(november 13, 2003) In time-honored tradition, the WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor is pleased to present the annual summary of occurrences in the world of uranium mining for the year 2003.
(600.5564) WISE Uranium - During 2003, the uranium spot market price increased by 35%, from US$ 10.20 to US$ 13.75 per lb. U3O8 (as of 8 Dec., 2003). While this increase gave rise to a few announcements for the restart of idle uranium mines, it was - also given the continuing imponderabilities of the uranium market - not strong enough to trigger a new uranium frenzy. On the contrary, the uranium extraction industry experienced a number of major blows - operational, such as the flooding of the McArthur River high-grade mine in Canada, and political, like the halt to the further development, and the subsequent backfilling, of the Jabiluka mine in Australia at the request of the Traditional Owners. Several announcements to increase uranium production capacity came from central Asia, where the legacy of Cold-War era uranium mining has not all been dealt with yet.
New uranium mining projects
In Canada, administrative preparations for the development of the Cigar Lake high-grade mine in Saskatchewan continued with CNSC's approval of Cigar Lake waste rock disposal in the mined-out Sue C pit at McClean Lake.
The licensing procedure for Powers Resources' proposed Gas Hills uranium in-situ leach (ISL) project in Wyoming, U.S., continued and in view of the rising uranium price, URI revived plans to commence production at its Vasquez uranium ISL project in Texas.
The increased price of uranium has caused Ukraine, which currently produces 34.5% of its uranium requirements, to consider exporting uranium. This would require the development of new capacities; however, given that Ukraine has not allocated sufficient funds for the reclamation of its existing uranium mill tailings (see below), the waste management problem would only be aggravated.
In Kazakhstan, construction of the Zarechnoye uranium ISL mine is scheduled to begin in 2004.
Iran is developing its first uranium mine at Saghand - a small-scale low-grade deposit.
In India, opposition grew against two uranium mine projects, Domiasiat in Meghalaya and Lambapur-Peddagattu in Andhra Pradesh. Both projects are aiming at low-grade deposits located in areas inhabited by tribal people and although mining company UCIL promised, in August, that mining at Domiasiat would not start without local consent, it was announced on 10 December that the project would commence. A guerrilla group that destroyed drilling equipment at the proposed site on December 3 has joined the opposition against the Lambapur-Peddagattu project. India is also testing a new method of extracting uranium from seawater.
After decades of controversy in Australia, Rio Tinto bowed to the opposition from the Traditional Owners to the Jabiluka uranium mine project and backfilled the material already mined. Several major mining companies have now vowed not to mine at World Heritage sites. Financing for the Honeymoon uranium ISL mine project in South Australia remains unclear and following the end of a trial operation, the mine lies idle.
Issues at operating uranium mines
McArthur River, Cameco's high-grade mine in Canada had to be temporarily shut down after water inflow. It was later discovered that McArthur River miners had been exposed to higher than usual radon levels during the mine flooding.
Following the Federal Courts decision to quash the McClean Lake mine's operating license in 2002, Cogema, along with the Province of Saskatchewan and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, among others raised an appeal. The Appeals Court will hear the case in 2004. Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan Eco-Network named the Inter-Church Uranium Committee (ICUC) and its lawyer Stefania Fortugno, who had won the court case, "Environmental Activists of the Year". In parallel with the appeal, Cogema is pursuing a new operating license for McClean Lake, in case the appeal is lost. In addition, the licensing procedure for the Sue E extension of the McClean Lake mine is ongoing.
In the U.S., IUC's White Mesa Mill in Utah, unlike previous years, made few headlines. No new proposals to process all kinds of, "alternate feed material" (rather than uranium ore) were publicized - the company appears to be too busy with its exploration projects in Saskatchewan and Mongolia. At White Mesa, an incident occurred in July when the solution freeboard limit in tailings disposal cell #3 was exceeded, potentially affecting dam stability.
The only other active uranium mill in the country, Cotter Corp.'s Cañon City mill in Colorado, easily compensated for the lack of headlines from Utah. On January 2, the state lifted the mill's suspension on accepting radioactive waste as cover material for its tailings. By the following day, the U.S. EPA contradicted the state, finding radioactive waste shipments to the Cañon City mill unacceptable. In May, the Colorado State parliament approved a bill imposing additional requirements on Cotter Corp.'s Cañon City uranium mill, particularly targeting new waste shipments to the site. In July, the state cited Cotter for more violations at the mill and by September, it had become known that contaminated water was seeping around a plugged permeable wall at the mill site. The only good news this year was that no excess plutonium was found in Cañon City soil samples and in April an Appeals Court overturned a US$ 41 million jury award won in 2001 by residents allegedly sickened by radiation near the Cotter mill and later sent the residents' case back to district court.
Argentina intends to restart mining at the Sierra Pintada uranium deposit in Mendoza province despite the local Chamber of Commerce joining opposition against the project due to anticipated severe impacts to the regional economy.
In Namibia, Rio Tinto's large-scale low-grade Rössing uranium mine is considering early close down due to "volatile economic conditions", the decision will be announced by year-end.
Uzbekistan is aiming to boost uranium mine output 40% to 3,000 tonnes annually by 2010. While in southern Kazakhstan, a new uranium ISL refinery was completed.
Kyrgyzstan ratified the IAEA's non-proliferation regulations, a prerequisite for the planned restart of the Kara Balta mill, which will process pre-concentrate from the projected Kazakh Zarechnoye ISL uranium mine. Although such processing produces less waste than the milling of raw ore, it is surprising that a country claiming to be incapable of managing the uranium mill tailings left over from the Soviet era (see below) intends to produce more of such waste.
While other uranium mining operations struggle with the elements and/or public opposition, WMC's Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine in South Australia once again proved to be self-sufficient in this regard. After two major fires at the processing plant in 1999 and 2001, the plant this year was hit by a three-week outage caused by heat exchanger failure.
In Canada, negotiations are still ongoing with regard to who will pay for the cleanup of 42 abandoned uranium mine sites in northern Saskatchewan. The province of Saskatchewan is pressing the federal government to take full financial responsibility for the cleanup while its northern communities demand that cleanup operations begin.
Of the thousands of abandoned uranium mines in the U.S., the exploration pits in the Bighorn Canyon area, neighboring Pryor Mountains (Montana) and the Juniper mine in the Stanislaus National Forest (California) made headlines this year. The National Park Service is planning to cleanup the sites in the Bighorn Canyon area and the Forest Service closed a road near the Juniper site for high radiation readings.
In Argentina, reclamation work started at the Malargüe uranium mill tailings in Mendoza province, co-financed by the World Bank.
In Germany, after 13 years of dispute, the Federal Government and the Saxonian State Government signed an agreement on the reclamation of the uranium legacy sites that are not covered by Wismut's current reclamation mission. The agreement covers the sites that were no longer owned by Wismut post 1962, mainly located in the Ore Mountains near the Czech border. The total amount of Euro 78 million (US$ 84 million) is made available for the legacy sites until 2012 - however, that is only 17% of the sum required, according to earlier estimates.
Kyrgyzstan still seeks foreign support for the urgent stabilization of the abandoned uranium mill tailings deposits located in the south of the country. Offers of assistance have already come from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, the U.S., and France. The reclamation will start in 2004, financed with US$ 5 million supplied by the World Bank. An EU-sponsored study found that the main problem was the mechanical stability of the tailings dumps threatened by landslides and seismic activity; there is no widespread radiation hazard in the region at present.
Shutdown and decommissioning of uranium mines
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) approved Cameco's proposal to flood the mined-out Rabbit Lake open-pit mine in northern Saskatchewan by opening the dam separating it from Wollaston Lake. The approval came in spite of Inter Church Uranium Committee's (ICUC) fears that radioactive particles will move into the lake in the long term.
In the U.S., decisions were made on the groundwater remediation strategy at three uranium mill tailings sites, Naturita, Slick Rock, and New Rifle (all Colorado), covered by the Department of Energy's (DOE) UMTRA program. In all three cases, the strategy involves no further groundwater treatment, but complete reliance on natural flushing and/or relaxed contaminant concentration standards. The same is envisaged for a portion of the Monticello tailings site in Utah.
For the reclamation of the former Atlas Moab tailings site (Utah), now under jurisdiction of DOE, the search for alternative disposal sites continued. The option to relocate the tailings to the White Mesa mill found opposition from the Ute tribes. No decision on relocation options or on-site disposal has been made yet.
For the U.S. sites whose decommissioning falls under the responsibility of their previous operators, the following actions were requested and/or approved: demolition of Rio Algom's Ambrosia Lake mill, 9-year extension of reclamation milestones for Homestake's Grants tailings site (New Mexico), reclamation of Plateau Resources' Shootaring Canyon mill site (Utah), relaxed requirements and 2-year delay for Pathfinder's Shirley Basin and LuckyMc mill sites, and termination of the Green Mountain Ion-Exchange Site license (Wyoming).
On several occasions, measures meant to protect the integrity of the tailings for 1000 years failed after a short time. During two separate site visits, United Nuclear's inspector had to chase cattle from the Church Rock (New Mexico) tailings because of damaged fence lines. At the Bear Creek tailings (Wyoming), the state-imposed, so-called institutional controls failed miserably even before they needed to be relied upon. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) "staff was particularly surprised to learn several months ago that the mineral estate at Bear Creek has already been leased. This discovery does not give the staff confidence that institutional controls such as, for example, restrictive covenants, will be sufficient to provide long-term protection of the disposal site, especially as memories fade in the future."
Western Nuclear continued its efforts to convince NRC that prohibition of the use of contaminated groundwater in the surroundings of its Split Rock tailings site (Wyoming) is a viable long-term management option, rather than tedious and expensive groundwater cleanup to prevent contaminant plume dispersion. The company filed new groundwater modeling results showing a reduced area of impact compared to earlier modeling.
At Dawn Mining's Midnite mine site (Oregon), cleanup of spilled roadside ore is planned for spring 2004, but the company maintains it has no funds for cleanup of the Midnite mine site itself.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued an Agreed Order imposing a US$ 41,500 penalty on various violations to Everest Exploration's Hobson ISL site (Texas), currently undergoing decommissioning.
The Czech government announced the final shut down of the Rozná uranium mine by 2005. The closure of the country's last uranium mine has already been deferred several times. So far, the cleanup of the Czech uranium mines has cost the government CZK 21 billion (US$ 778 million) since 1989, and a total cost of CZK 80 billion (US$ 3 billion) is expected by 2040. The specific cleanup cost would therefore reach US$ 10.8 per lb. U3O8 produced, comparable to the uranium spot market price at the beginning of the year. This specific cost figure does not differ much from those incurred for the cleanup of the U.S. UMTRA Title I uranium mill tailings sites (US$ 14.70 per lb. U3O8) and the German Wismut sites (US$ 13.91 per lb. U3O8).
In Spain, former uranium mill workers of the now dismantled Andújar uranium mill filed a complaint for compensation for health damages. The workers are now demanding indemnification under civil law, following earlier unsuccessful attempts to initiate prosecution under criminal law.
In Portugal, environmentalists called for the overdue start of cleanup at the Urgeiriça uranium mine site, which may be postponed due to for lack of funds. An epidemiological study among residents of the site was initiated.
Stabilization of the Dniprodzerzhynsk uranium mill tailings in Ukraine was struck by insufficient allocation of funds, although a revised reclamation plan has been elaborated cutting costs to a small fraction of the sum foreseen initially.
In Kazakhstan, where some 100 million tonnes of tailings have been dumped since 1965, the dusting problem at the Aktau uranium mill tailings remained serious. The fine dust from the bare spots of the tailings continues to be blown towards the town of Aktau. With the mining company proving incapable of managing this problem (although it can easily be resolved in the short term), serious concerns arise regarding the necessary long-term stabilization of the tailings.
Regulatory and policy issues
In the U.S., the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a draft policy statement on Environmental Justice, weakening the constraints on siting of hazardous industries.
A U.S. Appeals Court upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) rule setting limits on the permissible level of radionuclides in drinking water despite claims from the nuclear industry that they could impose unwarranted restrictions on nuclear facilities.
The state of Wyoming relaxed the groundwater standards for uranium in-situ leach (ISL) mines: the requirement to restore groundwater to pre-mining conditions after uranium ISL mining was dropped, easing the burden of costly groundwater restoration.
The Australian Senate conducted an inquiry highlighting serious flaws in uranium industry regulations. South Australia began a review of the environmental impacts of the acid ISL mining process, as being used in the Beverley mine and Honeymoon trial operation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) revised its provisional guideline value for uranium in drinking water from 2 µg/l to 9 µg/l. The change is not based on new toxicity data, but on a revision of the allocation of the tolerable daily intake to drinking water from 10% to 50%.
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