(December 21, 2001) News about uranium mining in 2001 includes the successful campaign against Jabiluka (see WISE News Communique 547.5266, "Rio Tinto places 10-year moratorium on Jabiluka uranium mine project") and the closure of France's last uranium mine.
(560.5355) WISE Uranium - During the course of the year 2001, the uranium spot price slowly recovered from a US$ 7.10 record low to $9.50 per lb U3O8 (Ux, Dec. 17), but this increase was not sufficient for the uranium mining industry to become hopeful.
Companies - in trouble, still
In March, Rio Tinto, new majority owner of Energy Resources of Australia Ltd, stalled, for poor uranium outlook, the efforts to sell its majority stake in ERA. ERA is operating the Ranger mine and developing the Jabiluka mine in the Northern Territory. Soon after, it became known that Cameco's stake in Energy Resources of Australia Ltd is for sale.
WMC, operator of the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine in South Australia, reportedly is a takeover candidate for its aluminium business. Any possible buyer probably would try to sell off the copper/uranium business.
Pioneer Metals Corp. and Cameco announced they would form a public uranium exploration company to assess the Riou Lake and other properties in Saskatchewan, Canada.
A new assessment of the McArthur River high-grade uranium deposit in Saskatchewan, Canada, increased its reserves by more than 50% to 151,883 tonnes U at a grade of 17.96% U.
In South Australia, a possible new Olympic Dam-style copper/gold/uranium deposit was discovered. The size of the deposit is not known yet, however.
New uranium mining projects: low-cost only
Given the poor market conditions for uranium, the development of new mine projects continued nearly exclusively for low-cost operations, either employing the in-situ leach technology, or targeting high-grade deposits.
In February, Cameco even announced a delay until 2005 of the Cigar Lake high-grade uranium mine project in Saskatchewan, Canada (commercial production of its other high-grade mine McArthur River had only begun in November 2000). In July, the project obtained a Site Preparation License. In December, Cameco became the new operator of the project, so far operated (and still owned) by a joint venture.
In December, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission announced it is planning to issue an operating license for the Midwest uranium mine project in Saskatchewan, owned by COGEMA and others.
In Argentina, the government's search for a developer of the Cerro Solo uranium mining project failed.
Russia announced plans to develop the Khiagdinskoe uranium in-situ leach project located in the permafrost region in Buryatia, Russia.
Cameco announced to double its investment in the Inkay uranium in-situ leach project in Kazakhstan. Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan agreed on a joint venture to develop the Zarechnoye uranium deposit in Kazakhstan. And, Kazakhstan started to develop the Aktal, Moinkum, and Karamurun uranium in-situ leach projects.
The Beverley in-situ leach uranium mine in South Australia officially opened.
Rio Tinto, the new majority owner of ERA, placed a 10-year moratorium on the controversial Jabiluka uranium mine project located inside the Kakadu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory. The decision was based on the Traditional Owner's opposition to the project and the poor market conditions for uranium.
In November, the Honeymoon uranium in-situ leach project in South Australia received all necessary government approvals for commercial operation. Only one week later, an acid excursion was disclosed that had occurred during leach trials in 1999.
In December, Rio Tinto's subsidiary Kennecott was fined for illegally mining uranium in the Loxicha region in southern Mexico's Oaxaca state. Its license was canceled. Under Mexican law, uranium extraction and processing is the sole prerogative of the state.
Issues at operating uranium mines
In November, the Lagoa Real / Caetité uranium mine in Brazil received authorization to resume operation after a one-year outage due to an estimated 5000 cubic meter acid leakage at the heap leaching facility.
On 21 October, a large kerosene fire broke out at the solvent extraction plant of the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mill in South Australia - in the same area where a similar fire had occurred two years earlier. The new fire caused damages above A$20 million (US$10.1 million). During the rebuilding period, the mine's annual uranium output would fall by about 1500 tonnes from its previous level of 4500 tonnes.
Aborigine activist Kevin Buzzacott received the 2001 Nuclear-Free Future Resistance Award for his struggle against WMC's Olympic Dam uranium mine.
Focus on abandoned uranium mine and mill sites
It is remarkable that in 2001, in a variety of countries, the situation at old and abandoned uranium mine and mill sites found much more attention than in previous years.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is assessing the situation at 11 old uranium tailings sites in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories. The commission plans to issue temporary licensing exemptions for currently unlicensed sites, until arrangements for their clean-up will be made with previous owners.
A five-year aerial survey of abandoned uranium mines areas in the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona, U.S., was completed and identified 39 square kilometers of excess radiation areas. The U.S. State of Utah plans to close 140 abandoned uranium mines in the San Rafael Swell area, north of Hanksville.
Argentina plans to reclaim the former uranium mining sites in the country with the help of a World Bank loan - maybe an interesting alternative also for other countries with low budgets.
France started the decommissioning of the Le Bouchet uranium mill and uranium processing facility near Paris. The mill had processed high grade uranium ores between 1946 and 1958, before uranium mills were in operation near the country's uranium mines. An environmental watchdog group published a survey of residual radiation at several abandoned uranium test mines in the Puy-de-Dôme department in central France, and called for the clean-up of the sites.
In Germany, the official assessment of abandoned uranium mining sites (no longer owned by previous operator Wismut) was completed. The survey showed that radiation hazards exist at 20% of the 8000 sites identified. However, clean-up of these sites (other than for those still owned by Wismut) is not assured yet.
In Kazakhstan, attempts to find a contractor for the radiation monitoring at the major uranium mill tailings dump near Aktau were unsuccessful.
Russia is assisting Kyrgyzstan in the reclamation of uranium mill tailings located in the south of the country. The uranium waste is located over an area of 20 square kilometers in an area prone to floods and landslides on the bank of the Maylisu river, near houses and production facilities.
The South African Chamber of Mines identified no need for reclamation of the country's gold/uranium mill tailings, based on a radiation survey of these sites. There were apparently almost no environmental hazards connected to these waste dumps (!?).
Shutdown and decommissioning of uranium mines
Many issues at current decommissioning projects reflect the uranium industry's effort to cut costs - well known from previous years.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued another aquifer exemption for the disposal wells of COGEMA's closed Christensen Ranch in-situ leach uranium mine Wyoming.
Umetco applied for relaxed groundwater standards at its former Gas Hills uranium mill site in Wyoming. The same was requested by Quivira Mining for its Ambrosia Lake mill site in New Mexico. In addition, a 2-year extension of the reclamation deadline was requested for the latter.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved another 5-year postponement of initiation of decommissioning of Kennecott's Sweetwater uranium mill in Wyoming - in view of President Bush's Energy Plan (!). The mill was shut down and has been on stand-by since April 1983.
Pathfinder Mines requested, among others, approval of a reduced cover thickness for the tailings at its Shirley Basin site in Wyoming.
The Washington State Department of Health terminated the Sherwood uranium mill license.
In October, the U.S. Department of Energy, as ordered by Congress one year earlier, assumed ownership of the leaking Moab tailings site in Utah, a legacy of decades of uranium mining by now bankrupt Atlas Corporation. The department investigated the remediation options for the site and currently awaits a review of its proposals by the National Academy of Science. A decision between the alternatives of capping in place or the (more expensive) relocation to a safer disposal site has not yet been made.
For the groundwater remediation activities at the Shiprock, New Mexico, UMTRA site (Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project), the Draft Environmental Assessment was available for public review (UMTRA sites are reclaimed by the Department of Energy). The project includes the pumping and treatment of contaminated groundwater.
At present, the Draft Environmental Assessment of Ground Water Compliance at the New Rifle, Colorado, UMTRA site is available for public review. Here, on the contrary, the proposal is to rely on natural flushing rather than on active groundwater clean-up.
In May, the last uranium mine in France, le Bernardan at Jouac, was shut down. France used to be the largest uranium producer in Western Europe for decades. The decommissioning of the former Lodève uranium mine and mill site at Le Bosc in Southern France is affected by recent plans to build a motor racing circuit on the site.
In Germany, the scheduled flooding of the Königstein underground and in-situ leach uranium mine started, after preparatory measures for groundwater protection had been completed.
Alternate feed processing and waste disposal businesses
International Uranium Corp. (IUC) continued the processing of alternate feed material, such as radioactively contaminated soils, rather than uranium ores at its White Mesa Mill in Utah, U.S. This is the only way to keep the mill operating at current market conditions. After the extraction of residual uranium, the wastes are dumped in the mill's existing tailings impoundments - thus avoiding higher disposal costs at licensed radioactive waste disposal sites. In 2001, the company requested additional license amendments to process 16,000 tonnes of alternate feed material from the Molycorp Site in California and 750,000 tonnes (!) from the Maywood FUSRAP site (Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program) in New Jersey (see WISE News Communique 551.5295, "Alternate feed material: Putting radwaste through uranium mills).
Some uranium mill tailings sites even are licensed to accept offsite radioactive waste without prior processing. In June, for example, the license for storage of offsite radioactive waste at Umetco's closed Uravan uranium mill site in Colorado was renewed. But, only one month later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency surprisingly canceled plans to ship 72,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste from the old Shattuck Chemical Co. site in Denver to the Uravan uranium mill tailings site. The material will, instead, be shipped to a licensed radioactive waste disposal site.
Uranium miners' and residents' health issues
In July, the U.S. President signed a bill to ensure compensation payments to uranium miners who had contracted certain diseases during work for the nation's early nuclear weapons program. The bill had become necessary after the compensation program had run out of money and several hundred aging radiation victims had received IOUs (letters confirming the compensation owed to them) rather than payments. In December, Congress enacted legislation that would ensure compensation payments under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act for the next 10 years. Previous legislation depended on the necessary appropriations being provided every year.
In June, a U.S. federal jury awarded US$16 million to 32 residents living near Cotter Corp's former Cañon City uranium mill in Colorado. In November, 16 others were awarded US$41 million. The plaintiffs contended that uranium from the Cotter mill contaminated their neighborhood and damaged their health. Both judgments were appealed by Cotter Corp. Back in 1998, 14 residents had been awarded US$2.9 million.
A new scientific study found chromosomal aberrations in white blood cells of former German uranium miners. An earlier study had found such aberrations in Namibian uranium miners, but its results could not be confirmed in a verification study.
Given the difficult situation of the domestic uranium recovery industry, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission discontinued its rulemaking efforts concerning the in-situ leaching of uranium and the processing of alternate feed material at uranium mills (10 CFR Part 41). Some of the points in question are now addressed in interim guidances.
Also given the presently difficult conditions for the uranium mining industry, the U.S. National Mining Association (NMA) filed a petition for rulemaking to waive the licensing fees for uranium mines: "The NMA believes that relieving the fee pressure on the licensees would be in the public interest and serve to maintain a viable domestic uranium recovery industry, including its substantial waste disposal capacity."(!) According to the petition, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would have to shift approximately $4 to 5 million in annual fees to other nuclear fuel cycle licensees.
In July, U.S. Congress planned to grant US$30 million in subsidies to the domestic uranium in-situ leach industry for the development of groundwater restoration technologies. After heavy protests from the Navajo affected by an in-situ leach mine project in Crownpoint, New Mexico, and from environmental organizations, including NIRS, the provision for these subsidies was removed from the U.S. Senate bill in November.
One month after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission completely shut down its web site - thus also cutting WISE Uranium Project off from one of its major sources of information. In the meantime, the NRC relaunched its web site with a very small fraction only of the material that was available earlier.
The German parliament approved new radiation protection regulations implementing the European Union radiation protection directive of 1996. The German implementation allows the 400 mSv lifetime dose standard to be exceeded for uranium mine cleanup workers, many of whom have received high doses during their former work in the Wismut mines and would have to cease their clean-up work for exceeding the new lifetime dose standard.
The European Commission issued a proposal for a directive aimed at preventing industrial accidents involving dangerous substances. The new rule amends the so-called Seveso II directive of 1996 and includes measures aimed at improving safety measures for tailings ponds. Once finalized, the directive will have to be implemented into national law by all EU member countries. To our knowledge this is the first initiative on a higher than national level to establish binding rules addressing the often neglected serious hazards of tailings ponds.