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The Activist's Guide to Uranium Mining

1. HELP!   Someone wants to mine uranium in my backyard!   (FAQ)
2. The phases of a uranium mining project
3. The regulatory framework required for uranium mining
4. Existing regulations for uranium mining

(last updated 24 Oct 2011)


2. The phases of a uranium mining project

1. Prospecting · 2. Exploration
3. Planning and Licensing · 4. Construction · 5. Commissioning
6. Operation
7. Decommissioning · 8. Long-Term Surveillance and Maintenance


Topics covered:
Feasibility Study · Environmental Impact Assessment · Baseline data · Financial bonds · Decommissioning plan


Phase 1: Prospecting

With prospecting, the company tries to find or confirm hints that might indicate the presence of a uranium deposit, and that may warrant more expensive and intrusive methods to search the site for uranium.

Typical prospecting activities comprise:

A prospecting license is required and usually obtained easily.

Why worry?

While the actual impacts of prospecting are negligible, there is, however, one thing to be aware of: the company and the authorities will tell you that mining is decades away, if it comes at all. But, if a deposit actually is found, the applicable mining law most likely implies a very strong title to mine it then.


Phase 2: Exploration

With exploration, the company seeks to find out whether the site actually contains a uranium deposit, and if so, whether it is feasible for mining.

Exploration typically comprises the following more intrusive activities:

An exploration license is required.
In some jurisdictions, an Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Assessment may be required in certain circumstances to obtain an exploration license, for example in Canada (see current issues).
In Australia, landowners in the Northern Territory called in 2008 for the establishment of a requirement for such an assessment for exploration projects (view details).

Environmental impacts of uranium exploration

The following impacts and/or violations have been observed, for example: Often, there is also concern for potential impacts on vegetation and animals in sensitive areas, among others.

Definition of a mineral resource

The density of drill hole spacing determines the level of confidence for the size of the deposit and the category, under which the deposit is reported (measured, indicated, or inferred, view details). The exploration companies usually define resources conforming to one or more of these standards:

CountryStock ExchangeStandardAcronym
CanadaTSXNational Instrument 43-101NI 43-101
AustraliaASXAustralasian Joint Ore Reserves CommitteeJORC
South AfricaJSESouth African Code for the Reporting of Mineral Resources and Mineral ReservesSAMREC

For statistical purposes, other reporting systems are in use, for example by the IAEA (view details).

In the western world, companies usually report resources as U3O8 (often in imperial units, such as short tons U3O8, or million lbs U3O8), while in the sphere of influence of the former Soviet Union, in the IAEA statistics, and on this website the resources are reported in metric tonnes of uranium metal (t U). A Unit Converter is available to cope with this mess.

Feasibility Study

If a deposit has been identified, the company has to prove the economic feasibility of its exploitation (preliminary and final feasibility studies); this is required to justify the project for the investors and for the authorities issuing the license.

A critical factor with such feasibility studies is the uranium market price assumed. Major companies with a proven uranium production record can sell their uranium at the price for long-term contracts, while others might have to sell at the more volatile spot market price which can be much lower, but also higher than the long-term price. Current uranium price information can be found here.

A tool for the assessment of the economic feasibility of a uranium mine project is the Uranium Mine Feasibility Calculator. It helps to make the feasibility of a mine project more transparent and simplifies comparison of several projects. The calculator can be run on individual data, or on sample data sets out of a number of recently published projects.

Resources, for which the technical and economical viability of mining has been demonstrated, are called reserves. These are divided into two categories: proven (or proved), and probable (these are derived from the resources categories of measured and indicated, respectively). Caution: in some cases, reserves are listed as part of the resources, in others they are given in addition to the resources!

Data on known resources and reserves of uranium deposits can be viewed via the Uranium Mine and Mill Site Info Selector. This site info also comprises links to detailed Technical Reports on the geology and the economics of the deposits, where available. However, only companies public listed in Canada (TSX, TSXV) are obliged to publish such reports.


Phase 3: Planning and Licensing

Once the company has made a decision to develop the deposit, it first has to raise money for the following steps. Many "junior miners", however, might prefer a different approach: they sell the deposit - or right the whole company - to some experienced mining company, to avoid the challenges of that tedious licensing process and all the other hassle of actually mining the deposit. This means, you might suddenly face a quite different counterpart.

Typically, quite a number of licenses is required from various regional, state and federal authorities. An important one is an environmental clearance of some sort, confirming that the environmental impact of the project does not preclude the issuance of an operating license under applicable law. The environmental clearance is based on an Environmental Impact Assessment.

Environmental Impact Assessment

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) describes the proposed project (and any project alternatives considered), the affected environment, and then analyses the expected impact of the proposed project (and any alternatives) on the baseline situation. The EIA also covers the construction phase and any infrastructure upgrading required, such as road construction, water and electricity supply, transport of hazardous reagents to the site, etc.
In some countries, the EIA is prepared by the regulator, in others by the proponent (or a consultant contracted by him).

First, a scoping document, or screening report, is prepared that defines the issues to be covered in the EIA; this scoping document includes public input, and, once completed, is subjected to public comment.

For the EIA, lots of detailed baseline data have to be collected about the site, covering topics such as: land use, transportation, geology and soils, water resources, ecology, meteorology, climatology, air quality, noise, historical and cultural resources, visual and scenic resources, socioeconomics, public and occupational health and safety, waste management. The collection of at least some of this data usually is accomplished by specialized sub-contractors and may take several years.

  In some cases, there are fears that the collection of this baseline data may be biased and should be complemented by some independent data collection efforts. It is moreover demanded that some data collection should also be done after the end of the operational phase of the project in order to verify the assumptions made in beforehand.
The following paper analyzes these demands and comes to the conclusion, that such efforts would be almost useless, unless tremendous resources are invested; but even then, their outcome would only be very limited.

> Download: Uranium mining and the environment: Are "baselines" useful?, by Gerhard Schmidt, Öko-Institut, Darmstadt, Germany, January 2011 (200k PDF)
(Recommendations and Conclusions also contained in French)

A draft EIA report is subjected to public comment.

The calculations provided in the draft EIA can be submitted to some plausibility tests with our online calculators. These calculators can model the health hazards for proposed mines based on generic data, complemented by site-specific data, where available:

Some of these calculators are practically identical to the programs used by the authorities (we have even seen authorities using our calculators rather than their official software, apparently because they are easier to use and provide the same results anyway...). When using the calculators, you should however make sure you understand the limitations of each calculator and the precise meaning of all those many parameters.

The final EIA report must address the public comments submitted. It then forms the basis for the environmental approval of the project, ... at least it should.

The handling of the public involvement process with the EIA varies markedly between countries.
Particularly peculiar is the situation in Namibia - unfortunately a country where a large number of huge projects is currently under development.
In Namibia, the company (and its contractors) prepare the EIA, and they manage the public participation process, as well. Recent experience reveals a whole bunch of deficiencies with the EIA process in this country:

These deficiencies show that the EIA process has been completely perverted in Namibia, and that its only purpose is to maintain a front to cover the government's determination to develop the uranium industry at all costs.


Phase 4: Construction

Once the company has obtained a construction license, it has to raise further money for the following steps; for typical major projects, we are talking here about several hundred millions of dollars.

In some cases, certain construction activities are allowed even before a license is obtained (pre-licensing construction).

Financial bonds

As soon as construction starts, there is the risk that the company goes bankrupt and there is nobody left to pay for the cleanup of the mess left behind so far. This is very likely (or almost for sure) towards the mine's end of life, but can happen at any time.
Even ownership by a major mining company cannot give any assurance, as the company creates a subsidiary for that specific site and may sell it off or let it die, once it is no longer of use, or, the company finds other ways to evade any liability, as in the case of the Midnite uranium mine in Washington, USA, for example, that was operated from 1955 to 1981 by a subsidiary of major gold miner Newmont Mining Corp. and 30 years later still hasn't been cleaned up.

So, the only assurance to have some funds left in the case of need, is, to have the company pay into a reclamation bond, as soon as construction starts. The amount to be held in the bond has to be reassessed on a regular basis to make sure it covers the reclamation cost that would actually incur, if the company declared bankruptcy at any time.
The height of the bond is a favourite bone of contention between companies and authorities, and they use to haggle over the last cent every year. Still, in case of the Midnite mine, the estimate for the actual cleanup cost (US$ 152 million) turned out to be 15 times higher than the amount bonded, and in the case of the Atlas Moab tailings in Utah, USA, even 100 times higher (approx. US$ 1 billion). It is therefore mandatory that the rules for the determination of the height of the bond do not reflect the company's wishful thinking, but that they lead to a realistic reclamation cost estimate. Otherwise, such as in the Atlas Moab case, the taxpayer will have to pay the bill in the end.

The Uranium Mine Feasibility Calculator mentioned above allows to include such "unforeseeable" additional cleanup costs and to check their impact on the projects overall feasibility - if the proponent actually would have to bear these costs...

But, even after reclamation of a site has been successfully completed, there permanently continue to arise costs for long-term surveillance and maintenance. For this purpose, the company has to pay an amount into a long-term surveillance and maintenance bond that is sufficient to cover regular surveillance and maintenance work from the interest of that capital (typically assumed at 1% per year in the long term, and ignoring any financial crashs that might occur...).

Monitoring of environmental impacts during mine construction

Dust and noise are of major concern during this phase.


Phase 5: Commissioning

During the commissioning phase, all material flows, processes, and circuits are tested and optimized.

The optimization of the uranium recovery in the milling process usually presents the greatest challenge, as actual recovery rates tend to turn out much lower than anticipated from laboratory tests. On the other hand, the recovery rate directly affects the feasibility and profitability of the whole project and is the major parameter that can be influenced by the operator, once construction is completed. Shareholders thus watch the recovery rate like a hawk.


Phase 6: Operation

Operation of a uranium mine comprises:

Operating licenses for the mine and the mill and various other licenses are required. Mine and mill may be regulated by different authorities, such as in the USA, for example.

The mine and mill operation requires a reliable supply of electricity, water, and process chemicals. Where such supplies are not easily obtainable, they may also be produced on-site or nearby in facilities, such as diesel generators, seawater desalination plants, and sulfuric acid plants, respectively.

Monitoring of the impacts of mine and mill operation




Phase 7: Decommissioning

Decommissioning plan

The following issues have to be resolved in a decommissioning plan:

Typical groundwater restoration strategies include:

The activities described in the decommissioning plan must be realized in due time after the closure of the mine.

All decommissioning work must be paid for by the previous operator of the mine, or by a reclamation bond (see above), in case the former operator no longer exists.


Phase 8: Long-Term Surveillance and Maintenance

Long-term surveillance and maintenance shall insure that any damage to the disposal cell is detected and repaired in due time, and that the hazards posed by the site won't exceed acceptable levels.

The cost for these activities must be paid for by a long-term surveillance and maintenance bond (see above).

As the lifetime of any company usually is rather limited, the government has to assume the responsibility of a site, once it has been properly decommissioned.


1. HELP!   Someone wants to mine uranium in my backyard!   (FAQ)
2. The phases of a uranium mining project
3. The regulatory framework required for uranium mining
4. Existing regulations for uranium mining

HOME   WISE Uranium Project   >   Mining & Milling   >