(December 23, 2005) The spot market price of uranium climbed from 20.70 to 36.25 US$/lb U3O8 (as of December 19) in 2005, a 70% increase and five times the record low of 7 US$/lb U3O8. And, after a long period of decline, world production reached 40251 t U in 2004, a 13% increase over 2003.
(640.5741) WISE Uranium Project - The increase in the price of uranium is driven by fears that the secondary resources and stock holdings (currently supplying nearly half the demand) may soon expire leaving a supply gap, even if demand remains unchanged. At the same time, several countries have announced plans for a massive expansion of nuclear power capacities.
The recovery of the uranium price has led to more companies entering the uranium business; the number of uranium mining and exploration companies listed on the WISE Uranium Project website doubled from 180 to 361 during the course of the year (after having already increased by nearly 50% the year before).
Most of these companies are restarting exploration efforts where work was halted some 20 years ago due to poor economics. It is, however, not yet clear whether the next uranium boom will really resemble the first with a large number of small underground mines working many dispersed low-grade deposits (particularly in the U.S.).
Kazakhstan is concentrating its efforts on boosting uranium production from in-situ leaching from the current 3719 t U (2004) to 16,000 t U in 2015.
BHP Billiton, the new owner of the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine in South Australia, has also announced plans to increase production from the current 4000 t to 30,000 t U per year (three quarters of the current world production!).
It is not certain that the new uranium boom will be as welcome as the first mostly was. In countries, such as Sweden, opposition is already growing, even against exploration.
As in 2004, WISE Uranium Project takes the opportunity to award its order of merit, this time in the following categories:
The 2005 Gold Award for Carelessness goes to… the Australian Commonwealth authorities for securing insufficient decommissioning funds for ERA's Ranger mine trust fund.
The 2005 Silver Award for Carelessness goes to the Namibian authorities for accepting Paladin Resources' absolutely flawed Environmental Assessment for the proposed Langer Heinrich uranium mine.
The 2005 Award for Forwardness goes to Areva/Cogéma for postulating a "moral obligation" for uranium mining countries to take back spent fuel.
Newly discovered uranium deposits
Just one discovery in 2005 has the potential for a new high-grade deposit, the first in about 20 years - Cogema Resources intersected 27.4% U3O8 over 8.8 metres during drilling at its Shea Creek property in Saskatchewan. Other new uranium finds were reported from central India, six Nigerian states, and Zimbabwe, although no details were made available.
New uranium mining projects
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) approved the mining license for the McClean Lake Sue E project in Saskatchewan, Canada, thereby introducing the new public service of withholding the Record of Proceedings from public disclosure. Approval was also given for the expansion of the JEB Mill at McClean Lake to receive and process ore from the new Cigar Lake mine. The licensing process for the proposed processing of uranium-rich solutions from Cigar Lake at the Rabbit Lake mill is still underway.
In the U.S., Cameco's subsidiary PRI filed a license application for its Reynolds Ranch in-situ leach (ISL) project in Wyoming. Plans were also announced for several idle uranium mining sites, such as the Sheep Mountain mines in Wyoming, the Tony M Mine in Utah, and the Whirlwind Claim mine in Colorado, among others, to resume mining. Further, a license was requested for the reopening of the mothballed Shootaring Canyon uranium mill in Utah. The license for the Crownpoint ISL project in New Mexico is still on hold after NRC judges tightened the groundwater restoration standard.
Namibian authorities issued a mining license for Paladin Resources' Langer Heinrich uranium mine project - at breath-taking speed. Paladin released the related environmental assessment report after the mining license was obtained. An evaluation by external consultants later showed the report to be full of inconsistencies and serious flaws that should have stopped it being accepted by the Namibian authorities. For accepting the thoroughly flawed Environmental Assessment, the Namibian authorities clearly deserve the 2005 Silver Award for Carelessness. The Langer Heinrich groundbreaking ceremony was accompanied by protests from environmentalists and Paladin's next project, the Kayelekera uranium mine in Malawi, has already become the subject of serious environmental concerns raised by a local Human Rights organization.
Kazakhstan continued its efforts to expand the uranium production from in-situ leaching from the current 3719 t U (2004) to 16,000 t U in 2015. The Inkay ISL project received its first construction permit with the Munkuduk ISL project due to start uranium production in 2006 and the Korsan project in 2009.
In India, Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL) faces serious opposition everywhere it plans to develop new uranium mines. In Jharkhand, resident opponents kept the State Pollution Control Board from holding a hearing on the proposed Mohuldih uranium mine project. In Andhra-Pradesh, overwhelming opposition was voiced at a public hearing against the new site proposed for the uranium processing plant for the Lambapur-Peddagattu project; a demonstration was also held in Nalgonda. In Meghalaya, activists temporarily sealed off the Domiasiat uranium mine project site.
Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) and Traditional Owners signed a long-term deal, obliging ERA (and its successors) to secure Mirarr consent prior to any future mining development of uranium deposits at Jabiluka.
Cogéma revived efforts to mine its Koongarra deposit in Kakadu National Park, after a five-year moratorium ended in April. The Northern Territory Government had blocked the Koongarra uranium mine, however, in August the Federal Government overruled the ban on new mines declaring the territory open for uranium business.
Issues at operating uranium mines
According to press reports, Areva/Cogéma will invest Euro 500-600 million (US$ 600-720 million) in doubling uranium output from its mines by 2010 (from 6125 t U in 2004).
The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the license of the McClean Lake uranium mine in Saskatchewan quashed by a Federal Court at the request of local environmentalists. Cogema Resources was able to continue operation of the mine during that time, since it was granted stay and an Appeals Court had overruled the Federal Court decision in 2004.
In the U.S., the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and residents continued their struggle with General Atomics' subsidiary Cotter Corp. on its Cañon City uranium mill in Colorado. Rejecting Cotter's appeal, a judge denied the company the right to dispose of 24,000 tons of contaminated soils from Maywood, New Jersey. This did not deter the company, however, from applying for the disposal of other contaminated soil (from the AMAX Research and Development site in Colorado) at its mill site. In other developments, CDPHE invited public comment on the planned remedial action of the Old Ponds Area at the mill site, and cited Cotter for two contamination incidents at the mill. In November, Cotter Corp. announced the closure of six uranium mines and the lay off of most of its Cañon City mill workers due to poor economics.
In Argentina, a judge ordered a halt to the restart of the Sierra Pintada uranium mine at San Rafael, Mendoza province after several organizations, including the local Chamber of Commerce, had called for a cleanup of old uranium mining activities at the site before reopening.
In the Czech Republic, the lifetime of the country's last active uranium mine at Rozná could again be extended, given the recent rise in the uranium price.
In Niger, environmental issues at the uranium mines of Cogéma's subsidiaries at Arlit and Akouta received wide publicity. In April, two studies found several deficiencies and concluded that permissible dose rates may have been exceeded in certain cases. In response, Cogéma launched a health study at the sites but in November received a poor rating for environmental issues at its Niger uranium mines.
In Namibia, the life of the nearly depleted Rössing uranium mine will be extended to 2016. In June, elevated uranium concentrations were detected in groundwater (used for irrigation) downstream from the Rössing mine.
In South Africa, Aflease Gold and Uranium Resources Ltd is preparing to construct a processing plant at its Dominion Reefs mine where uranium is to be recovered as a by-product from gold mining from 2007.
In Afghanistan, illegal mining of uranium and gold reserves in Kohistan district of the northern Faryab province continues unabated.
In the Indian state of Jharkhand, an enquiry committee was set up to probe alleged illegal mining of uranium in the State.
At WMC's Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine in South Australia, a state government taskforce was set up to investigate a huge spike in the number of birds killed at the mine's 400 ha tailings dam. In June, BHP Billiton became major shareholder of WMC and began preparing plans for an expansion from the current uranium output of 4000 t/a up to 30,000 t/a. Ironically, a large geothermal resource has been identified at Olympic Dam, with a potential for 1000 MW's of renewable geothermal power, which could be used to run the expanded mine.
Energy Resources of Australia's (ERA) Ranger mine in the Northern Territory will soon be depleted and is due to close in 2008. Processing of stockpiled ores will keep the mill operating until 2014, rather than 2011 as previously planned, due to the increasing uranium price allowing for the processing of lower cut-off grades. In June, ERA was fined AU$150,000 (approx. US$112,000) having plead guilty to charges related to water contamination in 2004.
In July, ERA disclosed that the Ranger mine closure is to cost AU$176 million (US$131 m), of which only AU$65 million (US$48 m) is covered by guarantee - AU$41.4 million (US$31 m) in a government-administered trust fund, and AU$23.6 million (US$18 m) through a bank guarantee. For evidently failing to secure sufficient decommissioning funds for ERA's Ranger mine, Australian Commonwealth authorities deserve the Gold Award for Carelessness. Should ERA go bankrupt, the taxpayer would have to fund the cleanup. Such fears were further fuelled, when on December 6, Cameco, Cogéma, and Japan Australia Uranium Resources Development Co Ltd. (JAURD) sold their combined 25% stake in ERA at a steep 27.6% discount. The former shareholders apparently lost confidence in the possible development of the Jabiluka deposit in the foreseeable future and, considering that the Ranger deposit will soon be depleted, cut their loses.
The Canadian Federal Government finally provided funding for the cleanup of the former Port Radium mine (operated 1931-1960). A new report recommends immediate remediation.
The Governments of Canada and Saskatchewan announced a cost-share for the remediation of the Gunnar and Lorado uranium mines in Saskatchewan, active from the 1950s until the early 1960s.
The reclamation of the White King and Lucky Lass mines in Oregon, U.S., active from 1955 to 1959, began this summer. The reclamation will be paid for by the successors of the previous owner companies.
The U.S. Forest Service released a cleanup plan for the abandoned Juniper uranium mine in California.
Funding was awarded for the restoration of the Uravan mill and mine site in Colorado.
The hazard cleanup at some abandoned uranium mines in Harding County in South Dakota could cost US$20 million, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Beginning in the late 1940s, more than 200 uranium mines were dug in South Dakota.
The Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute (JNC) started paying a fine of 750,000 yen (US$7,210) a day to local residents in the town of Yurihama on March 11, for its failure to meet a deadline to remove 3000 cubic metres of uranium-contaminated soil left from the former Ningyo-Toge uranium mine. In October, JNC shipped the most contaminated 290 cubic meters of the material to IUC's White Mesa uranium mill in Utah, USA, for recovery of the uranium and disposal of the remaining material - at cost of about 660 million yen (US$6 million). The resulting cost of US$20,700 per cubic metre of soil probably represents a new world record for the management costs of uranium mining waste. No decision has been made yet on the fate of the remaining 2700 cubic metres...
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) issued a Waste Facility Operating Licence to Cameco Corporation for the Beaver Lodge uranium mine and mill site located in Northern Saskatchewan. The decision was taken despite the relatively high incidence of deformities observed in fish in the vicinity.
CNSC also renewed Rio Algom's license for its Elliot Lake tailings in Ontario, withholding the Record of Proceedings.
In the U.S., relaxed groundwater standards were requested and/or approved for the following sites: Umetco's East Gas Hills uranium mill site (Wyoming), Pathfinder's Shirley Basin uranium tailings site (Wyoming), United Nuclear's Church Rock uranium mill tailings site (New Mexico), and at Homestake's Grants uranium mill tailings site (New Mexico).
Western Nuclear withdrew its request for permission for the cessation of active groundwater restoration at its Split Rock uranium mill tailings site in Wyoming; the company had intended to supply residents in the area with an alternate potable water supply, rather than cleaning up the groundwater but apparently could not convince the NRC on this plan.
For the Atlas Moab uranium mill tailings pile in Utah, DOE released a Final Environmental Impact Statement stipulating a preferred alternative to relocating the tailings to Crescent Junction. On September 14, DOE signed the long-awaited historic decision to move the Moab tailings away from the banks of the Colorado River, where they threaten the drinking water supply to millions of downstream residents.
In Germany, a local environmental group raised concerns regarding the environmental impact of the flooding procedure currently in progress at Wismut's Thuringian underground mines and regarding the rather high permeability of the cover applied to certain waste rock piles.
Meanwhile, Wismut is preparing the relocation of the conical landmark waste rock piles near Ronneburg, Thuringia, to a former open pit. Since this relocation will remove the most visible signs left from Wismut's vast uranium mining operations in Eastern Germany, the environmental group now calls for some memorial site commemorating the consequences of Wismut's uranium mining.
In France, after six years of legal evasions, mining company Cogéma was forced to appear before the Criminal Court of Limoges for alleged pollution at its former uranium mine sites in the Limousin area. The Criminal Court, however, cleared Cogéma of the pollution charges.
In South Africa, groundwater contamination from abandoned gold/uranium mines raised increasing concern.
In Kazakhstan, the rising groundwater table in the Aktau area increases the hazard of contaminant dispersal from the Koshkar-Ata uranium mill tailings to the region and to the Caspian Sea. Scientists called for efforts to isolate the tailings.
The reclamation of the closed Zharkent uranium mine is scheduled to start in 2006.
Miners' and Residents' Health
A Canadian report has concluded that scientific data collected could not show a definitive link between cancer rates in the community of Deline and the Port Radium mine. Local men were hired to carry sacks of uranium ore from the mine, which opened in 1929 and operated for decades. Cancer cases started occurring and the community became known as the "Village of Widows". But, the report says those employees' exposure levels were not high enough to cause cancer, contradicting widely held opinions.
In the U.S., a National Academy of Science committee recommended that a determination be made as to whether Cold War era residents of uranium mills should be eligible for radiation exposure compensation. So far, compensation has been applicable only for former uranium workers and down-winders of nuclear weapon tests.
In Spain, parliament demanded medical tests for former workers at the now closed Andújar uranium mill, after high cancer rates had been observed.
Other Developments, Policy Issues
On April 29, Navajo Nation President Joseph Shirley Jr. signed the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005 outlawing uranium mining and processing on the Navajo reservation. The bill was passed by the Navajo Nation Council on April 19, in a 63-19 vote; it could, however, be overturned by U.S. federal legislation.
In China, uranium mine employee Sun Xiaodi disappeared at the end of April after reporting contamination from the Gansu No. 792 Uranium Mine in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The organization Human Rights in China (HRIC) fully supports the efforts of Sun Xiaodi's family and friends to ascertain his whereabouts and secure his release. HRIC urges the international community to press the Chinese authorities to conduct an in-depth investigation into Sun's allegations of corruption, severe human health impacts and environmental degradation at the Gansu No. 792 Uranium Mine.
Australia conducted an inquiry into the future role of its uranium industry. While the inquiry was still ongoing, Australia began formal negotiations on uranium exports to China. China refuses to commit to IAEA inspections of its nuclear power facilities as a condition of buying uranium from Australia, though. China even announced that it wants to explore for uranium in Australia. Meanwhile, Rössing became the first Western producer to export uranium to China (see above).
Uranium exporting countries are not alone in rethinking their role in a future uranium boom. There also appears to be an about-face in some areas of the (formerly?) ethical investment community; the Anglican Church's investment fund in Australia removed its ban on uranium mining shares.
So, while it seemed that morals are on a deplorable but inevitable decline in these days of a looming uranium boom, it was rather surprising to learn that Areva/Cogéma, of all companies, is apparently attempting to uphold standards stating that uranium exporting countries have a "moral obligation" to take back spent fuel! Cogéma, the company that showed no scruples when it came to leaving behind a dangerous and damaging mess when it closed its uranium mines in Gabon (see 2004 Review). For this outrageous statement, Areva/Cogéma clearly deserves this year's "Forwardness of the Year Award".
While Cogéma's comment was meant for Australia, it was later adopted by Canada's Nuclear Waste Management Organization who said that the uranium mining province Saskatchewan has a "responsibility" to take back spent nuclear fuel.
The full review is available at http://www.wise-uranium.org/
Contact: WISE Uranium