Uranium Mining Issues: 1998 Review
(last updated 20 Mar 2002)
> See also 1998 News Archive
At the end of 1998, the uranium spot price is rapidly falling towards its all-time low: Uranium Exchange Co reported US$ 8.75 per lb U3O8 on Dec. 14, 1998. This figure is not very meaningful, however, since only low volumes are being traded on the spot market now.
The uranium production from mines at present supplies only about 60% of consumption. Other sources of uranium entering the market stem from various stockpiles:
An improvement of the uranium market in the near future is not very likely. While International Nuclear Inc. sees prices beginning to rise after 2003, Ron Shani of IAEA says: "Even the gloomiest of industry projections indicate at least a small uranium market through 2050" [Nuclear Fuel Oct. 19, 1998, p.16/12]
- In consequence of the privatization of U.S. Enrichment Corp., the new USEC Inc. has announced it plans to sell its uranium inventory of 29,000 tonnes U over the next few years to pay down its indebtedness. [Reuters July 31, 1998],
- Downblended Highly Enriched Uranium from decommissioning of nuclear weapons is entering the market,
- Only small amounts of uranium from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel are being used, at present,
- Tails upgrading in Russia: uranium enricher Urenco is sending its enrichment tails (uranium depleted to 0.30% U-235) to Russia for re-enrichment to natural isotope composition (0.71% U-235). It is likely that Russia has contracted to strip these tails from 0.30 to 0.25% U-235, but Russia is believed to further strip to 0.12% tails assay [Nuclear Fuel Oct. 19, 1998]. If the whole Russian excess enrichment capacity of 9 million SWU per year were used for stripping Urenco's tails from 0.30 to 0.12%, 7,290 tonnes of uranium of natural isotope composition would be recovered, 4680 tonnes of which on Russia's own account.
One of the consequences of the weak uranium market is a beginning concentration process in the uranium industry:
Another impact of the weak uranium market are shut-downs and capacity reductions of existing uranium mines and suspensions of uranium mining projects:
- Uranerz (Germany) sold its US and Canadian properties to Cameco. The principal assets acquired are 33.33% interests in the operating Key Lake and Rabbit Lake uranium mines and a 27.92% interest in the McArthur River uranium project (all Saskatchewan). The transaction also includes a 57.69% interest in the Crow Butte uranium mine in Nebraska (USA) plus uranium and gold exploration properties in northern Saskatchewan, the United States and Kazakhstan.
- Uranium Resources, Inc. (URI) is looking for an asset buyer after writedown of its South Texas uranium properties [URI Nov. 16, 1998]
- North Ltd, the majority shareholder of Jabiluka owner Energy Resources of Australia (ERA), is believed to be a candidate for takeover, due to problems with environmental protests and a negative report from the UN's World Heritage Bureau on the planned Jabiluka mine. [Reuters, Dec. 10, 1998]
- The Green Mountain Mining Joint Venture announced the suspension of the Jackpot (Wyoming) mine development,
- Cogema announced that it plans to close its Cluff Lake mine (Saskatchewan) in December 2000, after it had turned out that the mill's tailings storage capacity was insufficient, and authorities had demanded the construction of an additional tailings pond,
- World Wide Minerals puts its Dornod Uran mine in Mongolia on standby,
- The Rössing mine in Namibia announced the shedding of 200 workers during 1999,
- Anaconda Uranium Corp. terminates the Ben Lomond and Maureen projects in Queensland, Australia,
- Rio Tinto announced that the Kintyre project in Western Australia is being placed under care and maintenance,
- Cameco announced the slowdown of production at Rabbit Lake (Saskatchewan), cutting 140 employee jobs plus 130 contractor jobs, and the temporary layoff of about 200 out of 300 employees at Key Lake (Saskatchewan),
- The Kingsville Dome and Rosita in-situ leach mines in Texas are to be placed on standby within the next months (though the expansion of Rosita had just been licensed),
- The by-product uranium production from phosphate in Louisiana was to cease in December,
- Energy Resources of Australia announced a production cutback of 27% for its Ranger mine in the Northern Territory.
International Uranium Corp. (IUC) is pursuing another way to survive under the current conditions: The processing of alternate feed at its White Mesa mill in Utah. In 1998, the processing of uranium-contaminated material from the Blind River refinery and the Port Hope conversion plant in Ontario, and from the Tonawanda nuclear weapons production site in New York were licensed. After recovery of the uranium, the processing wastes are being dumped on the mill's tailings pile, a matter of concern for Utah residents.
Most new uranium mining projects being developed at present are low-cost mines, either for their extraordinary high ore grades (as in Saskatchewan, Canada), or for their amenability to the in-situ leaching technique (as in USA and Australia).
- The large-scale high-grade deposits being developed are McArthur River with reserves of 160,000 tonnes of uranium, at an ore grade of 12.7% U, Cigar Lake with 150,000 tonnes at 7.8% U, Midwest with 13,200 tonnes at 3.8%, all located in Saskatchewan. The latter two were licensed in 1998, McArthur River already in 1997. Final approval for the McClean Lake JEB tailings facility however, scheduled to host the tailings from Cigar Lake and Midwest, was delayed due to construction deficiencies.
- Construction of the controversial Jabiluka mine in the Northern Territory of Australia was licensed in June 1998 and started the same month. The deposit contains 76,660 tonnes uranium at 0.39% U and it is located on a lease surrounded by the Kakadu National Park, a UN World Heritage.
After intervention by the Traditional Owners of the site, the mining company Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) changed its plans to process the ore on site instead at the existing Ranger mill. The plans for mill tailings management at Jabiluka are rather vague still and are subject to further licensing.
In January, the European Parliament passed a resolution in favour of indigenous peoples concerned from uranium mining projects, and against the development of the Jabiluka project in particular.
In December, the Australian government suffered a further setback, when the United Nations' World Heritage Committee (WHC) called for a preliminary halt to the project, until the Committee would make its decision in April 1999, whether Kakadu National Park were to be listed as a World Heritage "in danger".
From March to October, Jabiluka was the target of the longest ever blockade against a uranium mine, organized by Jabiluka Traditional Owners and environmental activists from all over Australia. Hundreds of activists were arrested during the blockade.
- At the Beverley and Honeymoon ore deposits in South Australia, field leach trials for in-situ leaching have begun in 1998. For Beverley, the Australian Environmental Minister signalled the go-ahead, but requested more tests.
- The expansion (more than doubling) of the production capability of the Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine in South Australia is going on and is expected to come into effect late in 1998.
- In the United States, the following in-situ leach projects were licensed in 1998: Crownpoint (New Mexico), Rosita extension (Texas), and Alta Mesa (Texas).
- Canadian uranium miner Anaconda Uranium Corp. announced the development of the Nisa mine in Portugal.
- The decision on the mining of the Srednaya Padma uranium-vanadium deposit in Russia was postponed by the Karelian Parliament in November.
Regarding the present situation of the uranium industry, it is no surprise that the decommissioning standards are getting weaker.
- The largest decommissioning project approved in 1998 was the 70 million tonnes Denison Stanrock uranium mill tailings pile in Elliot Lake, Ontario. This is the first license for a permanent disposal of large-scale uranium tailings with a soft non-durable water cover worldwide.
- The U.S. Department of Energy's clean-up programme for the uranium mill tailings sites left over from the Cold War era was nearly completed in 1998, at least regarding the surface aspect. For the groundwater aspect, as well as for the tailings from commercial uranium production, work is only beginning, and often consists of granting relaxed groundwater standards.
- Relaxed groundwater standards were proposed or approved for the mill tailings sites at Riverton (Wyoming), Shirley Basin (Wyoming), Falls City (Texas), and for the groundwater restoration at the following in-situ leach sites: Burns/Moser, Holiday, Clay West, O'Hern, Boots/Brown (all Texas). Active groundwater clean-up was proposed for the Tuba City (Arizona) mill site.
- For the Belfield and Bowman mill tailings sites in North Dakota, the decision was made, at the request of the State of North Dakota, that no clean-up would be performed at all.
- A matter of high discussion was the cleanup of the 9.5 million tonnes Atlas Corp. uranium mill tailings site at Moab (Utah). The pile is located immediately on the bank of the Colorado River, a drinking water resource for millions of Americans. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), as well as Moab residents and environmental groups, had requested that the tailings be relocated to a safer place, while Atlas Corp. and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) thought, a rock cover would be sufficient. Meanwhile, FWS changed its mind and adhered to the rock cover policy, causing residents and environmentalists to file a lawsuit, while Atlas Corp. declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy...
The compensation claim of an Ex-Rössing worker was dismissed by London High Court in December.
The Dene of Great Bear Lake (NWT, Canada) demanded investigations about the cancer deaths of community members who used to work for the former Port Radium uranium mine, and on persisting hazards from the mining wastes.
Science News: Archer et al found that not only lung cancer, but also pulmonary fibrosis occuring in uranium miners can be caused from excessive exposure to radon progeny.
On July 15, 1998, a federal jury awarded $2.9 million to 14 residents of Lincoln Park who were contaminated by Cotter Corp.'s Cañon City (Colorado) uranium mill during the 1970s and '80s. The mill was in operation from 1958 to 1987. Liquid wastes containing radionuclides and heavy metals were discharged from 1958 to 1978 into eleven unlined tailings ponds. The ponds were replaced in 1982 with the construction of two lined impoundments. Prior to 1982, a number of Lincoln Park wells showed elevated levels of contamination.
Science News: Zamora et al, for the first time, studied the effects of chronic ingestion of uranium with drinking water on humans. They found that kidney function is affected by uranium uptakes considered safe in the publications based on animal studies.
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