For the twelfth consecutive year, The Nuclear Monitor is proud to publish the annual Uranium mining Issues Review. The reviews are compiled by Peter Diehl from the WISE Uranium Project. First published in the last issue of 1998 it gives an in-depth overview of developments regarding all aspects of uranium mining: mines, exploration, environmental issues, indigenous people, production and so on.
WISE Uranium Project - During the course of the year 2009, the uranium spot market price, as published by Ux Consulting (UxC), declined further by 16% from US$ 53 to 44.50 per lb U3O8, with oscillations in the range of US$ 40 (April 6) to US$ 54 (June 22). The year-end value represents just one third of the unprecedented June 2007 peak of 136 US$ per lb U3O8.
The long term average price, as published by Cameco, showed a constant decline from US$ 69.50 to 61 per lb U3O8.
For the first time, Kazakhstan apparently became the largest uranium miner worldwide; detailed figures are not yet available, however.
The further decline of the uranium price slowed down many exploration and mine development projects in the short term. However, in expectation of a supply problem in the near future, many major players made serious efforts to secure uranium deposits suitable for future exploitation.
Uranium exploration and new uranium mine projects
Uranium exploration continues in many parts of the world, often accompanied by protests. Opposition was particularly powerful against exploration at Lac Kachiwiss in Québec (Canada), at the Grand Canyon in Arizona (USA), Quebrada de Humahuaca UNESCO World Heritage area in Argentina, several places in Finland, and Kurisková in eastern Slovakia.
New interest in uranium exploration arose especially in the Middle East and northern Africa, namely in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Oman.
New mine projects are still being developed, but quite a number of higher cost projects (particularly in the U.S., but also in South Africa, Mongolia, and Australia) have been put on hold for lack of feasibility, or their profitability is still unclear.
The dewatering of the almost completed Cigar Lake mine cavity that was flooded in 2008 by a sudden water inflow is still ongoing; the McClean Lake mill that was intended to process part of the Cigar Lake ore has therefore to be temporarily shut down for lack of feed material.
In the U.S., the licensing process has begun for the first three uranium in situ leach mines based on NRC's controversial Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) plus site-specific supplements; all are located in Wyoming.
Furthermore, an application has been filed for the construction of a new uranium mill (Piñon Ridge) in Montrose County, Colorado, although the only operating uranium mill in the U.S. - the White Mesa mill in Utah - had to halt processing of uranium ores for economic reasons just months earlier.
Areva's huge Imouraren mine project in Niger received an operating license; construction started, but the size and profitability of the project are still unclear.
In Botswana, the EIA process for the Letlhakane uranium mine project was started.
In Gabon, Areva eyes resumption of uranium mining at Mounana.
In Malawi, the country's first uranium mine at Kayelekera started operation.
In Namibia, construction of Areva's Trekkopje mine continued; meanwhile, the licensing process was initiated for Bannerman Resources Ltd's huge open pit mine project (3 km length, 1 km wide, 400 m deep, with acid heap leaching) on the extremely low grade Etango uranium deposit; its Environmental and Social Impact Assessment was open for comment for just one month and important chapters were just missing. A feasibility study commenced for Extract Resources Ltd's even larger Rössing South deposit.
In Tanzania, studies on the feasibility of the mining of several deposits are underway; uranium extraction is to start in 2011.
In Zambia, a mining license was approved for the Chirundu uranium mine project. At the Lumwana copper mine, uranium-rich copper ore is being stockpiled for potential later processing; although the stockpile reached almost 2 million t in the meantime, processing is still not assured. The licensing process for Denison's Mutanga and Dibwe open pit uranium mine/acid heap leach project in Siavonga district commenced with publication of the Environmental Impact Statement and Resettlement Action Plan for the necessary relocation of 107 households.
In South Africa, uranium production commenced at the Ezulwini gold mine.
In India's northeastern state of Meghalaya, serious protest developed against the proposed mining of the Domiasiat uranium deposit; several demonstrations with thousands of participants were held; night road blockades led to several violent incidents. Protesters suspended their agitation after the state government offered talks.
Opposition also developed against uranium mining projects in other Indian states, namely Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Karnataka.
In South Australia, the Beverley Four Mile Uranium in situ leach project received federal approval, which is now subject to court review.
In Western Australia, the state's new uranium-friendly policy led to a race for the first mining licenses. The proposed mines include Kintyre, Lake Way, Yeelirrie, Lake Maitland, and Wiluna.
Several of the currently proposed new uranium mine projects are to use various heap leaching schemes. This method poses particular environmental challenges and was rarely used during the past two decades. It is now being reintroduced for the recovery of uranium from ores with grades so low that had not been processed during the period of low uranium prices.
Projects for recovery of uranium from alternate resources (such as phosphate, various types of tailings, coal ash, or seawater) continue at a slower pace, since they are likely to become viable at higher uranium market prices only.
Issues at operating uranium mines
The life of two major mines is to be extended further, after both of them narrowly avoided permanent closure:
Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) is keen to keep the Ranger uranium mine in Australia open beyond 2021, to the dismay of the Traditional Owners.
Rössing expects to produce 4,000 t uranium per year at its mine in Namibia until 2023.
The size of the massive expansion planned for BHP's Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine in South Australia is still unclear. Eminent scientists warned of a "mind-blowing" health risk from the mine expansion.
Expansion plans were also announced for the Langer Heinrich mine in Namibia and the Kayelekera mine in Malawi (both only recently commissioned), the Jaduguda mine in Jharkand (India), and the Beverley in situ leach mine in South Australia.
During the course of the year, several existing mines had to shut down for insufficient feasibility: the mine on the Caribou ore body at McClean Lake (Saskatchewan, Canada), the uranium in situ leach mines at Vasquez, Kingsville Dome and Rosita (Texas), the Sunday Mine (Colorado) and the Rim mine (Utah). In addition, the White Mesa mill in Utah (the only operating uranium mill in the U.S.!) halted processing of uranium ores and currently only processes certain uranium-containing wastes, called alternate feed materials.
A major production setback at the Olympic Dam mine in Australia scared the uranium market participants, leading to a temporary recovery of the spot market price: a breakdown of the ore haulage system seriously affects production since October.
Abandoned mines and decommissioning issues
Toxic water filling abandoned gold/uranium mines near Johannesburg (South Africa) may reach the surface and pose a health nightmare for up to 1000 residents in informal settlements. A report prepared by international experts calls for immediate action.
In Kyrgyzstan, a UN Special Rapporteur found that the country has not properly addressed the hazards of abandoned uranium mill tailings; the General Prosecutor's Office then demanded Mailuu-Suu local authorities to remedy violations at the uranium tailings dumps.
In the U.S., the long-awaited relocation of the Atlas Moab uranium mill tailings pile in Utah from the bank of the Colorado River to a safer disposal site finally started - 25 years after the shutdown of the mill. Officials are now developing "aggressive solutions" for groundwater remediation at the site.
At the former Midnite Mine site in Washington, public health hazards are possible, according to a report prepared by a federal government agency.
At the Smith Ranch site (Wyoming), the U.S. NRC cited Cameco for failure to decommission in-situ leach mine units in time.
In France, Areva tried to block a TV documentary on residual contamination left around former uranium mine sites in France. Subsequently, a new NGO announced to monitor radiation at former uranium mine sites in the Limousin area.
In Gabon, a survey conducted by NGOs still identified elevated radiation levels around Cogema/Areva's decommissioned Mounana uranium mine site, while Areva eyes resumption of uranium mining in Gabon.
Legal and regulatory issues
Worldwide, three environmental activists are currently imprisoned for their work on uranium mining:
In China, Sun Xiaodi was sentenced to two years of Reeducation-Through-Labor, his daughter Sun Dunbai to one year and a half. The authorities assert that Sun Xiaodi stole information relating to the state-owned No. 792 Uranium Mine in Gansu, and gave it to his daughter to supply to overseas organizations.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, human rights association ASADHO/Katanga issued a report on the history of illicit mining at Shinkolobwe, whereupon Golden Misabiko, president of the association, was arrested and sentenced to one year of imprisonment.
Problems do not only exist with the environmental impacts of uranium mine operations, but also at the regulatory level:
The Environment ministry of Saskatchewan - one of the world's largest uranium mining provinces - has a "massive capability and capacity deficit" in the uranium mining sector, according to a consultant's report. The consultant suggested the province could contract a private sector expert [!] to support its uranium regulation work.
Malawi's draft uranium regulations are "essentially a self-regulation system, which will ultimately result in releases (of contaminated water) that are under-reported, uncontrolled and hidden from the affected public", according to a report by Australian scientific consultant Howard Smith.
As many new countries are planning now to join the uranium mining business, the problem of inadequate regulatory oversight is likely to widen in the near future. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is currently organizing a series of related beginners' courses, but these can only be seen as a first step to deal with the problem. Likewise, the NGOs in these countries have to train their skills to deal with the new threat. Related workshops were held in several African countries for this purpose, already.
Uranium Trade and Foreign Investments
After obtaining, in 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers Group's (NSG) nod for uranium imports, Non-NPT signatory India signed uranium supply deals with Kazakhstan, Namibia, and Mongolia, among others. Canada, too, hopes to supply uranium to India soon, while Australia still declines such exports, though India is urging Australia to reassess its position. In the meantime, India did not rule out to use its domestically mined uranium for non-peaceful uses.
China received the first shipment of uranium from Australia's Olympic Dam mine. It further came to light that export of uranium-containing tailings from Indonesia to China is taking place unregulated since 2005.
China, India, Russia, Japan, and France are aggressively securing promising uranium deposits in many parts of the world now, mainly in Africa, Asia and Australia. So far, nuclear power production is quite low in both China and India, but they intend to massively expand it, while their known domestic uranium resources are only inferior.
The current spread of uranium activities to many new countries urges a more efficient safeguards scheme; this was highlighted by Malawi government's ignorance of the uranium tonnage exported from the new Kayelekera mine. It is unclear, how the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will keep up with these new developments.
Quote of the year:
"We're taking the uranium out of the ground, we're exporting it to be used for productive purposes, so we should be getting a medal for cleaning up the environment."
(Neville Huxham, Malawi country director for Paladin Energy Africa, IPS Aug. 24, 2009)
Earlier annual uranium mining reviews can be found in Nuclear Monitor issues 682 (2009), 665 (2007), 650 (2006), 640 (2005), 623 (2004), 600 (2003), 579 (2002), 560 (2001), 540 (2000), 522 (1999) and 504 (1998) or at http://www.wise-uranium.org/uissr09.html