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Uranium Mining Issues: 2004 Review

(last updated 1 Jan 2005)


> See also 2004 News Archive


During the course of the year 2004, the uranium spot market price climbed from 14.50 to 20.70 US$/lb U3O8, that is nearly three times its minimum level. The price for long-term contracts even reached 25 US$/lb U3O8.

When the uranium spot market price reached the magic figure of 20.00 US$/lb U3O8 at the end of September, a frenzy of acquisitions of innocent tracts of land began, involving many exploration companies so far not involved in the uranium business.

This year, WISE Uranium Project for the first time takes the opportunity to award its order of merit in the following categories:


New uranium mining projects

The following new uranium projects received government approval and/or commenced operation in 2004:

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved PRI's Gas Hills uranium in-situ leach mine project in Wyoming, and Uranium Resources Inc. (URI) commenced uranium production at its Vasquez in-situ leach mine located in Texas. URI further plans to resume ISL mining at its Kingsville Dome mine, also in Texas.

Development began, or continued, for the following uranium mine projects:

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) issued a construction license for the Cigar Lake high-grade uranium mine project in Saskatchewan, after performing an assessment finding no significant adverse environmental effects. CNSC further announced public hearings on the planned expansion of the JEB Mill at the McClean Lake mine site to receive and process Cigar Lake ore.

Argentina's atomic energy commission CNEA issued an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the revival of the Sierra Pintada uranium mine, located in San Rafael district of Mendoza province, though the environmental legacy of previous operation has not been dealt with yet.

An ongoing exploration project at an uranium deposit near Karkhu in Karelia (Russia) raised concerns by environmentalists on radioactive pollution in Lake Ladoga.

During hearings held on the Langer Heinrich uranium mine project in Namibia, promoted by the Australian company Paladin Resources Ltd, the public raised concerns regarding the need for the project, its water supply, and its impacts on the Namib Naukluft Park.

For Kazakhstan, the development of a number of uranium mine projects was announced:
Cameco and the National Atomic Company of Kazakhstan (Kazatomprom) announced the plan to develop the Inkai Uranium in-situ leach (ISL) mine, while Areva/Cogéma and Kazatomprom announced the development of commercial production at the Moinkum uranium deposit, so far site of a pilot plant. The construction of the Zarechnoye ISL uranium mine, a Kazakh-Russian-Kyrgyz joint venture, already has begun; part of the pre-concentrates recovered from the mine will be sent to the Kyrgyz Kara-Balta mill for processing. Kazakhstan even announced that it wants to become the world's leading uranium producer, by raising its annual production from the current 3000 t to approx. 16,000 t in 2015.

In India, plans for the development of four new uranium mines exist, two of which are located in Jharkhand, the home state of the only uranium mill existing in India so far: For the Bandugurang uranium mine project, the Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board cleared a hurdle with a "No Objection" statement. For the Baghjanta uranium mine project (also in Jharkhand), a public meeting was held, but environmentalists complained about incomplete access to project documents and about being hindered to raise their concerns during the meeting.
The Lambapur-Peddagattu uranium project in Andhra Pradesh saw ups and downs: while the Union Government excised tracts of the Rajiv Gandhi Tiger Reserve and a reserve forest for uranium exploration, the Andhra Pradesh State Pollution Control Board rejected the proposed site for the associated uranium mill. Uranium Corporation of India Ltd (UCIL) then came up with a new proposal for a mill site.
The Domiasiat uranium mine project in Meghalaya was in the center of a heavy controversy: while the Meghalaya State Government still is undecided, strong opposition came from several NGOs, culminating in a protest march through the State capital Shillong, and giving rise, among other topics, to two 1-day general strikes. A local UCIL official even resigned from his post after being threatened by militants. On the other hand, UCIL obtained consent from the land owners, and a rally in favour of the uranium mine was held by an organization of village headmen.

The development of the following uranium mine projects was delayed or abandoned:

In New Mexico, the license for the Crownpoint uranium in-situ leach project once more continued to be held on hold at the request of intervenors SRIC and ENDAUM - for more than 4 years by now.
In Western Australia, WMC commenced remediation works at its Yeelirrie trial uranium mine site.
In Australia‘s Northern Territory, Traditional Owners signed off on an historic agreement terminating the controversial development of the Jabiluka uranium mine also formally now.
Southern Cross Resources Inc. announced its decision to delay the development of the Honeymoon ISL project in South Australia, after leach tests had been completed.


Issues at operating mines

CNSC approved the license renewals for Cameco's McArthur River high-grade uranium mine in Saskatchewan and the Key Lake mill (where the McArthur River ore is milled), in spite of the serious water inflow problems experienced at the mine in 2003 and the continuing pit sidewall sloughing into the tailings disposed at Key Lake. Cameco moreover released an Environmental Assessment Study Report for the proposed production increase at the McArthur River mine and Key Lake mill.

An Appeals Court overturned the Federal Court decision that had quashed Cogéma's operating licence for the McClean Lake uranium mining and milling facilities in 2002 at the request of the Inter-Church Uranium Committee (ICUC). A stay had been granted to Cogéma shortly after the initial court decision already. Moreover, the public involvement process for the proposed Sue E extension of the McClean Lake mine was initiated.

Environmental monitoring revealed a sharp increase of uranium loads in lake sediments near the operating Rabbit Lake mine in Saskatchewan. While natural uranium levels in the lake sediment are below 3 µg/g, levels in Hidden Bay had reached approx. 25 µg/g in 2000, and have more than doubled each year since, to approx. 250 µg/g in 2003. It is reassuring, though, that... "This has been recognized by the company and they are looking into ways of reducing uranium in the effluent."...

In the U.S., Cameco now plans to expand in-situ leach operations at Crow Butte in Nebraska, a property it had written off in 2000 already...
In the second half of the year, Cotter Corp. reopened several uranium/vanadium mines in Southwestern Colorado. The mines had been idle for decades.
At Cotter Corp.'s Cañon City uranium mill in Colorado, the struggle continued on Cotter's request to accept contaminated waste from Maywood, N.J., for disposal at its uranium mill tailings site. In the end, the State renewed Cotter's mill license, but prohibited waste acceptance from other sites, and moreover required transition to a dry tailings management scheme. It is not clear yet whether Cotter Corp. will appeal this decision.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality granted hearing requests on the license renewal and the extension of URI's Kingsville Dome in-situ leach uranium mine.

After the announcement (made late in 2003) that the mine life of the Rössing uranium mine in Namibia would be likely to end prematurely in 2007, the company was in such a bad shape that it used the mine's decommissioning fund to keep the mine operating in 2004. This is particularly remarkable for a number of reasons: the decommissioning fund is set up exactly for the reason to set aside money for the cleanup in case the company collapses before meeting its liabilities; if this money is used to keep the company running, no money will be left for cleanup once the company ceases to exist. And, the Rössing mine (with the associated uranium mill tailings pile) probably is the by far largest single uranium mining-related liability in the world. In addition, Rössing's parent company Rio Tinto is a member of the International Council on Mining & Metals - "dedicated to economic progress, environmental protection and social responsibility". This blatant misuse of the decommissioning fund represents a major blow to Rio Tinto's credibility, and makes Rössing Uranium deserve to win the "Impudence of the Year Silver Award". Meanwhile, Rössing has prepared a plan to continue mining until 2017, but this has not been approved yet by Rio Tinto.

The Kara Balta uranium mill in Kyrgyzstan had contracted to process 1800 t of uranium-contaminated waste material originating from the BNFL Springfields (UK) nuclear fuel plant. The intention was to extract the uranium contained (90 t) and send it back to the UK, while the majority of the material would remain in Kyrgyzstan. An expert commission had supported the deal already, but the Kyrgyz government prohibited the import of the waste material. Meanwhile, metal thieves continue to dig out contaminated scrap metal buried at the Kara Balta mill, to sell it to scrap yards.

The Navoi uranium mill in Uzbekistan regained nearly full uranium output, after refurbishing its processing plant with a $6 million loan received from Nukem Inc. (USA).

For a potable water incident at its Ranger uranium mine, Rio Tinto's subsidiary Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) clearly deserves to win this year's "Carelessness of the Year Award": a temporary hose connecting the mine's process water system to the potable water system, meant to increase the supply to the process water system, had the opposite effect. Workers unknowingly drank the uranium-contaminated water and used it for showers. Further incidents at the mine, such as a spill of contaminated water into nearby creeks, and the distribution of yellow cake via the mine's compressed air system, among others, did not exactly regain trust into the mine's safety culture.


Abandoned mines

In Canada, the deadlock between provincial authorities of Saskatchewan and federal authorities on the responsibility for the reclamation cost for the abandoned uranium mines remained unresolved. Only for one out of the 42 abandoned uranium mines of concern, a current owner could be identified who acknowledged responsibility for its cleanup.

In Colorado, the U.S. Forest Service plans the cleanup of the abandoned Graysill uranium mine, only one of hundreds of abandoned uranium mines in the Western U.S., presenting hazards from unsecured ground openings and waste dumps, etc.

In Portugal, environmental activists exposed the use of radioactive material from the abandoned Quinta do Bispo uranium mine for ground works in the city of Mangualde. At various occasions, activists protested the lack of security at the 56 former uranium mines in central Portugal; at one mine they also observed illegal fishing. They also blocked transports of residual uranium ore concentrate, calling for environmental restoration of the former mining area.

In the Democratic Republic (DR) of Congo, illicit mining at the former Shinkolobwe uranium mine raised concern, from a health and security aspect, and from a proliferation aspect. The mine once had been the source of the famous extremely high grade "Belgian Congo Ores" processed for the U.S. nuclear weapons program in World War II, among others. After the deposit had been mined out, the mine was flooded and abandoned. Now, up to 15,000 illicit miners were digging a new open pit nearby, mainly looking for cobalt, but the ores produced possibly also contained some uranium. In July, at least eight miners were killed in a mine collapse. Only in November, UN investigators could confirm that there were no more mining activities on site.

In Madagascar, high radiation levels were found at the abandoned Vatovory open pit uranium mine, formerly mined by Cogéma's predecessor CEA between 1937 and 1954.

Kyrgyzstan is still looking for foreign support with the urgent stabilization of the abandoned uranium mill tailings deposits inherited from the Soviet era in the south of the country. Further offers for assistance came from the World Bank and Japan. The OSCE launched an information campaign to raise local public awareness on the hazards of the Mailuu-Suu uranium mill tailings, and IAEA collected there environmental samples. In November, a new landslide threatened a uranium tailings deposit near Min-Kush in the Naryn province of Central Kyrgyzstan.

Meanwhile, also Tajikistan is seeking foreign help for the cleanup of the legacy from Soviet era uranium mining on its territory.

In Japan, the Supreme Court finalized an order for a nuclear institute in Tottori to remove approx. 16,000 cubic meters of uranium-contaminated soil, left over from uranium mining trials at Ningyo-Toge between 1958 and 1962. The material had been left abandoned for about 40 years.

In South Australia, authorities now are planning the cleanup of the abandoned Radium Hill uranium mine and Port Pirie uranium treatment plant. In Queensland, people were observed swimming in the pit lake and tailings dam of the old Mary Kathleen uranium mine.


Shutdown and decommissioning of uranium mines

In July, CNSC issued a decommissioning license for the Cluff Lake mine in Saskatchewan. In August, the Clearwater First Nation in La Loche held a one-week road blockade against Cogéma's hiring policy for the decommissioning of the Cluff Lake mine.

The follow-up of the decommissioning of uranium mill tailings sites in the U.S. was impossible after October 25, when the U.S. NRC shut down its document library due to a "Security Review".

In Colorado, the New Rifle uranium mill tailings site has been cleaned up and the property transferred to the City of Rifle. This was the last of eight uranium mill tailings sites reclaimed in Colorado under the Uranium Mill Tailings Reclamation Control Act (UMTRCA) of 1978.
Former Uravan residents sued Umetco in suspected radiation-related illnesses saying the firm failed to protect them from radiation when they lived near the uranium mine operated by the company from 1928 to 1984.

In New Mexico, the Navajo EPA raised concerns on the migrating groundwater contaminant plume at the Shiprock tailings site.
Homestake was granted a 9-year extension of reclamation milestones for its Grants uranium mill tailings site, while residents living near the former Grants uranium mill are seeking damages from Homestake for a "variety of physical, emotional and financial injuries" they allegedly have suffered as a result of exposure to radioactive and other hazardous substances.
United Nuclear's request to halt groundwater treatment at its Church Rock uranium mill tailings site gave rise to concerns by the U.S. EPA. United Nuclear now also submitted reclamation plans for its former Church Rock uranium mines.
The U.S. NRC license for the Sohio L-Bar uranium mill tailings site was terminated.

For the Monument Valley, Arizona, uranium mill tailings site, U.S. DOE issued a Draft Environmental Assessment Document for groundwater restoration for public comment. The proposed compliance strategies are mostly based on natural flushing and passive remediation through phytoremediation.

In Utah, U.S. NRC approved relaxed groundwater standards for the Lisbon uranium mill site .
For the Atlas Moab uranium mill tailings site in Utah, a decision between the options of reclamation in place and of relocation to an offsite disposal site still has not been taken. U.S. DOE released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the management options for comment, without indicating a preferred alternative, though.
The U.S. DOE Inspector General criticized DOE's oversight over the reclamation of the Monticello uranium mill tailings site, where funds provided to the City of Monticello for long-term maintenance of the mill site apparently had been used for unrelated purposes.

In Wyoming, the U.S. NRC approved a further weakening of Pathfinder's Shirley Basin uranium mill tailings cover specifications.
Reclamation of ANC's Gas Hills Tailings Pond No.1 was delayed further.
Western Nuclear requested permission for cessation of active groundwater restoration at Split Rock site, though the standards are not met.

In Ohio, cleanup began of Fernald Silos 1 and 2 containing tailings left over from the processing of Belgian Congo high grade uranium ores for the nuclear weapons program in World War II. It is not yet clear, however, where the material will be shipped to for disposal: to the Nevada Test Site, or to a Low-Level Waste site in Texas.

In France, authorities were trying to locate disseminated material from the former St-Priest-la-Prugne (Loire) uranium mine by issuing questionnaires to residents of the area, since some of the material obviously had been used for construction purposes.
At the decommissioned St Pierre du Cantal uranium mine site, elevated radiation levels in excess of the applicable regulatory limits were found by the independent laboratory CRIIRAD.
In November, an Appeals Court finally decided that Cogéma has to appear in Criminal Court on alleged pollution at its old uranium mine sites in the Limousin region (Haute-Vienne) in central France.

In Eastern Germany, Wismut began with the relocation of the Ronneburg landmark uranium waste rock piles (100 m high) in Thuringia into a former open pit mine. In Schlema, Saxony, a golf course is to be built on the reclaimed parts of one of Wismut's uranium mine waste rock piles.

In Gabon, Cogéma's subsidiary COMUF completed the decommissioning of its uranium mine and mill at Mounana, where it had produced nearly 28,000 t of uranium from 1961 to 1999. During the first years of operation, COMUF simply had released a total of over 2 million t of uranium mill tailings into the next creek. This creek, the Ngamaboungou, then carried them over kilometers to the Mitembe river. Rather than cleaning up this mess and transferring the tailings dispersed along the creek into an engineered tailings disposal facility, COMUF simply covered the dispersed tailings with an erosion-prone soil cover. The funds for this very strange reclamation work were taken from aid money provided by the European Union. Cogéma thus clearly deserves to win the "Impudence of the Year Gold Award".

In Kazakhstan, a scientific study on the Aktau tailings was completed. The reclamation of these tailings is to start from 2005.


Regulatory and policy issues

The World Health Organization (WHO) once more revised its provisional guideline value for uranium in drinking water, now from 9 µg/l to 15 µg/l, while the original value had been 2 µg/l. The change once again is not based on new toxicity data, but on a revision of the allocation of the tolerable daily intake to drinking water, now from 50% to 80%.

The U.S. NRC approved the intentional mixing of contaminated soil to meet License Termination Rule (LTR) release criteria in limited circumstances, on a case-by-case basis.

A review report on the environmental impacts of the acid in-situ leach uranium mining process commissioned by the South Australian government backs acid ISL uranium mining.

In Germany, the Federal Social Court (Bundessozialgericht) in a landmark ruling for the first time decided, that a compensation of cancer other than lung cancer is justified for uranium miners. In two cases, filed by former Wismut uranium miners and/or their surviving families, the Court has found that the larynx cancer developed by the miners must be seen as caused by their former occupation and therefore has to be compensated by the employers' liability insurance. The insurance had maintained that no epidemiological evidence had ever proven such causation, while only the dosimetric model by Jacobi (1995) had been used so far to support such claims. The court decisions are relevant for approx. 2000 other former Wismut miners who have contracted cancers other than lung cancer.

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