not too far from where Rössing built its landing strip many years later.

It was time for a cup of tea, so we sat on the ground in the shade of the vehicle and planned our course of action. We would each take an area to either side of the vehicle and search for small black stones about the size of a hen's egg. This we duly did, and when our canvas bags were full - some 20 stones in each - we returned to the vehicle to find out the truth with the aid of a Geiger counter.

We anxiously checked the first bag, small black stone by small black stone, slowly and carefully. Not a single chirp or beep from the Geiger counter. Only silence. Then we checked the second bag; again, deafening silence from the counter ... until, about five stones from the bottom of the bag, the counter took off in wild excitement. That was the birth of Rössing Uranium Limited: one lonely black stone, not much bigger than a hen's egg.

As I had to return to Cape Town the next day, we carefully marked the spot so that my brother, Graham, would be able to find the area. Graham did a comprehensive check of the entire vicinity to determine the best location for his first four claims. Subsequently, as the 'family prospector', he identified more radioactive anomalies in the vicinity, which then led to the declaration of an official mining area. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.