Uranium mining in 2000

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#540
15/12/2000
Article

(December 15, 2000) Following on from articles in WISE News Communique 504.4963, "Uranium mining in 1998: hard times" and 522.5118, "Uranium mining in 1999: hard times continuing", the following article gives a summary of developments in uranium mining in 2000. As can be seen from the text, the hard times are not over yet.

(540.5229) WISE Uranium - During the course of the year 2000, the uranium spot price continuously declined from 9.60 to 7.10 US$/lb U3O8 (Ux, 4 December), nearly approaching the $7 record low of November 1991.

New uranium mining projects: precedence for low-cost operations At times of low uranium prices, exploration for new deposits is of course not the highest priority and no major new deposits have been discovered. In the Brazilian state of Pará, a large low-grade uranium deposit was discovered. However, it would be viable at uranium prices above US$ 40-60 only. Energy Resources of Australia downgraded the Jabiluka ore reserves by 21.5% to 71,000 t U3O8 (60,200 t U), after the deposit had become accessible for a more thorough exploration through a decline.

In spite of the depressed market, three mines started commercial production in the year 2000: the Lagoa Real open pit uranium mine in the Brazilian state of Bahia, where the uranium is extracted by heap leaching, the McArthur River extraordinarily-high-grade underground mine in Saskatchewan, Canada, and the Beverley in-situ leach mine in South Australia.

In a spectacular decision, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), at the request of The Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) and others, put Hydro Resources' new license for the Crownpoint in-situ leach project in New Mexico on hold. This decision was issued because an adequate financial assurance plan had not been presented.

The development of the Honeymoon in-situ leach project in South Australia continued: in June, Southern Cross Resources released the Environmental Impact Statement; in August, the field leach trial was completed, and in November, Southern Cross Resources released the supplementary Environmental Impact Statement.

On 7 and 9 May, more than 40 protesters were arrested at blockades of the Beverley in-situ leach uranium mine project site in South Australia.

Western Mining Corp. announced that it is no longer interested in the Yeelirrie project in West Australia.

Traditional Owners vetoed the Koongarra uranium mine project in the Northern Territory. In November, the World Heritage Committee decided not to list Kakadu National Park as "in danger" for the development of the Jabiluka uranium mine, but called for Australia to establish an independent committee to monitor the mine's impact on Kakadu National Park.

Russia announced that it wants to double its uranium production by 2010. The new Khiagdinskoe uranium in-situ leach project is to be developed in the Buryat region of Siberia. First independent reports show that the environment is at risk from this project in the permafrost zone.

Kazakhstan announced to upgrade its uranium production facilities with Western credit. For the exploitation of the Zarechnoye uranium deposit in western Kazakhstan, a joint venture corporation of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia is to be formed. Cameco and Kazatomprom announced to assess the potential of the Inkay uranium in-situ leach project.

Uranium Corp of India Ltd (UCIL) has received permission to begin uranium mining in Domiasiat village in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. The project is being opposed by tribals from the area.

In Malawi, Africa, pre-development work has begun on a new uranium mine at Kayelekera, owned by Australia-based Paladin Resources.

Companies in trouble
For a number of mines, the year 2000 brought a change in ownership: General Atomics (GA) acquired Cotter Corp. Reports speculated that GA plans to compete in the processing of "alternate feed material" (see below). World Wide Minerals exited the uranium business and sold its uranium properties in Mongolia and the U.S. to WM Mining International. The British/Australian mining giant Rio Tinto acquired the majority in North Ltd, the majority owner of Energy Resources of Australia (ERA). It is not clear yet, whether Rio Tinto will keep ERA's Ranger uranium mine and Jabiluka project or will sell them off. The British mining company Billiton acquired Rio Algom, the owner of the operating Smith Ranch in-situ leach uranium mine in Wyoming and - through Quivira Mining -- the largest uranium mill tailings pile in the U.S. at Ambrosia Lake in New Mexico.

The persistent adverse circumstances for uranium mining caused a number of smaller companies to look for other business opportunities (mostly Internet-related), or, at least, delete the term of "uranium" from their name. The most striking example is American Uranium, Inc.: the company changed its name to VISUAL BIBLE INTERNATIONAL, INC. Good luck!

Issues at operating uranium mines
In the Czech Republic, the government approved a 2-year extension of operation of the country's last active uranium mine at Rozná in Moravia, rather than shutting it down end 2001 for its marginal competitiveness, as previously planned.

In May it came to light that a leak at the Ranger mine in Australia had been kept secrect for weeks. A Supervising Scientist report later found the leak caused no damage to Kakadu National Park, but at the same time found evidence of an earlier spill not reported.

On 23 May, 2000 protestors blocked the main entrance to the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine in South Australia.

On 4 September, the Indian Supreme Court, in an unprecedented move, admitted a petition seeking direction to the Indian government and the Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL) to take stringent measures at the Jaduguda uranium mine in Bihar (now Jharkhand) in the wake of alarming reports that villagers were affected by the radiation from mines. The film "Buddha Weeps In Jadugoda" about the impacts of the mine received the best film award at the Tokyo Global Environmental Film Festival EARTH VISION.

Shutdown and decommissioning of uranium mines
In June, Cogema shut down its Christensen Ranch in-situ leach mine in Wyoming, US.

In September, Cameco announced the suspension of the development of its Highland in-situ leach mine in Wyoming, only 2 months after having requested a 10-year license renewal for the mine. Later, Cameco wrote down this mine as well as the in-situ leach mine in Crow Butte, Nebraska; but, for the time being, production continues at both mines. Cameco further announced a temporary shutdown of the Rabbit Lake mill in Saskatchewan, Canada, for one year from the first quarter of 2001.

Concerning the bankrupt Atlas Corp.'s leaking Moab uranium mill tailings pile in Utah, US, the year 2000 brought an unexpected and unprecedented change for the better: while the trustee nominated by NRC started work for in-place reclamation of the 9.5 million metric tonnes of tailings located on the bank of the Colorado River, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in January presented a plan to relocate the tailings to a safer disposal site. If this proposal were realized, this pile would be the largest uranium mill tailings pile ever relocated. In the meantime, it became known that seepage from the pile is lethal to fish in the Colorado River. In October, Congress passed a bill adopting this proposal, subject to some conditions.

On 1 February, Bill Hedden of Grand Canyon Trust received the "Beyond the Headlines Award" for his fight for the cleanup of the Atlas Moab uranium mill tailings pile.

For the decommissioning of Quivira Mining's Ambrosia Lake mill site in New Mexico, US and Pathfinder Mines' Shirley Basin mill site in Wyoming, relaxed groundwater standards were requested by the respective operators, to avoid costly groundwater clean-up.

In Australia, tailings from old uranium mines were found dispersed in Kakadu National Park, and high radiation was found at the abandoned Lake Way uranium mine in West Australia. The sites had not been cleaned up appropriately.

For the Sillamäe uranium mill tailings deposit located on the shore of the Baltic Sea in Estonia, German contractor Wismut presented a decommissioning proposal. First investigations have shown that the dam is in an extremely poor condition, with only miniscule safety margins for dam stability, and continuously leaking into the Baltic Sea.

In another part of the former Soviet Union, high radiation from former uranium mining was found around the town of Chkalovsk in the Leninabad region in Tajikistan. Radiation levels in the area exceed safety standards 10-fold.

Alternate feed processing and waste disposal - the new business
At the time of a depressed uranium market, processing of alternate feed material, such as contaminated soils from former nuclear weapons production sites, gains importance in the U.S. as a means of keeping otherwise idle uranium mills busy. After the extraction of residual uranium, the material is disposed of in the tailings impoundment of the mill - a cheap way to get rid of material that otherwise would have to be shipped to a disposal site for low-level radioactive waste.

International Uranium Corp. (IUC) - a pioneer of this business - continued processing of alternate feed material from various sources at its White Mesa Mill in Utah. And, IUC requested further license amendments to process more material from Tonawanda (New York), Chattanooga (Tennessee), and Lakehurst (New Jersey). In May, surprisingly, however, it turned out that the licensed tailings capacity at the White Mesa mill is insufficient for processing of all of the material requested (!). IUC now is trying to convince the NRC that certain changes at the existing impoundment will supply the required capacity.

It seems that meanwhile also others like this business idea, since the acquisition of Cotter Corp by General Atomics (GA) is assumed to be motivated by GA's interest in alternate-feed processing at Cotter Corp.'s Cañon City Mill in Colorado.

But why first extract the uranium from the alternate feed material, if direct disposal were cheaper? While IUC never would consider this question in public, for not having to admit that its real business were disposal (which would not be permitted under its license), others are not bothered by such problems: In November, public hearings were held on the requested license renewal for the disposal of up to 460,000 m3 of off-site material at Umetco Mineral's former Uravan uranium mill site in Colorado. For 2001, Umetco plans to bring in for disposal 72,000 m3 of contaminated waste from the old Shattuck Chemical Co. site in Denver. The environmental group Western Colorado Congress strongly opposed the proposed license renewal.
And, Plateau Resources also requested permission for disposal of off-site byproduct material in its nearly empty Shootaring Canyon uranium mill tailings facility near Ticaboo, Utah. While this was thought to be offered as an alternate disposal site for the Atlas Moab tailings, it would also be suitable for other material.

Uranium miner compensation: A big step forward
In May, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that an ex-worker at the Cañon City uranium mill must receive cancer compensation. The employee had worked in the uranium industry for 20 years, and uranium concentrations 700 times the normal level had been found in his intestine.

On July 10, U.S. President Clinton signed a bill to amend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990. The amendment extends the eligibility for compensation to miners in states not covered so far, includes more diseases for eligibility, drops restrictions for smokers, cuts the minimum working years a miner must have been employed, and reduces undue administrative burdens for applicants. But soon after, it turned out that, instead of $100,000 compensation, former uranium miners get IOUs, since not enough funds had been appropriated for the current period. The compensation sum will further increase to $150,000, as President Clinton on October 30 signed a landmark compensation legislation for DOE nuclear workers, which also contains this provision for uranium miners.

Regulatory issues: Economy prevails over environment and health
At the request of the uranium industry, the U.S. NRC issued its Draft Rulemaking Plan "Domestic Licensing of Uranium and Thorium Recovery Facilities - 10 CFR Part 41". This rulemaking would add regulations for in-situ leach operations, simplify processing of alternate feed in uranium mills, add regulations for disposal of off-site material, and delete "prescriptive" site and design requirements, such as the "no active maintenance" requirement for uranium mill tailings deposits, among others.

On 7 December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promulgated its final rule on radionuclides in drinking water - 9 years after issuing the draft rule in 1991. The rule for the first time includes a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for uranium. For cost considerations, EPA established a standard of 30 µg/L, although it had determined a safe level of 20 µg/L. The World Health Organization (WHO), on the contrary, in 1998 had established a provisional guideline of 2 µg/L for uranium in drinking water.

The German Federal Constitutional Court dismissed a suit against the split radiation protection regulations in the western and eastern parts of the country. The suit had been filed by residents of Wismut's uranium mining area in Eastern Germany, where less stringent regulations are in effect than in the western part of the country. Meanwhile, the revision of the German radiation protection regulations is underway, to implement the European radiation protection directive of 1996. The cleanup of Wismut's uranium mining legacy, however, will not to be included in the new German regulations: for the environmental reclamation standards, the regulations of the former German Democratic Republic will remain in force, while only Wismut cleanup workers will partly be covered by the new regulations.

Source and contact: WISE Uranium
For details, check WISE Uranium Project's web site at http://www.wise-uranium.org/