(December 20, 2002) Recently, the last issue in each year of the WISE News Communique has included a summary by Peter Diehl (WISE Uranium Project) of what has happened in the world of uranium mining in the year. Here is his annual summary for 2002 for the WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor.
(579.5475) WISE Uranium - The uranium price remained rather stable during the course of the year and showed only a slight increase from US$9.60 to US$10 per lb U3O8, indicating a continued depression of the uranium market (1).
Except for some new uranium mineralization found at McClean Lake (Saskatchewan, Canada), no new discoveries were reported in 2002.
New uranium mining projects
Given the still rather low uranium price, development continued only for uranium mine projects promising low operation costs, such as mines on high-grade ore deposits, or in-situ leach projects - with one particular exception in India.
The Midwest project in Saskatchewan, Canada, received a mine site preparation license.
In Kazakhstan, the Muyunkum in-situ leach uranium project and the Inkai test ISL mine started operation.
In India, the new Turamdih uranium underground mine was opened, located nearby the existing Jaduguda mine in Jharkhand.
The Honeymoon ISL uranium mine in South Australia was granted final federal approval, however, the project still lacks the required State government mining approval.
In a BBC interview, Robert Wilson, chairman of Rio Tinto, made a commitment to rehabilitate the Jabiluka uranium mine site in Australia's Northern Territory, but didn't say when this would begin (2). The mine had never gone into operation due to opposition of the Traditional Owners. After uranium contamination was detected downstream, the mine's water management became a matter of criticism. Even the government's Supervising Scientist criticized the environmental management at the mine site.
Issues at operating mines
At the McClean Lake site in Saskatchewan, Canada, mining was suspended after the Sue C deposit is depleted; the mill now processes stockpiled ores. In a spectacular move, on 23 September 2002, a federal court quashed the McClean Lake operating license: the Inter-Church Uranium Committee Educational Cooperative won its court case against the Atomic Energy Control Board (today the Nuclear Safety Commission) and Cogema Resources. The judge ruled that a Judicial Review was necessary for the AECB decision to grant an operating licence for the JEB Uranium Tailings Facility without a full environmental assessment (3). On 7 November 2002, however, the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal granted stay and the McClean Lake mill continues operation.
In June, the McArthur River mine in Saskatchewan was threatened by a forest fire.
Mining at the Eagle Point underground mine at Rabbit Lake, Saskatchewan, restarted in July.
In the U.S., Cameco acquired the Smith Ranch uranium in situ leach (ISL) mine in Wyoming from Rio Algom.
From the Lagoa Real / Caetité mine in Brazil, first uranium was exported in January.
The Czech government approved a further 2-year extension of uranium mine operation at Rozná - the country's last operating uranium mine. The government further committed funding for the cleanup of the mine and the associated Dolní Rozinka tailings.
For the Australian uranium mining industry, 2002 became the year of the spills (or spill reports, at least). In January production at the Beverley in-situ leach uranium mine in South Australia temporarily halted after a spill. In June the State government reported more undisclosed spills at the Beverley and Honeymoon in-situ leach mines. In September, even more leaks were reported for Beverley.
At the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine, too, a spill was revealed. And, WMC now considers tripling rather than doubling of the Olympic Dam capacity.
For the Ranger uranium mine, uranium resources were revised down. A uranium leak at Ranger mine was reported late, and the use of sandbags at the mine to slow uranium-contaminated flow into Kakadu National Park became a matter of criticism. The Supervising Scientist also criticized the environmental management at the mine. However, in a later report investigating the environmental performance of Ranger he cleared the mine operators.
In Canada, the assessment of abandoned uranium mine sites continued. In northern Saskatchewan, abandoned uranium mines are a concern, according to a new government report. Many of the sites pose "severe public safety hazards and possible long-term environmental concerns." In the Uranium City area, the Federal Government completed its search for the owners of 39 abandoned uranium mines, without making the result public, however. So it remains unclear who will have to pay for their clean-up.
After soliciting public comment and holding hearings, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) issued a license to Rio Algom for the old Elliot Lake tailings in Ontario.
And, in the Northwest Territories, residents called for the cleanup of the Fort Norman uranium site.
In the U.S., Utah State authorities started a reclamation project for abandoned uranium mines in the Cottonwood Canyon area near Blanding. Petrotomics Company, a subsidiary of ChevronTexaco Co, found a convenient way to get rid of its former open pit uranium mine lands in the Shirley Basin, meanwhile reclaimed by the state: it "donated" the approx. 1000 hectares to the state of Wyoming.
In Portugal, the government committed funds for uranium mine cleanup. Former uranium mine workers called for the cleanup of old uranium mine sites in the Urgeiriça area.
In Ukraine, the Dniprodzerzhynsk uranium mill tailings totalling 36 million tonnes are in a very poor condition and threaten the health of residents. There is no money available for urgently-needed reclamation.
For the just as urgent cleanup of the abandoned uranium mill tailings in Kyrgyzstan, however, the year 2002 brought a breakthrough: After Kyrgyzstan had initiated a search for funding the uranium mill tailings reclamation, international organizations such as the OSCE commenced drawing attention to the problem. In May, prolonged rainfall and a series of earthquakes across Central Asia renewed fears related to the safety of the Kyrgyz tailings deposits located on steep valley slopes. On 9 May, an Interparliamentary Assembly group visited the Kyrgyz tailings sites. On 12 May, the situation became dramatic, as a landslide barricaded the Mailuu Su river threatening to flood the adjacent tailings dumps (4). The river found its way across the barricade though leaving the tailings dumps undamaged. In October, Kyrgyzstan requested donor aid for securing the uranium mill tailings. Subsequently, funds were granted by the World Bank, and the governments of Norway, the United States, and Finland.
Shutdown and decommissioning of uranium mines
The reclamation of the largest uranium mill tailings pile in the U.S. will be further delayed: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted a 2-year extension of the reclamation deadline for Rio Algom's Ambrosia Lake tailings in New Mexico, and a further 3-year delay for the decommissioning of the associated uranium mill.
Relaxed groundwater standards were requested by the respective site owners, and/or approved by the NRC, for Umetco's Gas Hills uranium mill site, Pathfinder's Lucky Mc mill site, Petrotomics' Shirley Basin tailings site (all in Wyoming), and Rio Algom's Lisbon uranium mill site in Utah.
In addition, United Nuclear wants to halt groundwater treatment at its Church Rock uranium mill tailings site in New Mexico. This site gives reason for further concern, since the tailings piles' rock cover - designed to last 1000 years - is deteriorating prematurely.
In October, Plateau Resources announced to decommission its idle Shootaring Canyon uranium mill site in Utah, only 6 months after having obtained a license renewal for a ten-year term.
The never-ending saga of the Atlas Corp., Moab, tailings in Utah continued in 2002. While a decision for the relocation of the tailings, last owned by bankrupt Atlas Corp., appeared to be within sight after the transfer of the site to the Department of Energy (DOE), the discussion now is open again, since the National Academy of Sciences in a report called for more study before a decision on the fate of the Moab tailings is made. Subsequently, the DOE decided to initiate an Environmental Impact Statement on the pile. A decision on the fate of the pile - located 200 meters from the Colorado River and threatening the drinking water of millions of downstream residents - that is, relocation to a safer site or reclamation in place, will thus be deferred by several years.
For some other tailings sites under the jurisdiction of the DOE under the UMTRA program, "no-cost" alternatives were (or are being) selected for groundwater restoration: no remediation for vanadium at the New Rifle site, and "natural flushing" at the Gunnison and Durango sites, all in Colorado.
Regarding the reclamation of uranium in-situ leach mines in the U.S., some surprising developments could be observed: Texas State authorities issued an Emergency Order to Everest Exploration, Inc. for cleanup of its Hobson, Mt. Lucas, and Tex-1 uranium in-situ leach sites. The State authorities, moreover, issued orders assessing penalties against COGEMA for underground injection control violations at its Holiday mine site. And, the NRC denied a groundwater restoration approval for Cameco's Crow Butte ISL Wellfield Unit 1 in Nebraska. At other sites, the development was less spectacular: a license termination was issued for USX's Clay West and Burns/Moser uranium in-situ leach uranium mines in Texas, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued another aquifer exemption for the disposal wells of COGEMA's Christensen Ranch uranium in-situ leach mine in Wyoming.
In Germany, the reclamation work continued at the former Wismut uranium mining sites. Fortunately, the serious August floodings caused no major damages at the Wismut sites.
High uranium concentrations were found in water and fish from a village pond located at a site of former open pit uranium mining.
In France, a judicial inquiry on pollution at old uranium mine sites in the Haute-Vienne department in central France was initiated against Cogema. The inquiry goes back to a complaint filed by the environmental association "Sources et rivières du Limousin".
In Kazakhstan, the lack of dust control at the Tselinny tailings has led to wind erosion and has become a serious problem. Due to lack of funds, only one third of the 800 hectares of tailings is being irrigated at present.
Alternate feed processing and waste disposal businesses In order to keep its White Mesa uranium mill in Utah operating, International Uranium Corp (IUC) continued the processing of alternate feed material, such as radioactively contaminated soils (5). 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 August, the NRC issued a Finding of No Significant Impact for the processing of approx. 750,000 metric tonnes of uranium-contaminated soils from the Maywood, New Jersey, Superfund site. This amount of material is by far larger than all other alternate feed processed at the mill so far. The proposal prompted EPA to express concerns about the expansion of the alternate feed business and to demand a thorough review of the impacts of the disposal of the wastes from such processing in the tailings impoundments.
In November, IUC announced the formation of a joint venture with Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc. (NFS) to recycle DOE's contaminated low enriched uranium. The companies propose the development of a process and construction of a plant at NFS' facility in Erwin, Tennessee, for the blending of contaminated low enriched uranium with depleted uranium to produce a natural assay uranium ore substitute. The material would then be further processed at IUC's White Mesa Mill to produce yellowcake.
Cotter Corp., a General Atomics subsidiary, plans the disposal of approx. 400,000 metric tonnes of thorium-contaminated soils from the Maywood, New Jersey, Superfund site at its Cañon City uranium mill tailings impoundment in Colorado. The material is to be used as a cover material for the tailings, involving no further processing. Local opposition and Colorado State authorities hindered the shipments so far.
Health and science issues
A new study with former Czech uranium miners found increased chromosomal aberrations, statistically significantly correlated to radon exposure. This new evidence is stronger than that from earlier smaller studies with Namibian and German uranium miners.
A new study confirmed the toxicity of uranium in drinking water for humans: toxic effects on the kidney were found even for low concentrations - without a clear threshold.
The U.S. radiation exposure compensation program for Navajo uranium miners and others was amended, taking into account some of the criticism made on the program.
Regulatory and policy issues
The U.S. EPA established a 2.22 µg/l uranium in tap water preliminary remediation goal for Superfund sites. This compares to the 2 µg/l WHO provisional guideline for drinking-water quality and the 30 µg/l EPA drinking water standard.
The U.S. NRC denied a National Mining Association (NMA) petition for rulemaking to wave licensing fees for uranium mines. The NRC thus did not follow the opinion that "relieving the fee pressure on the licensees would be in the public interest".
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released guidance for developing tailings regulations.
The European Commission invited comment and continued its work on the mining waste initiative - intended to improve the management of mill tailings, among others. In June, a working group of the European Council approved the related amendment of the Seveso II directive.
In June, the Australian Senate launched another inquiry into the uranium mining industry, triggered by the above-cited history of spills.
The Western Australia State Government banned uranium mining for nuclear uses.
And last, but not least...
On 12 September 2002, long-time anti-uranium activist Maisie Shiell received the Saskatchewan Eco-Network individual environmentalist of the year award.
- UxC, 16 December 2002
- WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 573, "In Brief"
- WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 574.5445, "Uranium mining victory against Cogema"
- WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor 568, "In Brief"
- WISE News Communique 551.5295, "Alternate feed material: Putting radwaste through uranium mills"
For further details, check the WISE Uranium Project's web site at www.wise-uranium.org/
Source and contact: WISE Uranium