(December 18, 1998) At the end of 1998, the uranium spot price is rapidly falling towards its all-time low: Uranium Exchange Co. reported US$8.75 per lb U3O8 on December 7, 1998. This figure is not very meaningful, however, since only low volumes are traded on the spot market now.
(504.4963) Peter Diehl - The uranium production from mines at present supplies only about 60% of consumption. Other sources of uranium entering the market stem from various stockpiles:
- In consequence of the privatization of U.S. Enrichment Corp., the new USEC Inc. has announced it plans to sell its uranium inventory of 29,000 tons U over the next few years to pay down its indebtedness. [Reuters July 31, 1998]
- Downblended Highly Enriched Uranium from decommissioning of nuclear weapons is entering the market.
- Only small amounts of uranium from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel are being used at present.
- Tails upgrading in Russia: uranium enricher Urenco is sending its enrichment tails (uranium depleted to 0.30% U-235) to Russia for re-enrichment to natural isotope composition (0.71% U-235). It is likely that Russia has contracted to strip these tails from 0.30 to 0.25% U-235, but Russia is believed to further strip to 0.12% tails assay. If the whole Russian excess enrichment capacity of nine million SWU per year were used for stripping Urenco's tails from 0.30 to 0.12%, 7,290 tons of uranium of natural isotope composition would be recovered, 4,680 tons of which would be on Russia's own account. [NuclearFuel October 19, 1998, p.3]
An improvement of the uranium market in the near future is not very likely. While International Nuclear Inc. sees prices beginning to rise after 2003, Ron Shani of IAEA says: "Even the gloomiest of industry projections indicate at least a small uranium market through 2050." [NF October 19, 1998, p.16/12]
One of the consequences of the weak uranium market is a beginning concentration process in the uranium industry:
- Uranerz (Germany) sold its US and Canadian properties to Cameco. The principal assets acquired are 33.33% interests in the operating Key Lake and Rabbit Lake uranium mines and a 27.92% interest in the McArthur River uranium project (all Saskatchewan). The transaction also includes a 57.69% interest in the Crow Butte uranium mine in Nebraska (USA) plus uranium and gold exploration properties in northern Saskatchewan, the United States and Kazakhstan.
- Uranium Resources Inc. (URI) is looking for an asset buyer after writedown of its South Texas uranium properties. [URI November 16, 1998]
- North Ltd., the majority shareholder of Jabiluka owner Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), is believed to be a candidate for takeover, due to problems with environmental protests and a negative report from the UN's World Heritage Bureau on the planned Jabiluka mine. [Reuters, December 10, 1998]
Another impact of the weak uranium market are shutdowns and capacity reductions of existing uranium mines and suspensions of uranium mining projects:
- The Green Mountain Mining Joint Venture announced the suspension of the Jackpot (Wyoming, US) mine development.
- Cogema announced that it plans to close its Cluff Lake mine (Saskatchewan, Canada) in December 2000, after it had turned out that the mill's tailings storage capacity was insufficient, and authorities had demanded the construction of an additional tailings pond.
- World Wide Minerals puts its Dornod Uran mine in Mongolia on standby.
- The Rössing mine in Namibia announced the lay-off of 200 workers during 1999.
- Anaconda Uranium Corp. is terminating the Ben Lomond and Maureen projects in Queensland, Australia.
- Rio Tinto announced that the Kintyre project in western Australia is being placed under care and maintenance.
- Cameco announced the slowdown of production at Rabbit Lake (Saskatchewan), cutting 140 employee jobs plus 130 contractor jobs, and the temporary layoff of about 200 out of 300 employees at Key Lake (Saskatchewan).
- The Kingsville Dome and Rosita in-situ leach mines in Texas (US) are to be placed on standby within the next months (though the expansion of Rosita had just been licensed).
- The byproduct uranium production from phosphate in Louisiana (US) is to cease in December.
- On December 14, Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) announced a cutback of its annual production at its Ranger mine, due to the low uranium price, from 5,500 to 4,000 tons U per year, effective March 31, 1999.
International Uranium Corp. (IUC) is pursuing another way to survive under the current conditions: The processing of alternate feed at its White Mesa mill in Utah. In 1998, the processing of uranium-contaminated material from the Blind River refinery and the Port Hope conversion plant in Ontario, and from the Tonawanda nuclear weapons production site in New York were licensed. After recovery of the uranium, the processing wastes are being dumped on the mill's tailings pile, a matter of concern for Utah residents.
Most new uranium mining projects being developed at present are low-cost mines, either for their extraordinary high ore grades (as in Saskatchewan, Canada), or for their amenability to the in-situ leaching technique (as in US and Australia).
The largescale high-grade deposits being developed are McArthur River with reserves of 160,000 tons of uranium, at an ore grade of 12.7% U, Cigar Lake with 150,000 tons at 7.8% U, Midwest with 13,200 tons at 3.8%, all located in Saskatchewan. The latter two were licensed in 1998, McArthur River already in 1997.
Construction of the controversial Jabiluka mine in the Northern Territory of Australia was licensed in June 1998 and started the same month. The deposit contains 76,660 tons uranium at 0.39% U and it is located on a lease surrounded by the Kakadu National Park, a UN World Heritage. After intervention by the Traditional Owners of the site, the mining company Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) changed its plans to process the ore on site instead at the existing Ranger mill. The plans for mill tailings management at Jabiluka are rather vague still and are subject to further licensing. In January, the European Parliament passed a resolution in favor of indigenous peoples concerned from uranium mining projects, and against the development of the Jabiluka project in particular. In December, the Australian government suffered a further setback, when the United Nations' World Heritage Committee (WHC) called for a preliminary halt to the project, until the committee would make its decision in April 1999, whether Kakadu National Park were to be listed as a World Heritage "in danger". From March to October, Jabiluka was the target of the longest-ever blockade against a uranium mine, organized by Jabiluka Traditional Owners and environmental activists from all over Australia. Hundreds of activists were arrested during the blockade.
At the Beverley and Honeymoon ore deposits in south Australia, field leach trials for in-situ leaching have begun in 1998.
The expansion (more than doubling) of the production capability of the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine in south Australia is going on and is expected to come into effect late in 1998.
In the United States, the following in-situ leach projects were licensed in 1998: Crownpoint (New Mexico), Rosita extension (Texas), and Alta Mesa (Texas).
Canadian uranium miner Anaconda Uranium Corp. announced the development of the Nisa mine in Portugal.
Regarding the present situation of the uranium industry, it is no surprise that the decommissioning standards are getting weaker.
The largest decommissioning project approved in 1998 was the 70-million-ton Denison Stanrock uranium mill tailings pile in Elliot Lake, Ontario. This is the first license for a permanent disposal of largescale uranium tailings with a soft non-durable water cover worldwide.
The US Department of Energy's cleanup program for the uranium mill tailings sites left over from the Cold War era was nearly completed in 1998, at least regarding the surface aspect. For the groundwater aspect, as well as for the tailings from commercial uranium production, work is only beginning, and often consists of granting relaxed groundwater standards.
Relaxed groundwater standards were proposed or approved for the mill tailings sites at Riverton (Wyoming), Shirley Basin (Wyoming), Falls City (Texas), and for the groundwater restoration at the following in-situ leach sites: Burns/Moser, Holiday, Clay West, O'Hern, Boots/Brown (all in Texas). Active groundwater cleanup was proposed for the Tuba City (Arizona) mill site.
For the Belfield and Bowman mill tailings sites in North Dakota, the decision was made, at the request of the State of North Dakota, that no cleanup would be performed at all.
A matter of high discussion was the cleanup of the 9.5-million-ton Atlas Corp. uranium mill tailings site at Moab (Utah). The pile is located immediately on the bank of the Colorado River, a drinking water resource for millions of Americans. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), as well as Moab residents and environmental groups, had requested that the tailings be relocated to a safer place, while Atlas Corp. and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) thought a rock cover would be sufficient. Meanwhile, the FWS changed its mind and adhered to the rock cover policy, causing residents and environmentalists to file a lawsuit, while Atlas Corp. declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy...
Impacts on Uranium Workers
Science News: Archer et al found that not only lung cancer but also pulmonary fibrosis occurring in uranium miners can be caused from excessive exposure to radon progeny.
Impacts on Residents
On July 15, 1998, a federal jury awarded US$2.9 million to 14 residents of Lincoln Park who were contaminated by Cotter Corp.'s Cañon City (Colorado) uranium mill during the 1970s and 1980s. The mill was in operation from 1958 to 1987. Liquid wastes containing radionuclides and heavy metals were discharged from 1958 to 1978 into 11 unlined tailings ponds. The ponds were replaced in 1982 with the construction of two lined impoundments. Prior to 1982, a number of Lincoln Park wells showed elevated levels of contamination.
Science News: Zamora et al, for the first time, studied the effects of chronic ingestion of uranium with drinking water on humans. They found that kidney function is affected by uranium uptakes considered safe in the publications based on animal studies.
Archer, Victor E. et al: Chronic Diffuse Interstitial Fibrosis of the Lung in Uranium Miners, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine Vol. 40, No. 5, May 1998, p. 460-474.
Zamora, M.L. et al: Chronic Ingestion of Uranium in Drinking Water: A Study of Kidney Bioeffects in Humans, Toxicological Sciences Vol. 43, No. 1, May 1998, p. 68-77.