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Uranium Mining in 1997

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 19, 1997) 1997 was a great year for the uranium mining industry: it brought the go-ahead for a number of important new uranium mining projects worldwide. Expectations for a further increase of the uranium price were disappointed, though. The uranium industry can, moreover, be glad about the low-cost decommissioning standards approved for a number of sites to be cleaned up.

(483/4.4803) WISE-Uranium -The end of the Cold War era had had significant implications on the uranium industry: there was no more need for uranium for nuclear weapons. Existing uranium production centers in the former Eastern Bloc suddenly were submitted to market economy conditions. Many mines and mills in Eastern Europe had to be shut down, since their production cost was too high (ten times the market price at East Germany's Wismut, for example).

During subsequent years, worldwide uranium production was considerably lower than consumption, since the large inventories accumulated during the Cold War era were drawn down. Moreover, new players entered the world uranium market, among them China and the successor states of the former USSR. And, the processing of high enriched nuclear weapons grade uranium into low enriched reactor grade uranium commenced. Consequently, the uranium spot market price declined and reached an all-time low of US$9 per lb U3O8 (restricted) in Summer 1994. It was, however, unclear, how long this period would last, since the size of the inventories was not well known.

During the subsequent two years, the uranium price recovered, and it reached US$16.50 in summer 1996. This lead to the announcement of a number of new uranium mining and in-situ leaching projects, including the restart of several uranium mills that had been on standby for more than a decade in the US. At the same time, two other developments took place: The development of the high grade uranium deposits discovered in Northern Saskatchewan (Canada) had proceeded so far, that their owners applied for operating licenses; and, in Spring 1996, the newly elected liberal (conservative) government of Australia lifted the former ban on further uranium mining projects, leading to the announcement of a number of projects. The subsequent period was a very busy time for anti-uranium activists, since submissions for the various public participation processes had to be prepared, and the resistance against the projects had to be organized. The movement against the Jabiluka project in the Kakadu National Park in Australia gained support from environmental organizations from all over the world.

In 1997, most of the proposed large scale projects received government approval, or such approval was recommended by review panels. In Canada, the McClean Lake and McArthur River projects were approved, while the approval of the Midwest and Cigar Lake projects was recommended by the Review Panel. In Australia, the Jabiluka project near Ranger in the Northern Territory was approved, but negotiations with the traditional owners are pending still.

The expansion of the Olympic Dam (Roxby Downs) copper/uranium mine received clearance from the Ministry of Environment, while the approval of the Ministry for Resources and Energy is pending. In 1997, in the US, the Vasquez (Texas) in-situ leach project received State approval, while NRC approval of the Crownpoint (New Mexico) in-situ leach project is expected for January 1998. The restart of the Shootaring Canyon and White Mesa uranium mills in Utah was approved. Production commenced at the Schwartzwalder mine and at the Sunday Mine Complex in Colorado, and at the Smith Ranch (Wyoming) in-situ leach project. In Russia, the first stage commissioning of the Dalmatovkoye in-situ leach project in Western Siberia is underway.

In spite of this rather complete march through with the licensing authorities, the uranium industry is not completely happy, since, after the Summer 1996 peak, the uranium price declined again, reaching US$10 in Summer 1997. Since then, there is a moderate increase up to US$12.75 (Nov. 21, 1997). For a number of other facilities, licenses were applied for and are pending still, for example: for the Honeymoon and Beverley in-situ leach projects in South Australia (field tests are scheduled for startup at Bevereley in December 1997), for the Reno Creek, Sweetwater and Gas Hills in-situ leach facilities in Wyoming (USA), among others.

Decommissioning projects
In the United States, surface decommissioning of the uranium mill tailings at the 24 designated UMTRA Title I sites is rather complete (sites which produced uranium for DOE's nuclear weapons program, and the reclamation of which is matter of the U.S. government). Groundwater restoration at these sites is only beginning; at Spook (Wyoming) the "no action" approach was selected, leaving 3.8 million cubic meters of contaminated groundwater uncleaned. The licenses of the following commercially operated uranium processing sites were terminated in 1997: Edgemont (South Dakota), Arco Bluewater (New Mexico), and Day Loma heap leach (Wyoming). The decommissioning of a number of other commercial sites is pending. At least at two sites, it turned out that the decommissioning bonds collected from the operators are not sufficient: at the Atlas Co., Moab (Utah), and at the Dawn Co., Ford (Washington) tailings sites. For these sites, the question is now, whether they will be decommissioned according to relaxed standards, or whether the government will have to pay for a thorough cleanup. For decommissioning of another commercial mill at Bear Creek (Wyoming) "alternate" (means: relaxed) groundwater standards were approved. Relaxed groundwater standards were also approved for the in-situ leaching sites to be decommissioned at West Cole and Zamzow (Texas). The government approval for the decommissioning of the large Elliot Lake uranium mill tailings in Ontario (Canada) is still pending, although a review panel recommended approval of the proposed low-cost non-durable water cover scheme in 1996 already. In the former Eastern Bloc, decommissioning of uranium mine and mill sites is proceeding in Eastern Germany (still without public participation), while decommissioning is only beginning at some sites in the Czech Republic. In the other countries concerned (Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania, and others) no or very poor decommissioning efforts have been undertaken so far.

Source and Contact: WISE-Uranium