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Uranium Mining Issues: 2005 Review

(last updated 1 Mar 2006)


> See also 2005 News Archive


During the course of the year 2005, the uranium spot market price climbed from 20.70 to 36.50 US$/lb U3O8, a 76% increase. The price is now more than 5 times its record low of 7 US$/lb U3O8.
And, after a long period of decline, the world uranium production reached 40251 t U in 2004, a 13% increase over 2003.
The increase of the uranium price is driven by fears that the secondary resources and stock holdings (currently supplying nearly half of 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 one with its large number of small underground mines working many dispersed low grade deposits (particularly in the U.S.). There are some indications now that the new uranium boom might look somewhat different: Cotter Corp., the General Atomics subsidiary running the only uranium mill currently processing (small amounts) of uranium ore in the U.S., has laid off all miners at its recently reopened mines in Western Colorado and closed its Cañon City uranium mill for poor economics - in spite of the continuing increase of the price of uranium.
On the other hand, Kazakhstan is concentrating its efforts on boosting the uranium production from in-situ leaching from the current 3719 t U (2004) to 16,000 t U in 2015. And, BHP Billiton, the new owner of the large Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine in South Australia, has announced plans to increase the uranium production from the current 4000 t up to 30,000 t U per year (three quarters of the current world production!).
It is also unclear whether the new uranium boom will be as welcome as the first one mostly was. In countries, such as Sweden, opposition is growing even against the exploration of uranium.

As in the previous year, WISE Uranium Project takes the opportunity to award its order of merit, this time in the following categories:


Newly discovered uranium deposits

One of the discoveries made 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 Gulbarga district in Karnataka and Shikar district in Rajasthan in central India, from six Nigerian states, and from the Kanyemba area of the Zambezi Valley, among others, in Zimbabwe, without further details, though.


New uranium mining projects

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) approved the mining license for the McClean Lake - Sue E project in Saskatchewan, thereby introducing the new public service of initially 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.
For the Crownpoint ISL project in New Mexico, the license of which still is on hold, 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 only 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 this thoroughly flawed Environmental Assessment, the Namibian authorities clearly deserve the "Carelessness of the Year Silver Award".
While the Langer Heinrich groundbreaking ceremony was accompanied by protests from environmentalists, Paladin experienced no problem raising the capital necessary for the development of the mine.
Paladin's next project, the development of the Kayelekera uranium mine project in Malawi, has already become the subject of serious environmental concerns raised by a local Human Rights organization.

Russia, facing serious uranium supply shortages within a few years, considers to open large uranium mines on marginal deposits in South Yakutia, though these could only be mined with state subsidies. Apparently, Russia is running short of other options to satisfy its increasing demand for uranium.

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 - with foreign assistance and financial support. The Inkay ISL project received its first construction permit; the Munkuduk ISL project is to start uranium production in 2006 and the Korsan project in 2009.

In India, Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL) faces serious opposition at all sites where it plans to develop new uranium mines: In Jharkhand, resident opponents kept the State Pollution Control Board from holding a hearing in August on the proposed Mohuldih uranium mine project; the Pollution Control Board expressed its sympathy with the residents. Another meeting was held in December, without allowing access of non-local environmentalists. In Andhra-Pradesh, overwhelming opposition was voiced at a public hearing against the new site now proposed for the uranium processing plant for the Lambapur-Peddagattu uranium project; a demonstration was also held in Nalgonda. In Meghalaya, activists temporarily sealed off the Domiasiat uranium mine project site; Tribal council leaders oppose the project, while District Council and State Government are in favour of it.

In Australia, Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) and Traditional Owners signed a long-term deal, obliging ERA (and its successors) to secure Mirrar 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. After protests by environmentalists, the Northern Territory Government blocked the Koongarra uranium mine. However, in August, the Federal Government overruled the Northern Territory ban on new uranium mines, declaring the territory open for business on uranium.


Issues at operating uranium mines

According to press reports, Areva/Cogéma plans to invest Euro 500 - 600 million in doubling uranium output from its mines by 2010 (from 6125 t U in 2004); further details have not been revealed yet, however.

The Supreme Court of Canada finally upheld the license of the McClean Lake uranium mine in Saskatchewan quashed by a Federal Court in 2002 at the request of a local environmental group. 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.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) seeked comment on the proposed processing of residues from Fansteel's Muskogee facility in Oklahoma as alternate feed at the White Mesa mill, the only other active mill in the U.S., currently processing exclusively alternate feed materials, such as uranium-contaminated soils, rather than ore.

In Argentina, a judge ordered 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 of the official French radioprotection institute IRSN and the independent institute CRIIRAD on the environmental impacts of Cogéma's uranium mines in Niger were released. Both studies found several deficiencies and concluded that permissible dose rates may be exceeded in certain cases. In response, Cogéma launched a health study at these sites. In November, Cogéma received a rather 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 downstream from the Rössing mine; the water is being used for irrigation purposes. In 2004, Rössing became the first Western producer to export uranium to China.

In South Africa, Aflease Gold and Uranium Resources Ltd is preparing construction of a uranium 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 has been set up to probe the 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 soon began preparing plans for an expansion of the mine 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, that 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 the mine 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 A$150,000 in the Darwin Magistrate’s Court after having plead guilty to charges related to the 2004 incident concerning the connection of the drinking and process water systems and other contamination events.
In July, ERA disclosed that the Ranger mine closure is to cost A$176 million, of which only A$65 million is covered by guarantee (A$41.4 million in a government-administered trust fund, and A$23.6 million through a bank guarantee). For evidently failing to secure sufficient decommissioning funds for ERA's Ranger mine, Australian Commonwealth authorities deserve this year's "Carelessness of the Year Gold Award".
Should ERA go bankrupt, the tax payer would have to fund the cleanup. Such fears were further fuelled, when on Dec. 6, 2005, Cameco, Cogéma, and Japan Australia Uranium Resources Development Co Ltd. (JAURD) sold their combined 25% stake in Energy Resources of Australia (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 losses.


Abandoned mines

In Canada, the 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 to cost-share remediation of the Gunnar and Lorado uranium mines in Saskatchewan, active from the 1950s until the early 1960s.

In the U.S., the reclamation of the White King and Lucky Lass mines in Oregon, 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 mine and mill site in Colorado.
The hazard cleanup at some abandoned uranium mines in Harding County in South Dakota could cost $20 million, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Beginning in the late 1940s, more than 200 uranium mines were dug in South Dakota.

In April, a landslide close to a uranium tailings dump near Mailuu-Suu alarmed the authorities in Kyrgyzstan. A land mass of around 300,000 cubic metres, several hundred metres in width and up to 10 metres high halted the flow of a key river and water source in Mailuu-Suu and blocked the road linking the town with the adjacent village of Sary-Bee. According to the Kyrgyz emergency ministry, part of the landslide was alarmingly close to one of the unsecured tailings dumps.

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 western Japan 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 cost of uranium mining waste. No decision has been made yet on the fate of the remaining 2700 cubic metres...


Decommissioning issues

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) issued to Cameco Corporation a Waste Facility Operating Licence for the Beaverlodge uranium mine and mill site located in Northern Saskatchewan. The decision was taken in spite of concern on the relatively high incidence of deformities observed in fish in the vicinity of the site.
CNSC also renewed Rio Algom's license for its Elliot Lake tailings in Ontario, initially 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 cessation of active groundwater restoration at its Split Rock uranium mill tailings site in Wyoming; the company had intended to supply the residents in the area with an alternate potable water supply, rather than cleaning up the groundwater in a tedious process. Apparently, the company could not convince the NRC on this plan.
The NRC demanded re-installation of monitoring wells at the Durita uranium mill site in Colorado, that had been prematurely plugged by the licensee.
The DOE approved the proposed groundwater restoration at the Monument Valley uranium mill tailings site in Arizona, involving natural flushing and passive remediation through phytoremediation.
For the Atlas Moab uranium mill tailings pile in Moab, Utah, DOE released a Final Environmental Impact Statement stipulating the preferred alternative of relocating the tailings to Crescent Junction - after the Draft EIS had not contained any preferred alternative. And on September 14, 2005, DOE finally signed the long-awaited historic decision to move the Moab tailings away from the bank of the Colorado River, where they threaten the drinking water supply of millions of downstream residents.
The NRC terminated the license for Petrotomics' Shirley Basin tailings site in Wyoming and established the Department of Energy as the long-term custodian of the site.
At the reclaimed Church Rock uranium mill tailings site, United Nuclear continued to demonstrate its incapability to maintain the site's fencing in proper condition. As in previous years, inspectors had to chase cattle from the site, and, as a piece of news, also a horse, this time. Once again, this raises the question how the integrity of the uranium mill tailings deposit is to be maintained in the long term, given that the owner is not even able to provide such simple measures as fencing in a working condition.

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 Portugal, the begin of decommissioning of the Urgeiriça uranium mines was delayed. A study confirmed elevated levels of environmental radioactivity in the former uranium mining area, though not exceeding applicable standards.

In South Africa, groundwater contamination from abandoned gold/uranium mines raised increasing concern. Bancrupt Hartebeestfontein gold/uranium mine's failure to pump groundwater even threatened downstream mines with flooding.

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

In Canada, a report says scientific data does not show a link between cancer rates in the community of Déline and the Port Radium mine. Men from the N.W.T. community were hired to carry sacks of uranium ore from the mine, which opened in 1929 and operated for decades. Cancer cases started showing up and the community became known as the "Village of Widows" receiving widespread attention. But, the report says those employees' exposure levels weren't high enough to cause cancer, contradicting widely held opinions.

In the U.S., a National Academy of Science committee recommended to examine whether Cold War era residents of uranium mills should become eligible for radiation exposure compensation. So far, compensation has been applicable only for former uranium workers and downwinders of nuclear weapon tests. An investigation by the General Accounting Office showed that such Radiation Exposure Compensation payments are improving, after experiencing many delays during previous years. However, "Post-1971" uranium miners (so far not covered by the compensation program) accused the U.S. federal government of withholding a study recommending compensation also for them.

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, 2005, 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, 2005, by a vote of 63-19; it could, however, be overturned by U.S. federal legislation.

South Africa announed plans to give local nuclear industry privileged access to domestic uranium resources. The Minerals and Energy Department is planning to declare uranium a "protected mineral resource" to secure supplies for the local nuclear industry. The department has cited as a reason for this the recent strong growth in uranium prices and its intention to use more uranium to produce power.

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 of Sun's allegations of the corruption and severe human health impacts and environmental degradation at the Gansu No. 792 Uranium Mine.

Australia began to conduct 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 even announced that it wants to explore for uranium in Australia. China refuses to commit to IAEA inspections of its nuclear power facilities as a condition of buying uranium from Australia, though.
Canada, however, has no objections to uranium exports to China. Meanwhile, Rössing in Namibia became the first Western producer to export uranium to China (see above). The first ever uranium imports to China came from Kazakhstan and started four years ago.

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". And, we are no longer surprised to hear that AREVA group acquired a 21.1% stake in German wind turbine manufacturer REpower.
While Cogéma's comment was meant for Australia, it was later adopted by Canada's Nuclear Waste Management Organization who said that uranium mining province Saskatchewan has a "responsibility" to take back spent nuclear fuel.

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