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Uranium Mining Issues: 2003 Review

(last updated 19 Jan 2004)


> See also 2003 News Archive


During the course of the year, the uranium spot market price increased by 42% from US$ 10.20 to US$ 14.50 per lb U3O8. While this increase gave rise to a few announcements for the restart of idle uranium mines, it was - also given the continuing imponderabilities of the uranium market - not strong enough to trigger a new uranium frenzy. On the contrary, the uranium extraction industry experienced a number of major blows - operational ones, such as the flooding of the McArthur River high grade mine in Canada, as well as political ones, such as the halt to the further development and the subsequent backfilling of the Jabiluka mine in Australia at the request of the Traditional Owners. Several announcements to increase uranium production capacity came from central Asia, where the legacy of Cold-War era uranium mining has not all been dealt with yet.


New uranium mining projects

The administrative preparations for the development of the Cigar Lake high grade mine in Saskatchewan, Canada, continued with CNSC's approval of Cigar Lake waste rock disposal in the mined out Sue C pit at McClean Lake.

In the U.S., the licensing procedure for Power Resources' proposed Gas Hills uranium in-situ leach (ISL) project in Wyoming continued. And, in view of the rising uranium price, URI revived plans to commence production at its Vasquez uranium ISL project in Texas.

Also, in view of the rising price of uranium, Ukraine, which currently produces only 34.5% of its own uranium requirements, would like to become an uranium exporter. This would require the development of new capacities. On the other hand, Ukraine does not allocate sufficient funds even for the reclamation of its existing uranium mill tailings (see below), so the waste management problem would aggravate.

In Zambia, Equinox Resources was granted a mining lease for its Lumwana copper project, but plans for uranium by-product recovery have been abandoned for economic reasons.

In Kazakhstan, construction of the Zarechnoye uranium ISL mine is scheduled to begin in 2004.

Iran is developing its first uranium mine at Saghand - a small-scale low-grade deposit.

In India, opposition grew against two uranium mine projects, Domiasiat in Meghalaya and Lambapur-Peddagattu in Andhra Pradesh. Both projects are aiming at low-grade deposits located in areas inhabited by tribal people. While mining company UCIL in August promised that mining at Domiasiat would not start without local consent, the start of the project was announced on December 10. The opposition against the Lambapur-Peddagattu project was joined by a guerrilla group, which destroyed drilling equipment at the proposed site on December 3. India is also testing a new method to extract uranium from sea water

In Australia, Rio Tinto, after decades of controversy, bowed to the opposition of the Traditional Owners to the Jabiluka uranium mine project and backfilled the material already mined.
Moreover, several major mining companies vowed not to mine in World Heritage areas.
The financing of the Honeymoon uranium in-situ leach mine project in South Australia still is unclear. After the end of a trial operation, the mine is idle.


Issues at operating mines

In Canada, Cameco's high grade mine McArthur River had to be temporarily shut down after water inflow. Later, it became known that the McArthur River miners were exposed to higher than usual radon levels during the mine flooding.

After the Federal Court in a sensational decision had quashed the McClean Lake mine's operating license in 2002, Cogéma appealed the decision. The appeal was joined by the Province of Saskatchewan and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, among others. The Appeals Court will hear the case only in 2004. Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan Eco-Network named the Inter-Church Uranium Committee (ICUC) and its lawyer Stefania Fortugno, who had won the court case, "Environmental Activists of the Year". In parallel with the appeal, Cogéma is pursuing a new operating license for McClean Lake, in case the appeal will be lost. In addition, the licensing procedure for the Sue E extension of the McClean Lake mine is ongoing.

In the U.S., IUC's White Mesa Mill in Utah, other than in previous years, made rather few headlines. No new proposals for processing of all kinds of "alternate feed material" (rather than uranium ore) became public - the company appears to be too busy with its exploration projects in Saskatchewan and Mongolia. An incident occurred at White Mesa in July, when the solution freeboard limit in tailings disposal cell #3 was exceeded, potentially affecting dam stability.
However, the only other active uranium mill in the country, Cotter Corp.'s Cañon City mill in Colorado, with ease compensated for the lack of headlines from Utah. On January 2, the state lifted the mill's suspension to accept radioactive waste as cover material for its tailings. But, on January 3, the U.S. EPA, contradicting the state, finding that radioactive waste shipments to the Cañon City mill are unacceptable. In May, the Colorado State parliament approved a bill imposing additional requirements on Cotter Corp.'s Cañon City uranium mill, targeting in particular new waste shipments to the site. In July, the state cited Cotter for more violations at the Cañon City uranium mill. In September it became known that contaminated water seeps around a plugged permeable wall at the mill site. In December, the State deferred the decision on the acceptability of radioactive soils for tailings cover by another year. A particularly good news in this year was that no excess plutonium was found in Cañon City soil samples.
In April, an Appeals Court overturned a $41 million jury award won in 2001 by residents allegedly sickened by radiation near the Cotter mill and later sent the residents' case back to district court.

Argentina intends to restart mining at the Sierra Pintada uranium deposit in Mendoza province. Even the local Chamber of Commerce joined the opposition against the project - for anticipated severe impacts to the regional economy.

In Niger, independent radiation surveys by the french CRIIRAD laboratory around Cogéma's Arlit and Akouta uranium mines were obstructed by confiscation of the monitoring equipment. The team noted the nearly total absence of any form of waste management, with the waste rock deposits and uranium mill tailings dumps exposed, releasing radioactive dust into the environment. Moreover, the team noted the absence of effective restrictions for the reuse of contaminated metal scrap by nearby residents.

In Namibia, Rio Tinto's large-scale low-grade Rössing uranium mine announced early close down by 2007 due to "volatile economic conditions".

Uzbekistan is aiming to boost uranium mine output 40% to 3,000 tonnes annually by 2010.

In southern Kazakhstan, a new uranium ISL refinery was completed.

Kyrgyzstan ratified IAEA's non-proliferation regulations, a prerequisite for the planned restart of the Kara Balta mill. It is planned to process pre-concentrate from the projected Kazakh Zarechnoye ISL uranium mine. Although such processing produces less waste than the milling of raw ore, it is surprising that a country claiming to be incapable to manage the uranium mill tailings overcome from the Soviet era (see below) intends to produce more such waste.

While other uranium mining operations are struggling with the elements and/or public opposition, WMC's Olympic Dam copper/uranium mine in South Australia once again proved to be self-sufficient in this regard: After two major fires in the processing plant in 1999 and 2001, the plant this year was hit by a three-week outage caused from a heat exchanger failure.


Abandoned mines

In Canada, negotiations are ongoing still on who will pay for the cleanup of 42 abandoned uranium mine sites in northern Saskatchewan. The province of Saskatchewan is pressing the federal government to take full financial responsibility for the cleanup. Northern Saskatchewan communities meanwhile demand the start of cleanup.

Out of the thousands of abandoned uranium mines in the U.S., the exploration pits in the Bighorn Canyon area and the neighboring Pryor Mountains (Montana), the Juniper mine in the Stanislaus National Forest (California), and the Belfield mine (North Dakota) made it into the headlines this year. The National Park Service is planning to cleanup the sites in the Bighorn Canyon area. The Forest Service closed a road near the Juniper site for high radiation readings. The state of North Dakota is planning to reclaim the Belfield mine.

In Argentina, reclamation work started at the Malargüe uranium mill tailings in Mendoza province, co-financed by the World Bank.

In Germany, after 13 years of dispute, the Federal Government and the Saxonian State Government signed an agreement on the reclamation of the uranium legacy sites that are not covered by Wismut's current reclamation mission. The agreement covers the sites that were no longer owned by Wismut after 1962, mainly located in the Ore Mountains near the Czech border. The total amount of Euro 78 million (US$ 84 million) is made available for the legacy sites until 2012 - that is, however, only 17% of the sum required, according to earlier estimates.

Kyrgyzstan is still looking for foreign support with the urgent stabilization of the abandoned uranium mill tailings deposits located in the south of the country. Further offers for assistance came from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, the U.S., and France. The reclamation will start in 2004, financed with US$ 5 million supplied by the World Bank. An EU-sponsored study found that the main problem were the mechanical stability of the tailings dumps, threatened by landslides and seismic activity; there were no widespread radiation hazard in the region at present.


Shutdown and decommissioning of uranium mines

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) approved Cameco's proposal to flood the mined out Rabbit Lake open pit mine in northern Saskatchewan by opening the dam that separates it from Wollaston Lake. The approval came in spite of Inter Church Uranium Committee's (ICUC) fears that radioactive particles will move into the lake in the long term.

In the U.S., decisions were issued for the groundwater remediation strategy at three uranium mill tailings sites covered by the Department of Energy's (DOE) UMTRA program: Naturita, Slick Rock, and New Rifle (all Colorado). In all three cases, the strategy involves no further groundwater treatment, but complete reliance on natural flushing and/or relaxed contaminant concentration standards. The same is envisaged for a portion of the Monticello tailings site in Utah. For the reclamation of the former Atlas Moab tailings site (Utah), now under jurisdiction of DOE, the search for alternative disposal sites continued. The option to relocate the tailings to the White Mesa mill found opposition from the Ute tribes. A decision about any relocation options or on-site disposal has not yet been made.

For those U.S. sites, the decommissioning of which falls under the responsibility of their previous operators, the following actions were requested and/or approved: demolition of Rio Algom's Ambrosia Lake mill, 9-year extension of reclamation milestones for Homestake's Grants tailings site (New Mexico), reclamation of Plateau Resources' Shootaring Canyon mill site (Utah), relaxed requirements and 2-year delay for Pathfinder's Shirley Basin and LuckyMc mill sites, and termination of the Green Mountain Ion-Exchange Site license (Wyoming). On several occasions it turned out that the measures meant to protect the integrity of the tailings for 1000 years failed already after short time: At the occasion of two site visits, United Nuclear's inspector had to chase cattle from the Church Rock (New Mexico) tailings, due to damaged fence lines. At the Bear Creek tailings (Wyoming) the state-imposed so-called institutional controls failed miserably - even before they were actually relied on: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) "staff was particularly surprised to learn several months ago that the mineral estate at Bear Creek has already been leased. This discovery does not give the staff confidence that institutional controls such as, for example, restrictive covenants, will be sufficient to provide long-term protection of the disposal site, especially as memories fade in the future."
Western Nuclear continued its efforts to convince NRC that prohibition of the use of contaminated groundwater in the surroundings of its Split Rock tailings site (Wyoming) is a viable long-term management option, rather than tedious and expensive groundwater cleanup to prevent contaminant plume dispersion. The company filed new groundwater modeling results showing a reduced area of impact compared to earlier modeling.
For Dawn Mining's Midnite mine site (Washington), cleanup of spilled roadside ore is planned for Spring 2004, but the company maintains it has no funds for cleanup of the Midnite mine site itself.
For Everest Exploration's Hobson ISL site (Texas), currently undergoing decommissioning, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality issued an Agreed Order imposing a $41,500 penalty on various violations.

The Czech government announced the final shut down of the Rozná uranium mine by 2005. The closure of the country's last uranium mine had been deferred several times. So far, the cleanup of the Czech uranium mines has cost the government CZK 21 billion (US$ 778 million) since 1989, and a total cost of CZK 80 billion (US$ 3 billion) would be expected by 2040. The specific cleanup cost thus would reach $10.8 per lb U3O8 produced. This figure is comparable to the uranium spot market price from the beginning of the year. And, this specific cost figure is not far away from those incurred for the cleanup of the U.S. UMTRA Title I uranium mill tailings sites ($14.70 per lb U3O8) and the German Wismut sites ($13.91 per lb U3O8).

In Spain, former uranium mill workers of the now dismantled Andújar uranium mill filed a complaint for compensation of health damages. The workers now are demanding indemnification under civil law, after earlier attempts to initiate prosecution under criminal law had been unsuccessful.

In Portugal, environmentalists called for the overdue start of cleanup at the Urgeiriça uranium mine site; cleanup may be postponed, however, for lack of funds. An epidemiological study among residents of the site was initiated.

In Ukraine, stabilization of the Dniprodzerzhynsk uranium mill tailings was stuck by insufficient allocation of funds, although a revised reclamation plan has been elaborated cutting costs to a small fraction of the costs foreseen initially.

In Kazakhstan, the dusting problem at the Aktau uranium mill tailings remained serious still, where some 100 million tonnes of tailings have been dumped since 1965. The fine dust from the bare spots of the tailings continues to be blown towards the town of Aktau. With the mining company proving to be incapable of managing even this problem (that could easily be resolved in the short term), serious apprehensions arise concerning the necessary long-term stabilization of the tailings.

In Australia, the Northern Territory Government has returned 96% of a clean-up bond on the former Nabarlek uranium mine to owner Pioneer International, although no consultation of the Commonwealth's Supervising Scientist had taken place, and although the site had been found to be not in good condition.


Regulatory and policy issues

In the U.S. the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a draft policy statement on Environmental Justice, weakening the constraints on siting of hazardous industries.
An U.S. Appeals Court upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) rule setting limits on the permissible level of radionuclides in drinking water against claims of the nuclear industry that they could impose unwarranted restrictions on nuclear facilities.
The state of Wyoming relaxed the groundwater standards for uranium in-situ leach mines: the requirement to restore groundwater to pre-mining conditions after uranium in-situ leach mining was dropped, easing the burden of costly groundwater restoration.

The Australian Senate conducted an inquiry highlighting serious flaws in uranium industry regulations. South Australia started a review of the environmental impacts of the acid in-situ leach mining process, as being used in the Beverley mine and Honeymoon trial operation.

The World Health Organization (WHO) revised its provisional guideline value for uranium in drinking water from 2 g/l to 9 g/l. The change is not based on new toxicity data, but on a revision of the allocation of the tolerable daily intake to drinking water from 10% to 50%.

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